Gang comes under spotlight

2 alleged members of expanding Hispanic group in conspiracy trial

September 27, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

GREENBELT -- Mata, viola, controla.

The Spanish words for "murder," "rape" and "control" are the battle cry for La Mara Salvatrucha, a violent street gang known as MS-13 and responsible for a recent wave of attacks across Southern Maryland, according to federal prosecutors.

The racketeering conspiracy trial against two alleged MS-13 members - Edgar Alberto Ayala, known as "Pony," and Oscar Ramos Velasquez, known as "Casper" - started yesterday with allegations that the men participated in a well-oiled criminal organization responsible for at least six homicides and five attempted killings.

Formed in California by Salvadoran immigrants who have spread eastward, MS-13 "is without any doubt a criminal enterprise," Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson told jurors yesterday. "The objective of this gang is to kill people."

Dubbed one of the nation's most violent and fastest-growing gangs, MS-13 has a relatively low profile outside of the Washington suburbs. But experts say its strength is growing throughout Maryland as the overall Hispanic population expands its reach beyond Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

"We know that they've moved up into the Laurel area," said Gaithersburg police Detective Patrick Word, president of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Gang Investigators Network. "They keep inching their way north."

Last month, Baltimore County police charged four suspected MS-13 gang members, accusing them in the stabbing deaths of two men whose bodies were found near a school in Arbutus in January. Officials say the killings are the first related to MS-13 activity in the county.

Substantial signs of the gang's activity have also been seen in Howard County. Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties recently formed new efforts to combat gang activity, concerned in part about MS-13 as well as other violent street groups moving in.

The federal trial under way in Greenbelt is expected to last up to two months, and the inner workings of MS-13 in Maryland might be exposed in a courtroom for the first time. Prosecutors indicted nearly two dozen suspects in the case, including a Baltimore carpenter. Three have pleaded guilty.

The lead prosecutor yesterday described Velasquez and Ayala as integral players - or at least knowing bystanders - in murders, rapes and assaults against gang rivals as well as new recruits between 2001 and this year.

Wilkinson promised to show jurors over the course of the trial how the gang operated nationally and locally.

Showing jurors pictures of both men supposedly flashing gang hand signs in the shape of a claw, Wilkinson described the pair as members of different cliques but bonded by a similar MS-13 mission.

"The cliques are nothing more than franchises," Wilkinson said.

They all pledge allegiance to the gang by attacking sworn rivals, wearing gang colors of blue and white, paying dues, attending meetings and initiating new members through a violent beating ritual that lasts 13 seconds. The head of each clique, the prosecutors said, is known as "the word."

Neither Velasquez nor Ayala was identified as a leader, but Wilkinson said witnesses for the prosecution would finger them as participants or observers in retaliatory murders and gang rapes of teenage girls.

Defense attorneys told jurors yesterday that being gang members would not be enough to prove the conspiracy charges outlined in the seven-count racketeering indictment.

"My client never killed anyone," Ayala's attorney Gary Ticknor said. "My client has never raped anyone."

The defense lawyers also drew comparisons in the case to a pope who had been a member of the Hitler Youth and a president who had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, saying that all members are not necessarily guilty of all crimes committed in a group's name.

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