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MS-13 gang members face life in prison for murder, racketeering offenses in N.J.

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Three MS-13 gang leaders from El Salvador face life in prison after being convicted of murder, racketeering and weapons offenses in New Jersey, authorities said.

Juan Pablo Escalante-Melgar, 31; Elmer Cruz-Diaz, 33 and Oscar Sanchez-Aguilar, 25, were also involved in extortion, drug trafficking and witness tampering between September 2014 and October 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for New Jersey said in a statement Tuesday.

Escalante-Melgar and Sanchez-Aguilar told a member and a recruit to kill a suspected rival gang member so that the recruit could become a full member of MS-13, officials said.

In addition, Escalante-Melgar and Cruz-Diaz conspired to murder a fellow MS-13 member. Salvadoran MS-13 leaders “green-lighted” the killing because they suspected the target of cooperating with law enforcement. Escalante-Melgar and Cruz-Diaz lived in Union City in Hudson County at the time.

In one murder, Jose Urias-Hernandez, 19, was killed while walking into his apartment on 53rd Street in West New York just after midnight on July 1, 2015, officials said.

“These individuals planned and executed the murder of an innocent person, ending a life through senseless violence due to mistaken identity,” said Jason Molina, Special Agent in Charge for the Homeland Security Investigations Newark field office.

According to a federal complaint, the penalty for MS-13 members who cooperate with authorities is death, though executions must be approved by high-ranking gang leaders in California or El Salvador.

Authorities said the gang takes its time carrying out such executions to avoid prosecution, typically by following the accused member to learn his movements and habits.

In August 2015, authorities intercepted a phone conversation between a high-ranking M-13 leader and Escalante-Melgar securing permission to kill the unidentified informant, prosecutors said. Four days later, authorities intercepted a conversation between Cruz-Diaz and another gang member indicating the killing had been sanctioned.

Other intercepted conversations involved instructions for gang members to track the informant’s movements in Union City.

“The convictions secured were years in the making, from the original arrests on immigration charges to convictions that include the murder of an innocent man,” said John Tsoukaris, field office director for ICE-ERO in Newark. “The cooperation between various law enforcement agencies cannot be overstated here, as it led to these vicious criminals being taken off the streets.”

Founded in Los Angeles, the “criminal gang” has members in El Salvador, Mexico and in the United States, including New Jersey, according to federal prosecutors.

Two cliques are active in the Hudson County area — Escalante-Melgar was the First Word of the Pinos Locos Salvatrucha clique while Cruz-Diaz held the same standing with the Hudson Locos Salvatrucha clique.

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© 2021 Advance Local Media LLC

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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