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.

Seven alleged MS-13 members are on trial for gang conspiracy charges. One witness testified that Freddie “Snoopy” Martinez, allegedly ordered a hit on his half-brother and informant, Jaime “Mickey” Martinez.
Illustrations by Norman Quebedeau
Seven alleged MS-13 members are on trial for gang conspiracy charges. One witness testified that Freddie “Snoopy” Martinez, allegedly ordered a hit on his half-brother and informant, Jaime “Mickey” Martinez.
Abraham Martinez, a former MS-13 member, testified against his former homeys in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.
Norman Quebedeau
Abraham Martinez, a former MS-13 member, testified against his former homeys in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.

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.

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