- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

Three members of the street gang MS-13 were convicted yesterday in federal court on racketeering charges related to a host of local murders, assaults and other offenses.

A U.S. District Court jury convicted Jose Cruz “Piranha” Diaz, 28, of Lanham; Omar “Duke” Vasquez, 28; and Henry “Homeboy” Zelaya, 20, of conspiracy to participate in a racketeering enterprise.

According to prosecutors, the three men were MS-13 leaders. Zelaya and Diaz both headed smaller units of MS-13, called cliques, in the District and Maryland, while Vasquez reportedly was sent from El Salvador to oversee all the cliques in the area.

The three are among 26 Hispanic gang members charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which is normally used in organized crime cases. U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said yesterday’s trial raised the guilty count to 12, with five convicted in court and seven others pleading guilty.

“It gives people confidence that law enforcement can really have an impact,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “Our goal is to deter people from joining” gangs.

All the men face maximum sentences of life in prison. Sentencing is scheduled July 30 for Zelaya, Aug. 6 for Vasquez and Aug. 10 for Diaz, Mr. Rosenstein said.

Diaz’s attorney Manuel J. Retureta said he would appeal the conviction and expected the other defense attorneys would as well.

“Right now you just feel bad for the client — him and his family,” Mr. Retureta said.

During the seven-week trial, Zelaya was accused of crimes that included sexually assaulting two women with other MS-13 members and killing a rival gang member in Langley Park. Prosecutors said Vasquez and Diaz shot at a crowd at a Fairfax apartment complex in January 2005, killing one person and injuring two others.

The convictions are the result of about two years of work done by the Regional Anti-Gang Enforcement task force, or RAGE, a partnership of local, state and federal agencies spearheaded by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Some evidence was provided by agents who went undercover with the gang and informants already in the gang.

“We have the ability to flip their members,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “We demonstrated when they face the threat of prosecution, many are willing to cooperate.”

Mr. Rosenstein said testimony in the case indicated some MS-13 leaders were instructing members of local gangs from prison. He said tougher restrictions in federal prisons should keep the three men convicted yesterday from communicating with their cliques.

“I’m confident the federal system can monitor them,” he said.

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