A federal jury in New Jersey convicted three El Salvadoran nationals on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges, including murder in aid of racketeering, stemming from their participation in Mara Salvatrucha, a violent international criminal racketeering enterprise commonly known as MS-13.
According to court documents and evidence presented at trial, between September 2014 and October 2015, Juan Pablo Escalante-Melgar, aka Humilde, 32, Elmer Cruz-Diaz, aka Locote, 33, and Oscar Sanchez-Aguilar, aka Snappy, 25, participated in the affairs of MS-13 by committing multiple racketeering offenses, including murder, extortion, witness tampering, and drug trafficking. Evidence presented at trial showed that in June or July 2015, Escalante-Melgar and Sanchez-Aguilar instructed an MS-13 member and an MS-13 recruit to kill a suspected rival gang member so that the MS-13 recruit could become a full member of MS-13.
On July 1, 2015, Jose Urias-Hernandez, then 19 years old, was shot and killed execution-style with a single shot to the back of his head as he entered his apartment building.
“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 A. Polite Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “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.”
“MS-13 is a violent multinational criminal organization that engages in drug trafficking, intimidation, and the murder of witnesses, rival gang members, and – as happened here – innocent victims,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig for the District of New Jersey. “The jury’s guilty verdicts in this case cannot bring back the life of José Urias Hernandez, but they do ensure that these defendants will be held accountable for their actions. We thank the jury for its service, and we reiterate our commitment to investigating and prosecuting MS-13 members, and others like them, who bring bloodshed to our communities.”
“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 collaboration with our federal, state, local and international partners, we will aggressively target and pursue violent offenders. Today we send a clear signal to others who engage in this type of gang violence that we will bring them to justice wherever they are based.”
According to court documents, MS-13 is a violent criminal gang founded in Los Angeles, California, and now active in El Salvador, Central America, and Mexico and numerous states across the United States, including New Jersey. MS-13 is governed by a core set of rules, including a standing order to kill rival gang members and a strict rule against cooperating with law enforcement. MS-13 is organized into a series of sub-units, or “cliques,” that operate in specific geographic locations, and each clique is typically controlled by a single leader, sometimes known as the “First Word.” Among cliques active in and around Hudson County, New Jersey, Escalante-Melgar was the First Word of the Pinos Locos Salvatrucha clique, and Cruz-Diaz was the First Word of the Hudson Locos Salvatrucha clique.
In addition to murder, MS-13 members trafficked drugs, extorted a restaurant operating in the gang’s turf, and intimidated witnesses to prevent cooperation with law enforcement. Evidence presented at trial showed that Escalante-Melgar and Cruz-Diaz conspired to murder a fellow MS-13 member, whom Salvadoran MS-13 leaders had “green-lighted” – or ordered to be killed – because he was suspected of cooperating with law enforcement.
Escalante-Melgar, Cruz-Diaz and Sanchez-Aguilar were among ten defendants charged in this investigation against MS-13 in New Jersey. One defendant, Christian Linares-Rodriguez, aka Donkey, 42, is a high-ranking MS-13 member who is currently incarcerated in El Salvador. All other defendants previously pleaded guilty to related offenses, as follows:
- Cesar Fuentes, aka Demonio, 29, of Honduras, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering.
- Juan Garcia-Gomez, aka Scooby, 26, of El Salvador, RICO conspiracy.
- Jose Gimenez-Lobos, aka Infernal, aka Terrible, 31, El Salvador, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering.
- Leonel Gonzalez, aka Cangri, 31, of El Salvador, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering.
- Jose Rivera-Robles, aka Layo, 36, of El Salvador, RICO conspiracy.
Escalante-Melgar, Cruz-Diaz and Sanchez-Aguilar were convicted of RICO conspiracy, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, murder in aid of racketeering, using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, and causing death through the use of a firearm.
At sentencing, Escalante-Melgar, Cruz-Diaz and Sanchez-Aguilar each face a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison for murder in aid of racketeering, a maximum sentence of life in prison for the offenses of racketeering conspiracy and causing death through the use of a firearm; a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering; and a mandatory minimum consecutive sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment for the offense of using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
The FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement – Enforcement and Removal Operations, Newark Field Office, the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations, the Hudson County Prosecutors Office, and the West New York Police Department investigated the case.
Trial Attorney Matthew K. Hoff of the Justice Department’s Organized Crime and Gang Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Desiree Grace of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey prosecuted the case.