6 Men convicted in large MS-13 gang case

August 30, 2011 8:54:21 PM PDT
After a five-month trial, jurors returned a verdict on Tuesday in one of the largest gang cases San Francisco's seen in years, convicting six of the seven men accused.

It's been three years since the seven defendants were arrested in a series of federal raids targeting the Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as the MS-13 gang. Now, six out of the seven young men who stood trial in a San Francisco federal courtroom will head to prison on convictions of drug and weapons trafficking, racketeering, and murder.

"The brutality of the gang and its sort of lack of consciousness in terms of who it kills or how it kills or what it kills is clearly something that has law enforcement's attention," said former assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Bornstein.

Bornstein said the San Francisco gang based at 20th and Mission Streets, has leaders in Los Angeles and ties to El Salvador. That's how Salvadorian immigrant Walter Cruz-Zavala became involved with them. He's the only defendant who was found not guilty.

"When they come over and they can't speak English, they start to hang out with people they can seek identity from, and this was a group," said defense attorney Randy Sue Pollock.

Cavala's defense attorney says this was her most grueling trial ever. The court spent weeks hearing from former gang members who testified for the government in exchange for a plea deal.

"A lot of them were not good witnesses. I mean the one that impacted my client, the judge referred to as a lowlife," said Pollock.

With more than four months of testimony and close to 150 witnesses, this trial wasn't just a challenge for the lawyers, it was tough on the jury. In fact, after the trial was over, several jurors told the lawyers they started having trouble keeping track of everything.

One juror told attorneys, "The witnesses jumped from crime to crime to crime, so our problem when we got in there was where did that testimony come from?" Another tried to keep it straight with sticky notes, but said, "After awhile, my notebook with five little flags turned into a notebook with 50."

U.S. District Judge William Alsup scheduled sentencing for Nov. 30. By then, a second trial for more accused gang members will be underway.

Six were convicted of conspiring to racketeer, or engage in organized crime, and conspiring to commit murders.

Three were also found guilty of carrying out three gang-related murders in San Francisco in 2008.

Erick Lopez was found guilty of gunning down two men on March 29, 2008. Prosecutors said Lopez believed the victims to be members of a rival gang but that they were in fact not gang members.

Jonathan Cruz-Ramirez and Guillermo Herrera were convicted of murdering Armando Estrada, a document dealer who refused to pay an extortion "tax" to the gang, on July 11, 2008.

But Cruz-Ramirez was acquitted of an additional charge of murdering another man on May 31, 2008.

One defendant, Cruz-Zavala, was acquitted of all charges.

The murder convictions carry a mandatory life sentence, and the racketeering conspiracy convictions have a sentence of up to life in prison.

Several defense attorneys said they are considering filing motions for a new trial.

Bay City News contributed to this report.


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