Major Gang Trial Gets Underway In SF

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    A U.S. prosecutor told jurors in the federal racketeering and murder conspiracy trial of seven MS-13 gang members in San Francisco yesterday that the gang had a culture of violence.

    "Violence and murder increased their stature in the gang," Justice Department attorney Theryn Gibbons said in her opening statement in the court of U.S. District Judge William Alsup. Gibbons, from the department's criminal gang unit in Washington, D.C., recited the gang's alleged motto in Spanish and then English: "Mata, roba, controlla; kill, steal, control." Under that motto, she said, "If someone was locked up, the rest of the gang would keep going."

    The seven men on trial were members of a branch of the MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, gang based in the vicinity of 20th and Mission streets in the Mission District of San Francisco. All are accused of racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit murder and use of guns in violent crimes. Five are also accused of carrying out a total of four gang-related murders in San Francisco in 2008.

    The trial is expected to last six months.

    The defendants are among about three dozen MS-13 Bay Area gang  members and associates who were charged in four successive versions of an indictment in 2008 and 2009. About 18 others have pleaded guilty to various charges.

    The MS-13 gang originated in El Salvador and Southern California, and its name is believed to be a combination of words meaning gang, Salvadoran and "fear us," according to the indictment. The local branch allegedly engaged in racketeering, or an ongoing criminal enterprise, that encompassed drug dealing, murder, assault, robbery, extortion and car thefts.

    Opening statements from two defense attorneys were completed before the trial adjourned for the day. The other defense attorneys will give their statements on today and the prosecution will then begin presenting testimony.

    John Philipsborn, representing Jonathan Cruz-Ramirez, and Peter  Goodman, an attorney for Erick Lopez, both questioned the evidence linking  their clients to the 2008 murders and challenged the credibility of government informants who will be prosecution witnesses.

    Lopez, also known as "Spooky," is accused of gunning down Ernad Joldic and Phillip Ng in San Francisco on March 29, 2008, in revenge for the shooting of an MS-13 gang member the previous day. Gibbons said the two victims were not gang members but just "two guys in the wrong place at the wrong time." Goodman told the jury that an eyewitness failed to identify Lopez in two separate photo line-ups.

    Cruz-Ramirez, also known as "Soldado," is accused in the fatal shootings of Juan Rodriguez on May 31, 2008, and Armando Estrada on July 11,  2008.

    Guillermo Herrera, also known as "Shorty," is also charged with  Estrada's murder.

    The indictment gives gang names or nicknames for all of the defendants. MS-13 members called one another by these names and sometimes did not know fellow members' real names, according to the indictment.

    Gibbons referred to the defendants by their gang names during her opening statement, pointing to each one as she went through the accusations of murders and assaults. At the end of her statement, she pointed to all seven defendants, saying, "All of these victims were assaulted or killed in an enterprise that all of these defendants belonged to, swore allegiance to and worked for."