MS-13 gang members convicted in U.S. on murder, racketeering charges

Three MS-13 gang members were convicted Wednesday on murder and racketeering charges at a federal court in New Jersey.

The El Salvadoran men — Juan Pablo Escalante-Melgar, 32, Elmer Cruz-Diaz, 33, and Oscar Sanchez-Aguilar, 25 — committed the crimes related to murder, drug trafficking, witness tampering and extortion from September 2014 to October 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice announced in a press release

Escalante-Melgar and Sanchez-Aguilar were convicted of killing 19-year-old Jose Usias-Hernandez on July 1, 2015. The teenager was shot in the back of the head as he was walking into his apartment building. The DOJ said the two men instructed another MS-13 member, as well as a recruit, to kill Usias-Hernandez because he was a suspected rival gang member.

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“These defendants brutally murdered Jose Urias-Hernandez because they believed he was a rival gang member, when he was actually an innocent victim,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, in the press release.

“Their actions caused irreparable harm to the victim’s family and the surrounding community. We will not stop in our pursuit of those MS-13 gang members, both in the United States and elsewhere, who prey on the communities they harm and intimidate.”

Escalante-Melgar and Cruz-Diaz were also guilty of murdering another MS-13 gang member who they suspected was speaking with law enforcement, according to the DOJ. All three men were also found guilty of extorting a local restaurant.

The three men face a mandatory minimum of life in prison for murder in aid of racketeering, a maximum sentence of life  for racketeering conspiracy and for causing death through use of a firearm, among other possible sentences.

The FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement worked with the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement in the investigation.

Seven other MS-13 members are charged in the investigation and have already pleaded guilty racketeering charges. But the DOJ said the Wednesday verdict shows federal agencies are ramping up pressure to prosecute gang members and stop violence.

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“This verdict demonstrates the FBI’s commitment to combat MS-13’s ruthless violence in America and internationally,” said Acting Assistant Director Jay Greenberg of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, in the press release.

Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, is a gang formed by El Salvadoran immigrants in the 1980s. The violent gang operates across the U.S. and in South America, and is known for committing brutal murders with machetes and long knives.

The U.S. first labeled MS-13 a "transnational organization" in 2012. Last year, the U.S. charged over a dozen MS-13 gang members in the San Francisco area. The charges were recently updated to link MS-13 to three previously unsolved homicides in the Bay area.