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Quietly, but steadily, the prosecution of a violent transnational gang called Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, has been moving through federal court in Boston.
The sweeping indictment of 61 local members and associates of the Central American gang has resulted in 26 guilty pleas and only one trial so far, which led to a conviction.
The latest guilty plea, by an admitted killer, reveals audio and video evidence of the brutal initiation rites that turn MS-13 recruits into full members.
Hidden Recordings Reveal A Killer
Juan Joel Medina Martinez, 23, has a small beard, a receding hair line and a fast-thinning future. He came into court with a burly marshal on each side of him and no viable defense in front.
A hidden microphone had caught Martinez bragging about how he had killed a member of the rival 18th Street gang. “I stabbed the [expletive] three times, and it was a beautiful thing! Just beautiful.” Strike one.
Then, a hidden camera captured the ceremony rewarding Martinez for the murder by making him a full member of MS-13. Strike two.
Throw in the fact Martinez’s street name was “Animal,” and you might as well throw in the towel.
That’s what the experienced attorney Peter Ettenberg was doing when he brought his client in for a guilty plea, hoping in return Martinez might get something less than life for a sentence.
“Are you a citizen of the United States?” asked Judge F. Dennis Saylor.
And Martinez gave the same answer almost all the others have in this case. “No.” He’s from El Salvador.
The presence of so many violent undocumented gang members whose motto is “kill, rape, control” has drawn the keen interest of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump in their efforts to eliminate illegal immigration.
Sessions often speak of “machete-wielding” gang members. The president calls them “bad hombres." An FBI affidavit sets the number of MS-13 members in America at 6,000.
But the irony is that Martinez and his many undocumented co-defendants, who are in the country illegally, belong to a gang that was made in America before it was transplanted to Central America. And before it sent a new generation north that is bigger and badder than before.
Another irony is that so many mothers in El Salvador sent children like Martinez north to get away from the gangs that they would later join in America.
"Young folks from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala fleeing the violence there," said Peter Levitt, of the law firm Donnelly, Conroy & Gelhaar, who led the organized crime and gang unit at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. "They're coming to places like Chelsea to get away from the gang violence in their home countries and then finding themselves in the first couple weeks of school being approached by MS-13 and 18th Street and being forced to choose."
When the young teenager Martinez was approached by the gang back in El Salvador, his family was threatened if he did not join, his attorney says. His mother, now sitting with her anxious family in the Boston courtroom, decided to send him away.
The passage north took four and a half months, Ettenberg will tell the judge at sentencing.
By September 2015, Martinez belonged to MS-13 but was aiming for full membership as a "homeboy."
"Typically to become a homeboy, a probationary member will have to participate in the murder of a rival gang member," said Levitt.
As one former gang member has testified in other proceedings related to the indictment, the mission statement of MS-13 is simple and brutal: “Mara Salvatrucha kills its rivals, extorts people.”
That was what brought Martinez to a knife fight with 15-year-old Irvin de Paz of Chelsea, who was starting his freshman year. He too was from El Salvador, from the town of Zacatecoluca. But de Paz joined 18th Street.
“Huge rival gang member,” Martinez would later brag to the confidential witness who was secretly recording him. “He fell down dying, dude. … He asked me if I was going to kill him. … I told him [expletive] yeah, you rival. The Maras control you."
On the other side of the courtroom from Martinez’s family, de Paz’s aunt sobbed.
Martinez’s ambition came true several months later, when the gang made him a homeboy by beating him for 13 seconds.
You can hear the kicking and the countdown.
The boss congratulates the newly initiated homeboy with, “Welcome to the Mara.”
“Do you disagree with anything in the government’s description?” Judge Saylor asked about the murder and violence.
Martinez slowly turned to his mother, his brother and family. He took a long look at them. The courtroom stopped. He looked back, looked down to the microphone and answered, “No.”
On that secret audio tape, Martinez said he still hears the screaming of his victim, de Paz. But he won’t be talking to the feds. He made it clear he’s not snitching.
He’ll be back in February to ask for a sentence of closer to 30 years instead of life.
This segment aired on December 5, 2017.
- New Testimony Paints A Picture Of Alleged MS-13 Violence, Organization In Greater Boston
- Alleged Leader Of MS-13's East Coast Program Charged In Boston Federal Court
- Speaking In Boston, AG Sessions Promises Gangs: 'We Will Hunt You Down'
- Racketeering Plea Reinforces Gang Fears In Chelsea
- 15-Year-Old Teen Fatally Stabbed In East Boston
- Brutal Gang Violence Reigns In El Salvador