The government’s MS-13 gang prosecution in San Francisco is full of rats and they keep popping up as the trial progresses. That’s only because the prosecutors say some defendants keep making threats against snitches and new snitches step up to tattle.
The alleged gang members hung out in the city’s Mission District and were known as the 20th Street clique of MS-13, a powerful and deadly Central American gang that began in El Salvador. MS stands for Mara Salvatrucha, or Salvadoran Gang.
Today Asst. U.S. Attorney Wilson Leong urged the judge to allow them to bring in a witness who says while he was in the top-floor holding cell in federal court in October when a defendant known as “Soldier” asked the inmate to pass on to jailed gang member the names of three alleged turncoats, so they could be “handled.”
Defense lawyer John Philipsborn, who represents Jonathan “Soldado” Cruz-Ramirez, objected warning that the inmate has been cooperating with the government in other cases and is an “validated” skinhead, calling him a “one-stop shop” of cooperation.
Judge William Alsup, who’s been trying to keep the seven-defendant case moving along after weeks of testimony, questioned whether it was worth it for the government to call the inmate for the few minutes testimony. “I’m not saying his testimony isn’t relevant, but so much baggage comes with it,” Alsup said and deferred the issue for now.
A week ago, another cooperator, Carlos “Tweety” Garrido, told the court he heard a threat to his family as Cruz-Ramirez passed his holding cell the morning Garrido was to take the stand.
But that is just preliminary to the main event and one of the central characters in the government’s case. For years it had an informant inside the MS-13 gang who made tape recordings of alleged illegal activity.
The Honduran member of MS-13, known as Roberto “Zorro” Acosta, was allowed to stay in the U.S. if he infiltrated the 20th Street gang. Acosta admitted to the government he had been involved in only one incident of murder or attempted murder in Honduras. So they put him on the payroll, identified as informant “1211,” and he began making tapes.
But prosecutors discovered that Acosta had allegedly been involved in a string of eight murders in Central America. After telling the defense about Acosta’s sordid past in February, prosecutors decided not to call him to testify. It would be just too ugly.
They also indicted him March 29 in a one-paragraph charge of false statements to government agents, that is, lying about eight murders.
But the government still wanted to use the tapes. The problem was how to authenticate who made the recordings, who was talking on the tapes and how to assure that noone tampered with the audio.
The government went all the way to Denmark for an audio expert to testify about his special software that can confirm the “watermarks” on audio files that show they have not been altered.
Defense lawyers threw a fit. They said they were not warned in advance and didn’t have time to get their own expert to review and dispute the testimony.
Judge Alsup let the Dane go ahead and testify but warned the government he reserves the right to exclude the audio files.
“The government should ask itself the question, whether getting in the recordings of 1211 is worth all the pain and effort,” Alsup said.
Case: U.S. v. Cerna, CR08-730WHA; U.S. v. Acosta, CR11-182WHA