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December 22, 2015Newark, NJ, United StatesTransnational Gangs

2 New Jersey MS-13 gang members charged with conspiracy to kill witness

NEWARK, N.J. — Two members of a violent street gang were charged in federal court Tuesday with trying to kill another gang member, whom they suspected had cooperated with law enforcement.

These charges resulted from an investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).

“The arrest and removal of individuals involved in gang activity is one of ICE’s highest priorities.  On a daily basis, our officers demonstrate professionalism and work tirelessly with our law enforcement partners to maintain public safety,” said Field Office Director John Tsoukaris of the ICE ERO Newark Field Office.  “ICE utilizes its unique immigration authority in support of safety in our communities,” he added.

“We expect today’s charges will add further notice to gang members that we are here and their ability to operate will not be easy,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Kevin Kelly of HSI Newark.  “Arresting individuals that inhibit others from cooperating with law enforcement is always an added bonus.”

Juan Pablo Escalante-Melgar, aka Humilde, 26, and Elmer Cruz-Diaz, aka Locote, 27, both of Union City, New Jersey, are charged with one count each of conspiring to kill an individual to prevent them from communicating with a law enforcement officer. 

Escalante-Melgar and Cruz-Diaz made their initial appearances in federal court Tuesday before and will remain in federal custody.  Both men were originally arrested and were being held in ICE custody since September pending removal proceedings.

According to the complaint:

Escalante-Melgar and Cruz-Diaz are members of the international street gang Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13. Multiple sub-sets of MS-13 operate in Hudson County, New Jersey, including the Pinos Locos Salvatrucha and Hudson Locotes Salvatrucha. Escalante-Melgar was the leader of the Pinos clique; Cruz-Diaz was the leader of the Hudson Locotes clique.

MS-13’s rules strictly prohibit its members cooperating with law enforcement, and it is well understood within the gang that police informants will be punished by death. The process of obtaining authorization to kill a disobedient gang member is known as “green lighting.” Obtaining a “green light” typically requires the approval of a leader and, in some cases, approval from gang leaders in California or El Salvador.

On Aug. 11, 2015, law enforcement intercepted a telephone call between a high-ranking MS-13 member in El Salvador, Escalante-Melgar and another MS-13 member.

During the call, the high-ranking gang leader told Escalante-Melgar and the other member that they needed to kill three individuals, including a member of the Hudson Locotes who was suspected of cooperating with law enforcement.

Four days later law enforcement intercepted a telephone call between Cruz-Diaz and another MS-13 member. During that call, Cruz-Diaz confirmed that senior MS-13 members in El Salvador had authorized the green lighting – or murder – of the Hudson member.

The conspiracy charge carries a maximum potential penalty of life in prison and a $250,000 fine. The charge and allegations in the complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.

Updated: 12/30/2015