As the small plane landed at the Stafford, Va. airport, members of the Washington-area street gang had just arrived, federal authorities said. They watched as purported cocaine was unloaded, divvied up into two duffel bags and handed to people they thought were runners for a New Jersey drug ring.
The Jan. 17 incident was an elaborate ruse, part of a months-long investigation by federal authorities into the 18th Street gang. After a six-day trial in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, a jury is now considering whether five suspected gang members are guilty of charges related to drug trafficking.
Posing as drug traffickers from Miami, undercover agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives met with members of the gang in the D.C. area. After months of negotiation, they agreed to pay the gang $15,000 and a quarter of a kilogram of cocaine in exchange for picking up, storing and delivering 20 kilograms of the drug.
The trip to the Virginia airport was supposed to be a trial run — a way for the gang members to watch experienced drug runners, court documents state. When gang members showed up the next month at a Manassas storage facility to prepare for their own pickup, six were arrested.
Gerson Rodriguez Carranza, Diego Escobar, Franklin Omar Avalos Munguia, Ever Ernesto Castill Arevalo, and Jimmy Mayorga Alvarez are being tried together. Carmen Dominguez is being tried separately, after a hearing to determine her competency.
According to court documents, the operation was linked to an investigation into drug and firearms trafficking in Northern Virginia, particularly along the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax County.
One gang member played a key role in the case, according to court documents, working as an informant who identified 18th Street leaders and recorded the group’s meetings. The informant, at the request of authorities, also introduced gang members to an undercover ATF agent who told them he was a Miami man looking to set up a drug distribution business in the D.C. area.
During closing arguments Monday, Assistant U.S. Attorney William Sloan said the gang members were eager for a chance to make money.
“When opportunity came knocking, the defendants came ready to respond,” Sloan said. The prosecutor said the “20 kilos of cocaine may not have been real, but the crimes were.”
Attorneys for some of the defendants argued that the ATF went too far in enticing their clients into the supposed drug venture, saying the gang had little interest in the drug trade and was more concerned about disputes with rival gangs.
The defendants did not show a predisposition to traffic drugs, their attorneys argued, and were ill-equipped to carry out the crime, demonstrating a lack of experience.
Dontae LaMont Bugg, a lawyer who represents Escobar, noted that the defendants were not skeptical of the agents’ plan to separate the cocaine into two duffel bags at a public airport in broad daylight. They also did not question why the undercover agents were willing to pay such a large sum for a small amount of work.
“What we’re dealing with are crimes of fiction,” Bugg told the jury, adding that “the government overreached” and the defendants otherwise “would have been nowhere near kilograms of cocaine.”
Prosecutors argued the undercover agents repeatedly offered the defendants a chance to back out. They said agents told defendants the cocaine shipment had been delayed, and asked if they were still interested in the job. This proved the agents did not “induce” the defendants, prosecutors said.
According to court documents, gang members had identified various safe houses in the Columbia Heights and 16th Street Heights neighborhoods in the District, where they said they could store the cocaine. They planned to hide the drugs inside walls and cover it with plaster until the traffickers picked it up again, according to court testimony.
ATF agents even took the confidential informant to a firing range so he could send photos of himself shooting guns to other members of the gang.
That informant, according to his testimony in court, has been associating with the gang and reporting on them to Fairfax police since 2011. He began working with the ATF in 2014.
While the gang members are recorded discussing assassinations and a possible war with the rival Mara Salvatrucha gang, they also appear to have little to no experience in the drug trade.
“We don’t have a past history with any of these defendants of drug distribution or possession,” defense attorney Kevin Brehm said during debate over jury instructions.
At one point, according to a recorded conversation, Carranza, who authorities said was a gang leader, suggested that a fellow gang member should involve the rest of the gang in his narcotics business. That member, Francisco Martinez, said he was only able to get enough drugs for himself.
There’s also no evidence any of the defendants actually used a gun as part of the scheme, although they had several at the time of their arrest.
At one point, Carranza is recorded telling the informant that there are 25 members of the 18th Street Gang in the D.C. area. But, he said, he only trusted about eight of them.