SAN FRANCISCO – A Bay Area leader of La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, was sentenced to life in federal prison Wednesday on racketeering-related charges arising from Operation Devil Horns, a long-term probe led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations.
Danilo Velasquez, aka "Triste," appeared in federal court Wednesday in San Francisco before U.S. District Judge William H. Alsup. At sentencing, Judge Alsup described the defendant as a "vicious murderer."
Velasquez belonged to a clique of MS-13 which claimed part of the Mission District of San Francisco. Velasquez joined the "20th Street" clique in 2004. Since its inception, MS-13 members have warred with rival gang members and sought to extort payments from other criminals in its territory. When the federal government indicted the majority of the 20th Street clique members on Oct. 22, 2008, Velasquez assumed leadership on the streets. The evidence presented at trial showed how Velasquez, with others, conspired to commit a variety of crimes to further the goals of the gang, including attacking and killing rival gang members and others who defied or challenged MS-13.
During Velasquez's trial, the government presented evidence of multiple murders committed by MS-13 members in 2008. Several of the victims were not involved in gangs or any illegal activity, including a 14-year-old, but were mistaken to be rival gang members by MS-13 members.
The evidence at trial showed that on Feb. 19, 2009, Velasquez and fellow gang members Luis Herrera, aka "Killer" and Jaime Balam, aka "Tweety," went looking to kill rival gang members in the Bay Area. In the Excelsior District, they spotted a car of young Latino professionals – two were college graduates of UC Berkeley, one a law student at UC Hastings, one a bank employee and another a student at City College in San Francisco. According to evidence presented at trial, these victims were targeted because some of the men wore baseball caps in colors associated with rival gang members. None of the victims were gang members themselves.
Velasquez, Herrera and Balam followed the victims' car into Daly City, Calif., boxed the car in at a red light, whereupon Velasquez and Balam flanked the victims' car carrying semi-automatic handguns and began shooting. By the time they finished firing, they had severely wounded two of the passengers and murdered a third passenger, Moises Frias Jr. Frias suffered nine gunshot wounds, including several to the head. He died en route to the hospital.
Herrera pleaded guilty mid-trial to seven racketeering-related counts, including use of a firearm causing the death of Frias. As part of his plea, Herrera admitted that he was part of the MS-13 hunting party that followed the victims' car and murdered Frias. Herrera was sentenced Jan. 24, to 35 years in prison. Balam remains a fugitive.
Velasquez's trial was the second of three consecutive federal trials of members of the 20th Street clique of MS-13. Six of Velasquez's fellow MS-13 gang members were convicted in August 2011 after a five-month trial that involved more than 150 witnesses. The six gang members – Marvin Carcamo, aka "Psycho;" Angel Noel Guevara, aka "Peloncito;" Erick Lopez, aka "Spooky;" Moris Flores, aka "Slow Pain;" Jonathan Cruz-Ramirez, aka "Soldado;" and Luis Herrera's brother Guillermo Herrera, aka "Sparky" – were each sentenced to life in prison in December 2011.
Thursday, a federal jury convicted the sole defendant in the third trial, Manuel Franco, aka "Dreamer," on one count of violent crime in aid of racketeering conspiracy.
The cases were prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Wilson Leung, Wil Frentzen, Derek Owens, 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 HSI, the San Francisco and Daly City police departments figured prominently in these investigations.