A Rat's Life: MS-13 Snitches Run Wild While Turning State's Evidence

Illustration by Graham Smith

The MS-13 gangster leans toward a Plexiglas window in the Glenn E. Dyer Jail in downtown Oakland, speaking loudly over the desperate sounds of a man roaring and beating on the wall a few rooms down. His skin: pale from lack of sun, tinted almost a sickly green. His hands: cuffed to a chain fastened around his waist over a red jumpsuit. His profile: shaved head, pretty-boy face. He's 29 years old. It has been just a week since a judge in a nearly empty federal courtroom sentenced him to 10 years in prison for having pled guilty to racketeering conspiracy charges. With little fanfare, he (let's call him David) begins to tell how his gang life began the day the feds stuck him in detention with a conniving confessed murderer named Bad Boy.

In April 2005, David was a construction worker from El Salvador — not yet an MS-13 member, he claims. MS-13 is short for Mara Salvatrucha, or "Salvadoran Gang," a straightforward name for a transnational mob that the federal government classifies as one of the most sinister street gangs operating in the United States. David did know some members through his Sunday soccer league of young Central Americans. In fact, he paid $100 he owed to one gang member near 20th and Mission, the intersection from which the gang's 20th Street Clique took its name. Afterward, the two headed to nearby Taqueria Cancun to grab a bite. Instead, they were swarmed by federal immigration and county probation agents, who arrested them in an MS-13 gang crackdown that snatched 15 suspected members over three days.

David protested to the authorities that he was no gangster — he had no tattoos and no convictions. But the officials still threw him in a pen with the alleged gangsters, many of them MS-13, for five months, awaiting deportation. The placement would turn into the worst kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Enter Bad Boy, an unknown to many of the local MS-13 members, a newcomer with many names: Roberto Arturo Claros to some gangsters, Roberto Acosta in court documents, and sometimes just "Zorro," Spanish for "fox." The name suited him. Joining the tank a couple of weeks after the others, David says, Bad Boy was a skinny Honduran with sly eyes and loose lips. Bad Boy announced he'd been the leader of the Limeños Locos clique of the Mara Salvatrucha in Honduras. As David recalls, Bad Boy claimed to have masterminded a 2004 bus massacre of 20-some innocent civilians, and had killed seven other people on other occasions.

"He said it like it was nothing," David says.

David knows of only three prisoners who made it out of the tank without getting deported. That included himself — out on bail with the help of an immigration attorney — and, inexplicably, Bad Boy.

He didn't know that Bad Boy was a rat. In 2005, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initiated Operation Community Shield, a nationwide investigation of MS-13. While in immigration detention, Bad Boy was offered the chance to stay in the country if he'd infiltrate the 20th Street Clique. But defense attorneys allege Bad Boy was less a mere observer than an agent provocateur of the very violence he was informing about.

David says he was one of Bad Boy's first recruitment targets. Bad Boy warned David that he "knew too much" after five months in custody with the gang, and had no choice but to join. David says he now knows that "nothing was going to happen to me. He was doing it to become a rat and put together a case. He said if I didn't jump in, he would kill me or someone from my family." But David caved, and was initiated with a 13-second beating by other members in a park by Ocean Beach.

Once out of jail, Bad Boy went to work — debriefing his agents and secretly recording meetings and phone calls. He also tattooed more than a dozen members with MS-13 symbols, a troubling power for someone identifying who exactly is in the gang. David says Bad Boy threatened to report anyone who wasn't on board with the program to the big homeys in Central America.

After infiltrating the 20th Street Clique for three years in Operation Devil Horns, named for the gang's hand sign, federal authorities busted down doors in October 2008 to arrest 26 suspects in a single day. To date, the grand jury has indicted 24 members for a racketeering conspiracy under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), alleging 120 conspiratorial acts, including six murders, since 1995.

In a triumphant press conference held by federal officials and then-U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello about the takedown, Bad Boy didn't get a mention. Nor did Jaime "Mickey" Martinez, a former gang leader who would later testify to participating in car thefts and a shooting during his time as a government snitch. Federal law enforcement didn't mention paying these informants thousands of dollars, relocating their families, or letting them stay in the country and giving them work permits.

No wonder: The informants are becoming an increasing liability. One defendant claims he was arrested for committing the crimes he was supposedly informing about, and is now suing the city and his federal handlers. As seven defendants started a trial this month facing sentences of up to life in prison, defense attorneys are claiming entrapment. "The government created much of the violence," Martin Sabelli said in his opening statements. "The prosecution went awry and [my client] was induced, cajoled, and pressured to commit crimes he was not otherwise predisposed to commit," said Lupe Martinez.

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