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.
While using rats has long been part of the feds' playbook in assembling a RICO case, nothing about the MS-13 snitches seems to have gone according to plan. Prosecutors indicted Mickey on conspiracy charges after he was arrested in San Mateo for allegedly stealing a car. Then, on the eve of trial, the federal grand jury indicted Roberto "Bad Boy" Acosta for being an alleged mass-murdering liar.
"During a debriefing with federal prosecutors and a Special Agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Acosta falsely denied being involved in any murders or attempted murders aside from one incident involving bus drivers in Honduras," the startling indictment reads. "When in fact, he was directly involved in approximately eight additional murders in Honduras."
Bad Boy's greatest con may have been fooling his own handlers. Earlier this year, he confessed to crimes he hadn't revealed during his five years as an informant. In a pretrial hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Wil Frentzen referred to Bad Boy's revelation as "a bomb dropped on us." Defense attorney Sabelli says the confession coincided with the week in which the defense's investigator was nosing around the industrial Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, asking about Acosta's past. "He was about to be revealed as the murderer and liar he was," Sabelli says.
The March 29 indictment against Bad Boy accuses him of making a false statement to the government. The felony charge — the same one used against Martha Stewart and Marion Jones —carries a light one-to-five-year sentence, but it's still a surprising move, says Alexandra Natapoff, a law professor and author of Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. "It's one thing to charge them with dealing drugs; it's different to punish your own witness for lying," she says. "The government should be commended for doing it."
While having a rogue informant may be embarrassing, it may not destroy the government's case. Jurors tend to believe snitches regardless of gruesome rap sheets, Natapoff says. Open your textbook to FBI informant Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, whose testimony brought down John Gotti on murder and racketeering charges despite Gravano's confessing to 19 murders. Likewise, the snitches federal investigators have been using to infiltrate MS-13 cliques across the country are no angels. In Los Angeles, one of the feds' main informants, Nelson Comandari, is accused by police of responsibility for six to 10 murders in that city, according to the 2009 book No Boundaries by investigative reporter Tom Diaz.
Yet in San Francisco, defense attorneys aren't just saying the snitches are slimebags, but alleging that Bad Boy and company furthered the gang's criminal agenda. "Before these folks came up, [20th Street Clique] was a gang that couldn't shoot straight," defense attorney Martinez says. "The injection of these two informants changed all that."
The 20th Street Clique's roots go back to the mid-'90s with tough young Salvadorans who played soccer at Mission Playground, a patch of basketball courts and grass on Valencia between 19th and 20th streets. They claimed the gang's name, its color blue, gothic-script tattoos, and as a faction of Sureño or Southerner gangs, a rivalry with the Mission's majority gang, the Norteños (Northerners), who tend to be Americans of Mexican descent who don red. MS-13 refers to Norteños as "busters" or chavalas — little girls. Norteños call the Sureños "scraps."
The burgeoning Clique staked out a small turf in the blocks around 20th and Mission streets, today an intersection of Latino-owned businesses, a yoga studio, and chic bistros. The early gang had little contact with more militant Mara Salvatrucha gangs in Los Angeles, which began among refugees of the Salvadoran civil war in the 1980s. Nor did it have much contact with homeys in El Salvador, where deported L.A. members brought American street gang culture with them — and spread it from there to outposts back in the United States.
In June 2004, the Clique's leader, Luis "Memo" Fuentes, was fatally shot in front of his young son in Norteño territory on 24th Street. Soon after, a handful of members from a Los Angeles MS-13 clique called the Pasadena Locos Sureños arrived, according to court testimony of Abraham Martinez, a 20th Street Clique member who testified in the trial this month. He says PLS members announced they had been sent "to keep an eye on things" for respected leaders in Los Angeles and El Salvador. Prosecutors' court filings say the gang "sought to model the 20th Street clique in their own image," and Abraham Martinez testified that new rules were sent in secret notes from down south.
Sabelli says those rules were passed along by Bad Boy, now out of jail and having worked his way into the gang. As Abraham Martinez testified, previously optional gang meetings were now mandatory. Members had to cover tattoos from earlier gang affiliations. Old homeys who'd been grandfathered in would have to get their ritual beatings, just like new members. Everyone had to start more attacks on rival gang members.
Martinez testified that older members were rankled by outsiders telling them how to run the clique. Yet defense attorneys say Bad Boy embraced and pushed the new "L.A. program," threatening violence for those who didn't comply. "He would always try to suggest that we should, you know, follow the rules of L.A., and we had to get our shit together, get the gang more organized," Abraham Martinez said. While Bad Boy's handlers told him not to become a leader of the gang, newly arrived adolescents from Central America entering the gang claim they feared him.
"He's the one no one could touch," David says. "If you didn't follow the rules, he apparently would call Honduras or El Salvador to say, 'Someone's not following the rules.'" In a mental exam with a government-contracted psychiatrist, defendant Jonathan Cruz-Ramirez said Bad Boy and Jaime Martinez would threaten his life if "he didn't do what was asked of him," the doctor wrote. Cruz-Ramirez is accused of murdering one man in the indictments.
Bad Boy recorded a meeting in which he was the first to bring up the subject of tattoos. He was an unlicensed tattoo artist, inking more than a dozen gang members — many of them just teenagers — with MS-13 symbols in his bedroom. He wielded a homemade contraption with a guitar string needle and a CD player motor, David remembers.
In December 2005, David participated in a press conference with his attorney, Karl Krooth, about being wrongfully targeted in the Mission gang sweep. Krooth was applying for asylum on his behalf. Bad Boy accused David of, ironically, being a snitch. "He said I was giving out information," he says. Bad Boy told him the only way to prove his loyalty was to get a tattoo. "What could I do? I couldn't refuse," David says.
When he spoke with SF Weekly, David lifted up his prison-issued shirt to reveal the devil's horns hand symbol etched into his chest. David says he showed it to Bad Boy after he'd gotten it done by a professional: "He knew that would ruin my immigration case." David knew it, too; he skipped his court date, knowing he was trapped inside MS-13 with no legal recourse. "Once you're inside the gang, you can't refuse to do things."
Meanwhile, the government showered Bad Boy with benefits, defense attorney Mark Rosenbush told the jury this month. He got immigration relief and work permits for himself, his wife, and mother-in-law, who were all in the country illegally. After he told ICE his family was threatened in Honduras for problems with the gang, ICE spent $18,000 to move 11 family members to the United States. The total bill to support him? $175,000.
Even before he revealed his murderous past to prosecutors, Bad Boy hadn't been the most reliable informant. In his first year of informing, he stopped reporting to his handlers, who then deactivated him. He was eventually deported in August 2006, says defense attorney Peter Goodman. Still, he returned to the country illegally, and contacted ICE to ask if they'd take him back. Bad Boy got his second chance.
In spring 2008, Abraham Martinez received a call from his Uncle Snoopy. With a shaved head and cartoonish mustache in the government's menacing snapshot, Snoopy (born Freddie Martinez) had been deported from San Francisco. He was using a cellphone he'd smuggled into prison, where he told Abraham he was being held for murder. His message: Check Uncle Mickey off the list. Have him killed. He's a snitch.
David says fellow gang members had always suspected Mickey, an attractive, curly-haired pot-smoking slacker who usually never had money or a job and was always asking people for rides.
Yet the MS-13 culture is surprisingly cautious about whacking suspected rats: Suspicions must be confirmed by documentation. Snoopy said Mickey's girlfriend had sent him a letter in which Mickey confessed to informing. Abraham testified that he didn't consider that strong enough evidence, and ignored it.
Of course, Mickey actually was an informant. He had been since two years prior, when he entered ICE custody after being arrested on a gun possession charge. He was set for deportation to El Salvador in January 2006 when Special Agent Christopher Merendino offered him a chance to stay if he'd snitch on his homeys, Mickey later testified. Mickey signed on, saying later it was for his family and his fear of being deported.
Suddenly Mickey was raking in $300 to $600 for a piece of information, he said; later on, he earned a steady $2,000 a month. He estimated the payments added up to $50,000 in all. The feds promised him an S-visa, nicknamed the "snitch visa," and also gave immigration relief and work permits to his common-law wife and grandmother. Defense attorney Mark Rosenbush says ICE spent $89,000 relocating the family to protect them.
The indictment shows that the great majority of the gang's gun offenses and all of the alleged homicides started after 2005. Abraham testified that the gang had started stowing guns in the garden of an apartment alongside Mission Playground, with a member designated to take them home at the end of the day. Mickey was right alongside — even in the driver's seat — of 20th Street's increasingly violent agenda.
In 2006, Mickey ordered Abraham to kill an affiliate of the Los Angeles 18th Street gang, a rival Sureño gang, after Abraham had been spotted hanging out with him in the Mission Playground. (Abraham claims he never saw the man again and didn't go through with the hit.)
After a clique meeting in 2007, Mickey and Abraham spotted men wearing Norteño red at a party near 20th and Shotwell streets, considered Sureño turf. This time it was Abraham's idea to shoot them for the perceived disrespect; Mickey agreed to drive him there. The gang's policy bans drive-by shootings, Abraham says, because there's a greater possibility innocent people will get hurt. (MS-13 rules usually allow attacks only on gang members.) So Mickey stopped the van down the block, where Abraham and an allied 19th Street Sureño member got out. With a shirt tied around his face, Abraham yelled "MS-13!" and unloaded two rounds from a sawed-off shotgun toward the crowd, while the 19th Streeter shot eight rounds from a .45. Mickey then sped the triggermen home, never knowing whether anyone was hit.
Mike Levine is a former Drug Enforcement Administration supervisor who has overseen the handling of thousands of criminal informants. "All informants lie all the time," he says. "There are many cops and agents who shouldn't be allowed to handle an informant, because informants in inept, criminal, or careless hands become more of a danger to society than the crime they're going after."
Besides debriefing agents about the gang's exploits, Mickey was given a specific government mission: to tell gang members that his cousin's boss had an under-the-table business in Richmond buying and exporting stolen cars. The "boss" was actually an undercover California Highway Patrol officer, and the storefront was rigged with undercover cameras. Among his targets, Mickey homed in on Rodil Nochez, an old friend with whom he often shared weed and played videogames, and whose mother rented him a room. He walked into Nochez's bedroom one day when he was playing videogames with a friend, Daniel Gonzalez, and told them about his cousin's boss. (Mickey alleged that Nochez and Gonzalez were MS-13 associates, yet the government never charged them with conspiracy.)
"If an agent permits it, an informant will always target the people they have the least fear of," Levine says. "They pick the dumb, desperate, and gullible rather than the dangerous criminal who might seek revenge."
On several occasions, Nochez and Gonzalez asked Mickey to go along with them to steal cars. He did, and even acted as lookout while Gonzalez broke into a car. Nochez would wait in his own car and then drive Mickey back to San Francisco. Mickey sometimes accompanied the two men to deliver the cars to the undercover exporter, who'd pay $2,000 to $3,000 a car.
Mickey testified in the trial against Nochez last year that participating in the thefts was "part of my cover," and insists he told his handler, Merendino, and a federal prosecutor that he had done so in his debriefing sessions. Yet when Merendino took the stand, he claimed Mickey had never revealed that.
Judge William Alsup was troubled by the conflicting testimony: If the agents did know, "the government is out there knowingly perpetrating crimes on innocent civilians. On the other hand, if the government did not know, and Martinez is lying, the government is here asking this jury to return a verdict based on perjured testimony."
The government seems to have finally lost its patience with Mickey. In October 2007, he was arrested for allegedly stealing a minivan in San Mateo County. He listed Merendino as his emergency contact, but the agent didn't bail him out. In July 2008, federal authorities indicted Mickey for racketeering conspiracy with the gang, a charge punishable by life in prison. But prosecutors offered a plea: If Mickey would plead guilty and cooperate, the government would recommend a lighter sentence. He accepted.
Though Mickey is cooperating, it seems his testimony hasn't yet helped prosecutors much. After Nochez's attorney argued that the government's undercover operation was entrapment, the jury acquitted Nochez on all counts of attempting to export a stolen vehicle. The first trial in the indictment against the 20th Street Clique had gone south on the U.S. attorney's office.
It seems that besides being informants, Mickey and Bad Boy were still largely abiding by the gang's rules. Had they known the other was a snitch, David says, "They would have killed each other."
As the prosecution called Abraham Martinez to the witness stand in the first week of the trial this month, Operation Devil Horns' snitch irony came full circle. Abraham is the nephew of Mickey, whose snitching helped create this case. He is also the nephew of Snoopy, who demanded he kill Mickey for being a rat. Now, just as he claims he followed his uncles' footsteps into the gang life when he was 9, he is following his uncle into snitching on the gang to save his own skin.
Martinez isn't the only one to take the bait. At least another seven of the indicted gang members have been flipped and cued up as witnesses to rat out the others.
While Mickey came across as snide on the witness stand, Abraham was composed, straightforward, and, every once in a while, unintentionally funny. (Asked why he didn't ride the bus to attack gang members, he said, "Because the bus stops, like, every two blocks.") With the same monotone, street-inflected voice, he took the jurors, for five straight days of trial, into a scrappy, parallel reality to the Mission's hipster cafes, a world with its own lingo, clothes, rules, pecking order, and logic. He still referred to the gang as "we," and formed the entire MS-13 sign language alphabet, forgetting the Q ("You don't use it that much"). He identified dozens of photos of gang members by their nicknames, and lifted his shirt to show a "M" and "S" and "2" and "0" emblazoned on his muscle-ripped chest and arms.
Abraham, just 21, spoke matter-of-factly about his long rap sheet — caught with an ice pick at school at age 14 and box cutters at 15; arrested for possession of a firearm by 16. He led police on a high-speed chase from the Mission to Treasure Island, crashing into some cop cars, stopping only after police shot him. (He cut a bullet out of his arm in juvenile hall with a toothbrush he'd sharpened into a shank.) In 2008, he stabbed a man he thought was a Norteño in a car in the Mission.
Abraham looked straight at Assistant U.S. Attorney Wilson Leung throughout his testimony. He avoided eye contact with his seven former homeys, one of whom shook his head in disgust. The marshals asked that none of them take notes with pens, which could be used as weapons. Martinez tattled on them, one by one. He talked about how Cyco got out of the car with him in the Excelsior with a machete, ready to attack a car of Norteños. How Soldado ("Soldier" in English) boasted to him in Santa Rita Jail that he'd killed Patas, the leader of the traffickers of fake Social Security cards on Mission Street, who'd paid "rent" to the 20th Street Clique for years.
Martinez says he decided to cooperate only after the Sureños he was incarcerated with in Santa Rita Jail in 2008 accused him of being a snitch — before he'd signed on as one. He says they told him he'd "been checked off the list." A gang of prisoners attacked him. Abraham says he felt he had no choice but to change to the government's jersey and move out of the pod.
Abraham Martinez may be winning decades of freedom by cooperating as a witness. Yet he admits he is also giving himself a death sentence. When diligently relaying the rules of the MS-13 on the stand, he hesitates before saying the last: "Don't snitch."
Last year, Mickey also admitted he was a marked man in the Nochez case: "They not going to give me a chance. They not just going to stab me or give me a little beatdown. No, they going to kill me."
So when Martinez tells the jury that part of his deal with the prosecutors is that the government will keep "my family safe, me safe," it seems like a naive moment in his otherwise streetwise testimony. While the 20th Street Clique isn't accused of killing any of its own, it seems its members haven't forgotten the rule. According to an incident report from last year, Angel Guevara, one defendant now on trial, mailed a photo from jail to his sister onto which he'd drawn arrows pointing to three men, labeling them as ratas, or rats. He told prison officials he was merely trying to send information for her to deliver to his attorney.
An ICE agent reported that Cruz-Ramirez told a prisoner housed in Dublin jail to relay a message to inmates that MS-13 members there were "no good" because they were cooperating with law enforcement against him and "needed to be handled." It seems Cruz-Ramirez is well-informed: The agent wrote that the three names he mentioned were MS-13 members "who are, in fact, cooperating, or in the past have cooperated, with law enforcement."
The Martinezes' lives will likely be uneasy ones. Abraham is facing up to a life sentence for gang conspiracy including an attempted murder, but could get less than 10 years if the judge so decides upon the prosecutors' recommendation. Mickey testified last year that he faces a life sentence as well, after the government is done with him as a witness. Abraham testified that he's in protective custody while incarcerated at an undisclosed location. When he's asked who visits him in jail, he says, "Nobody."
A very different fate awaits the noncooperating gang members who go to prison, Abraham testified. Sureños drop any clique divisions and unify in jail against Norteños and other gangs. Time in prison merely pumps up your status on the streets.
Yet some MS-13 members don't want to return to the gang. David hopes to finally get the devil horns tattoo removed in prison, literally stripping the gang out from under his skin. At the end of his sentence, he's set to be deported to El Salvador, where an MS-13 tattoo puts you at risk of attack by other gangsters or right-wing paramilitaries.
Yet David's alliance won't be so easy to shed. He knows he'll be jailed with other Sureño members — the same situation he blames on getting him into this nightmare in the first place. "It ruined my life. What can I do?" he says. "I didn't want to be a gangster. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time." He's glad Bad Boy has now been indicted.
If all goes according to plan, David will be nearing 40 when he walks out of custody. He hopes never to have contact with the MS-13 again. "I want to get out, and disappear, to a place where no one knows me." That seems a long way off. After a half-hour visit, he obediently stands up and shoots a wave restrained by the cuff to his chained belt. The guard takes him away.