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Transnational Gangs

Bay Area MS-13 gang leader convicted of racketeering charges

Co-defendant pleaded guilty to racketeering charges during trial

WASHINGTON — Following a four-week trial, a federal jury Tuesday convicted a Bay Area leader of La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, street gang of racketeering conspiracy and related charges stemming from a multi-agency probe spearheaded by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

The panel found Danilo Velasquez, aka "Triste," guilty of all charges, including conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to commit assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering, and using and discharging a firearm in connection with a crime of violence. Velasquez's co-defendant and fellow MS-13 member, Luis Herrera, aka "Killer," pleaded guilty to related charges during the trial, including using a firearm to murder an individual.

Evidence presented during the trial showed the defendants were members of MS-13, a violent, transnational gang which claimed part of San Francisco's Mission District as its territory and operated in the Bay Area since the 1990s. Since its inception, MS-13 has warred with rival gangs and sought to extort payments from other criminals in its territory. After the federal government indicted numerous local MS-13 members in 2008, Velasquez assumed a leadership role and encouraged remaining gang members to engage in violence to show the gang's continued presence in San Francisco.

"In a hail of gunfire, Mr. Velasquez and his co-conspirators killed and wounded four unarmed individuals – all in the name of MS-13," said Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer. "Senseless acts of violence like those committed by Mr. Velasquez and his fellow gang members are too common across the United States. Through sustained enforcement, we have taken leaders of MS-13 in San Francisco and elsewhere off the streets, and we will continue our efforts to make all our communities safe from violent gangs."

"This conviction marks the beginning of the end for one San Francisco gang leader who thought he was above the law," said U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag. "Today, the jury has sent a strong message that senseless acts of violence like those committed by Mr. Velasquez in the name of MS-13 will not be tolerated. Life is too valuable to let someone steal it from another. Those who try will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

"The gang members targeted in this Homeland Security Investigations-led probe were the worst of the worst, blithely using violence, intimidation and fear to maintain control over their turf," said Special Agent in Charge Clark Settles for ICE HSI in San Francisco. "As this jury's verdict makes clear, we will not allow ruthless thugs to rule our streets. We are joining forces with local law enforcement to bring these criminals to justice and take back our Bay Area neighborhoods."

Evidence presented at the trial also showed the defendants conspired with others to commit a variety of crimes, including four murders in 2008. The prosecution also presented evidence of three separate shootings committed by the defendants that took place just two months after the 2008 indictment. One of the shootings, in February 2009, resulted in the death of college student Moises Frias.

Evidence at trial established that on Feb. 19, 2009, Velasquez and Herrera, accompanied by MS-13 member Jaime Balam, a fugitive, sought to kill rival gang members in the San Francisco Bay area. Herrera drove Velasquez and Balam in a stolen vehicle, and Velasquez and Balam both carried semi-automatic guns. In San Francisco's Excelsior District, the defendants spotted a car of young Latino professionals. None of the individuals were gang members themselves.

Witnesses testified Herrera, Velasquez and Balam boxed the victims' car in at a red light, then Velasquez and Balam flanked the vehicle carrying semi-automatic handguns. Velasquez fired multiple shots at close range at three of the passengers, who survived largely because Velasquez's semi-automatic gun jammed multiple times. Balam allegedly fired his weapon at the remaining passenger until he ran out of bullets. The victim suffered nine gunshot wounds, including to the head, and was killed. The shooting survivors testified the victim begged for the shooting to stop immediately before he died.

A few days earlier, Velasquez and Herrera shot and wounded two individuals in rival gang territory. After the Feb. 19, 2009, murder, the evidence showed Velasquez ordered another shooting in which Herrera took part, resulting in the wounding of several victims in rival territory on March 2, 2009. The victims of the two non-fatal shootings testified they were not gang members, but were approached by individuals who exclaimed "La Mara" before shooting them.

Herrera pleaded guilty to seven racketeering-related counts, including using a firearm to cause Frias' death. As part of his plea, Herrera admitted he was part of the "hunting party" that followed the victims' car and murdered Frias. Herrera joined MS-13 after his brother, Guillermo Herrera, aka "Sparky," another MS-13 member, was indicted. Guillermo Herrera was recently convicted of all charges, including murder in aid of racketeering, after a five-month trial that included six other co-defendants. He faces a mandatory life sentence and will be sentenced on Dec. 7. As part of his guilty plea, Luis Herrera will receive a 35-year prison term when he is sentenced Jan. 24, 2012.

Velasquez faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, with a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Velasquez's sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 14, 2012, before U.S. District Court Judge William H. Alsup.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Andrew Scoble and David Hall of the Organized Crime Strike Force of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California, and Trial Attorney Theryn G. Gibbons of the Criminal Division's Organized Crime and Gang Section. In addition to ICE HSI, the Daly City Police Department was closely involved in this investigation.