A federal jury in Boston began deliberating Tuesday whether four MS-13 gang members were part of a conspiracy to advance the group’s murderous goals or just braggarts who talked a big game.
The contrasting portrayals came during closing arguments in the three-week racketeering trial of members of the “Eastside Loco” clique, a subgroup of the notorious international gang. MS-13’s leadership was crippled in 2016 when the FBI and state and local police swept through East Boston and surrounding cities and arrested dozens of men accused of conspiring to help the gang.
Prosecutors said the four men on trial — Herzzon Sandoval, 36, Edwin Guzman, 32, Cesar Martinez, 37, and Erick Argueta Larios, 33, — regularly met in an Everett garage, where they talked about murders the gang had committed and encouraged more, collected money for jailed members in El Salvador, and recruited and protected younger men they knew had committed horrible acts. Among them was the man responsible for the September 2015 murder of a 15-year-old Chelsea boy, prosecutors said.
“You know what MS-13 is . . . you know why it exists, you know what its mission is,” Assistant US Attorney Christopher J. Pohl told the jury. “In MS-13, all there is is violence. There is nothing else.”
Lawyers for the four defendants said that to win a conviction on the racketeering charges, prosecutors had to prove the gang members were guilty of at least two of the following crimes: murder, armed assault with intent to murder, assault with intent to murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and crimes related to drug trafficking. They had not done so, the defense lawyers said.
“Eastside was a bunch of older, inactive members who mostly engaged in bar fights, flashed signs, and acted tough in bars,” said Larios’s lawyer, Thomas J. Iovieno. “All they do at the meetings . . . is they brag.”
The four defendants were among 62 men swept up by the FBI in 2016, the largest sweep of MS-13 members in the United States, according to federal prosecutors. The gang was responsible for the murders of six people in the Boston area, including two 15-year-old boys, authorities say.
The men on trial were not charged with killing anyone. But prosecutors say they gave shelter, food, and protection to Joel Martinez, who they say killed Chelsea High School freshman Irvin Javier de Paz Castro on Sept. 20, 2015.
Sandoval invited Martinez to join the gang in December 2015. Defense attorneys said that invitation was spurred by a confidential witness for the government, a Salvadoran man with a criminal record and the code name Mako, who went undercover to infiltrate MS-13.
Martinez and Larios are also accused of conspiracy to distribute drugs for their role in guarding a shipment of cocaine that the FBI set up through that same witness.
Prosecutors relied heavily on the testimony of two former Eastside members and the recordings made by Mako. Defense attorneys said the former Eastside members had reason to lie: They had been offered reduced sentences and visas that would let them and their families stay in the United States.
Defense lawyers said Mako was a problematic witness who committed crimes while under the watch of the FBI, including participating in a knife attack against a rival and dozens of armed robberies of cab drivers.
But Pohl reminded jurors of the eagerness Sandoval displayed in recordings about getting Martinez to join the gang.
“It almost sounds like [Sandoval] is a college recruiter and he is in the living room of someone he’s trying to recruit and get into the school,” Pohl said.
Pohl said the government had proved that the four men knew MS-13 was a gang committed to murder and other crimes when they joined, enough to obtain a guilty verdict for racketeering, which in this case carries a maximum sentence of 20 years.
One of the last witnesses to testify was Evelyn Torres, the wife of Edwin Guzman. Her testimony suggested her husband had been trying to extricate himself from the gang and even faced threats for his efforts.
Dressed in black pin-striped pants, a white blouse, and tan jacket, she quietly described how her husband listened to her when she pleaded with him to stop getting drunk at bars.
Torres said she told Guzman that “he has to get his mind together and we need time for our family.”
Torres said one night in July 2015 someone spray-painted signs of MS-13 rivals on her door and on Guzman’s black Cadillac Escalade.
During closing arguments, Guzman’s lawyer, Scott Lopez, told jurors that likely was not the work of a rival but of someone who was trying to hound Guzman into doing more for MS-13.
Guzman worked at a Chelsea fruit market and owned a home in Revere, Torres said. He has two girls, 12 and 4. He became a citizen in November 2001, Torres testified, and married her four years later.
Lopez described Guzman as an innocent man.
“We’re asking that you give him his life back,” he told the jury.