gavel.jpgDefense lawyers at the trial of seven MS-13 gang members in federal court in San Francisco today sought to chip away at the credibility of an informant who once called himself the prosecution’s “superstar” witness.

The seven members of a San Francisco branch of the violent MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, gang are all accused of racketeering conspiracy and murder conspiracy.

Three are also charged with a total of four gunfire murders carried out on San Francisco streets in 2008.

The trial began in the court of U.S. District Judge William Alsup in April and is expected to continue until next month.

Defense attorneys have claimed that informants and other former gang members who became prosecution witnesses lack credibility. They also contend that in some instances, the informants illegally instructed the defendants to commit violent crimes.

In today’s session, the attorneys recalled informant Jaime Martinez, who previously testified for the prosecution, to the stand.

The Salvadoran-born Martinez was a leader of the MS-13 branch known as the 20th Street Clique, which was based at 20th and Mission streets in San Francisco. He became an informant in early 2006 after being arrested on a gun charge.

In July 2008, Martinez was himself indicted on a federal charge of racketeering conspiracy. He pleaded guilty in a bargain in which he agreed to continue cooperating with prosecutors in exchange for a lenient sentence recommendation.

Under questioning from Mark Rosenbush, a lawyer for defendant Moris Flores, Martinez today acknowledged making the “superstar” comment in a jail phone call to a federal agent on Aug. 11, 2008.

At the time, Martinez was trying to persuade authorities to move him from Marin County Jail, where he was being held in administrative segregation, to a different facility.

He acknowledged to Rosenbush that he told an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in the phone call, “I don’t think you guys want your superstar to be stressing out.”

He also admitted to Rosenbush that at about that same time, he instructed his girlfriend to lie to agents by trying to “make something up” about supposed threats from gang members, in order to induce the agents to agree to a transfer.

“Those are the things that are going to make them move faster, sweetheart,” Martinez admitted having told his girlfriend.

The cooperation agreement had required him to be truthful with government agents, Martinez acknowledged.

In addition to Flores, whose gang nickname was “Slow Pain,” the defendants are Marvin “Cyco” Carcamo, Angel “Peloncito” Guevara, Erick “Spooky” Lopez, Jonathan “Soldado” Cruz Ramirez, Guillermo “Shorty” Herrera and Walter “Sombra” Cruz-Zavala.

MS-13 members called one another by their gang nicknames and sometimes did not know fellow members’ real names, prosecutors have said.

Another informant, Honduran-born Roberto “Little Bad Boy” Acosta, secretly recorded gang meetings and was originally slated to be another star witness for the prosecution.

But six days before the trial began, Acosta was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of lying to prosecutors in December 2008 by failing to disclose he had been involved in eight murders in Honduras.

In the wake of that blow to Acosta’s credibility, prosecutors have not played Acosta’s tape recordings for the jury, although Assistant U.S. Attorney William Frentzen told Alsup last week that prosecutors were reserving the right to consider doing so during their rebuttal case.

Today, however, defense attorney Lupe Martinez, who represents Guevara, told Alsup he wants to introduce three of those tapes through Jaime Martinez’s testimony.

The tapes allegedly recorded meetings at which both Acosta and Jaime Martinez were present and according to the defense allegedly show one or both of those men instructing gang members to engage in crimes.

Alsup deferred a decision on whether to allow the tapes until Friday, but said he will consider admitting the tapes if Jaime Martinez can identify the approximate time and location of the meetings and the identities of most of the speakers on the recordings.

The alleged statements on one tape “had a slight tinge of leadership and telling everyone what to do. Possibly that could be helpful to defense,” Alsup said, in explaining why he is considering allowing the tape.

Earlier this week, two FBI agents testified that under U.S. Department of Justice guidelines, the prosecution agreements with informants required that the informants must not encourage people to join MS-13, must not engage in violent crimes and must inform authorities if they know of any planned violence.

The seven 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, and some became prosecution witnesses in the trial.

The 20th Street Clique’s racketeering, or operation of a continuing criminal enterprise, is alleged to have included murder, assault, drug dealing, robbery, extortion and car theft.

The three men accused of specific murders in aid of racketeering are Lopez, Cruz-Ramirez and Herrera. Those charges carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison if they are convicted.

The racketeering conspiracy charge has a possible sentence of up to life in prison upon conviction.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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