New Jersey jury convicts El Salvadoran nationals of murder, extortion, and drug trafficking

The men were convicted of racketeering charges stemming from their involvement with the MS-13 gang, according the Department of Justice.

Updated: November 17, 2021 - 7:02pm

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A federal jury in New Jersey convicted three men from El Salvador on murder and racketeering charges stemming from their involvement with the MS-13 gang, according the Department of Justice.

Officials announced on Wednesday the convictions of Juan Pablo Escalante-Melgar, 32; Elmer Cruz-Diaz, 33; and Oscar Sanchez-Aguilar, 25. The three traveled from El Salvador and committed crimes that included "extortion, witness tampering, and drug trafficking," on top of the murder and racketeering charges, the Justice Department said.

Two of the defendants, Escalante-Melgar and Sánchez-Aguilar, were convicted of killing 19-year-old Jose Usias-Hernandez execution-style on July 1, 2015.

"These defendants brutally murdered Jose Urias-Hernandez because they believed he was a rival gang member, when he was actually an innocent victim,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. "Their actions caused irreparable harm to the victim’s family and the surrounding community. We will not stop in our pursuit of those MS-13 gang members, both in the United States and elsewhere, who prey on the communities they harm and intimidate.”

Cruz-Diaz and Escalante-Melgar were also convicted of murdering a fellow MS-13 member they suspected of speaking to law enforcement concerning the gang's operations. 

Over the past few years, the U.S. has ramped up its criminal investigations of MS-13 as well as its multinational criminal enterprises, the Justice Department said.

"This verdict demonstrates the FBI’s commitment to combat MS-13’s ruthless violence in America and internationally,” said Acting Assistant Director Jay Greenberg of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

Mara Salvatrucha 13 —also known as MS-13— has been active since the 1980's, but wasn't labeled a transnational gang until 2012.