Five alleged members of a violent street gang have been charged in U.S. District Court in San Francisco with murders that could carry a possible rare federal death penalty.

The five men are alleged to be tied to the MS-13 gang, also known as Mara Salvatruchua. Prosecutors allege the group is a national and international criminal organization that uses violence, including murder, to protect its turf for drug distribution.

The five men are among 29 people originally indicted by a federal grand jury in San Francisco last year.

The charges of murder in aid of racketeering with a potential death penalty upon conviction were added in a revised indictment filed last month.

But federal prosecutors have not told the trial judge, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, whether they will seek the death penalty. The decision to ask for a punishment of execution must be approved by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

The five defendants are Erick Lopez, Jonathan Cruz-Ramirez, Guillermo Herrera, Walker Chinchilla-Linar and Cesar Alvarado. They are accused of carrying out five murders on San Francisco streets between March and July 2008.

Alsup has said during court proceedings that the trial of the five men may begin in the fall of 2011. Other defendants in the original indictment will be tried first in several separate trials.

Death penalty cases in federal court in San Francisco are rare. The most recent federal death penalty was given in 1948 to two prisoners who killed two guards during an escape attempt from Alcatraz.

In another case this year, a federal jury in San Francisco convicted Dennis Cyrus, a member of a drug gang called the Page Street Mob, of three murders carrying a potential death sentence.

But the jury declined to impose a death sentence and opted for a punishment of life in prison without parole.

Please make sure your comment adheres to our comment policy. If it doesn't, it may be deleted. Repeat violations may cause us to revoke your commenting privileges. No one wants that!