A former government informant who is the last of 34 defendants charged in a federal MS-13 gang prosecution went on trial on racketeering and murder conspiracy charges in U.S. District Court in San Francisco today.
Manuel Franco, 26, of San Francisco, whose gang nickname was “Dreamer,” belonged to a branch of the MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, gang based in the area of Mission and 20th streets in the city.
He is charged with racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering, conspiracy to commit assault with a dangerous weapon and using a gun in a violent crime.
His jury trial in the court of U.S. District Judge William Alsup is expected to last about two months.
Prosecutor Wilson Leung told the jury during his opening statement today that the group was at war with the rival Norteno gang and MS-13 members “were expected to attack and kill Nortenos whenever they saw them.”
“This war resulted in a lot of blood being shed on the streets of San Francisco,” Leung said.
Franco’s alleged role was that “he went out and shot at suspected Nortenos, helped fellow gang members obtain guns and assisted by driving other gang members on hunting expeditions,” the prosecutor said.
Franco, who came to the United States from El Salvador at 13, joined the gang at age 19 in late 2004 or early 2005. He became an informant for the San Francisco Police Department in September 2005 and then for the FBI beginning in February 2006.
Defense attorney Geri Green has contended in court filings that Franco believed he continued to be an informant until and even after his arrest on Oct. 22, 2008, and believed he was acting under government authority when he met with the gang.
“He was asked to embed himself and find out what was happening. He made friends with the really bad guys he was infiltrating and informing on,” Green told the jury at the beginning of her opening statement.
Green said Franco wore body wires, reported to authorities 75 or 80 times and risked his life, knowing that MS-13’s policy was to kill informants and their families.
Leung alleged in his opening, however, that Franco “remained fully committed to La Mara Salvatrucha and never abandoned the gang.”
Franco is one of 34 MS-13 members and associates who were charged with racketeering and murder conspiracy in four successive versions of an indictment in 2008 and 2009 in a case that prosecutors dubbed “Operation Devil Horns,” in a reference to one of the gang’s signs.
Thirty-one of the defendants either pleaded guilty or were convicted of various charges during several previous trials. Two were acquitted.
The federal indictments charged that gang members carried out a total of six murders in San Francisco in 2008 and 2009.
Four of the victims, including 14-year-old Ivan Miranda, were non-gang members who were apparently mistaken for Nortenos because they or their companions were wearing red, the Norteno color. The other victims were a rival gang member and a seller of false documents who had refused to pay extortion “taxes” to the 20th Street MS-13 clique.
Franco is not accused of specific murders, but rather with conspiring to carry out murders as part of the alleged racketeering, or operation of a continuing criminal enterprise that allegedly included murder, assault, drug dealing, theft and extortion.
His federal trial is taking place at the same time as the San Francisco Superior Court trial of alleged MS-13 member Edwin Ramos, 25, of El Sobrante, who is accused of murdering Anthony Bologna and two of his sons in San Francisco in June 22, 2008.
Bologna, 48, and his sons Michael, 20, and Matthew, 16, were fatally shot in their car in an intersection in the Excelsior District as they drove home from a family picnic.
Police have alleged they were mistaken for members of a rival gang and were shot in retaliation for the wounding of an MS-13 member the previous evening.
Ramos’s trial began in Superior Court on Tuesday and jury selection is expected to take several more weeks.
Ramos was not charged in the federal MS-13 indictments.
But his name appeared to surface in Franco’s trial today when Leung, an assistant U.S. attorney, alleged that Franco had obtained a gun from a person named Edwin Ramos in the East Bay in 2008.
Leung said Franco wanted a gun because he was seeking revenge on a man who injured Franco’s wife when she sought to intervene in a fight between that man and her brother, MS-13 member Moris Flores, in June 2008.
Leung said, “Manuel Franco drove to the East Bay and met up with Edwin Ramos.
“He got a gun through Ramos’s connections, went back to San Francisco and shot at the person he thought was responsible,” the prosecutor said.
Leung gave no details about Ramos or the date on which Franco allegedly obtained a gun through him, and did not mention the state court charges against Ramos.
In a pretrial motion, Green unsuccessfully sought to bar any mention of Franco’s alleged attack on the man who fought Flores. She argued the alleged incident is not specifically mentioned in the current indictment and is not related to MS-13.
But Alsup in a ruling last month agreed with prosecutors that the alleged incident was “inextricably intertwined” with the allegations in the case, and said prosecutors could mention it.
Franco’s trial continues in Alsup’s Federal Building courtroom Friday with completion of Green’s opening statement and the start of witness testimony.
The racketeering conspiracy charge carries a maximum possible sentence of life in prison if Franco is convicted.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News