MS-13 gang members to be tried for alleged murders, crimes in Fresno County and Los Angeles

Thirteen alleged MS-13 gang members arrested during a recent operation carried out in Mendota by federal and local law enforcement are scheduled to be tried next month on a range of charges, including murder and street terrorism.

The 13 defendants, who are slated to head to trial March 25 in Fresno County Superior Court, are among 25 alleged MS-13 members accused of committing the crimes in Mendota and Los Angeles.

MS-13 had a presence in Mendota, west of Fresno County, for at least a decade before federal and state law enforcement carried out the operation against the gang in August.

The 25 alleged gang members netted in the operation are believed to be connected to over a dozen murders, and they face federal and state charges.

The trial date was set last week after a Fresno County Criminal Grand Jury issued an indictment against the defendants.

The state indictment is separate from federal indictments. “Currently since (the defendants) are all charged together, they would be tried together in one trial,” said Fresno County Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright.

“Arguably there may be reasons why we or the defense may make a request to sever one or more defendants and have them proceed to trial separately.”

An indictment sets trial right away, said Attorney Eric Castellon, who is representing one of the defendants, Margarita Valencia.

The defendants indicted by the grand jury include: Endy Orlando Morales Buezo, Margarita Valencia, Denis Barrera-Palma, Ever Javier Membrano, Paola Liliana Guevara, Jefferson Oswaldo Guevara, Jorge Lainez, Carlos Chicas-Espinosa, Sergio Rivas, Oscar Paredes, Israel Gomez, Luis Reyes-Castillo and Adan Lopez.

There are a total of nine counts, but some of the counts only pertain to some of the defendants.

For example, Morales Buezo faces a murder charge. According to the state indictment filed Feb. 11, on or about Dec. 18, 2017, Buezo allegedly murdered victim Abel Rodriguez to further the gang’s criminal activities and “for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association” with MS-13.

Defendant Israel Gomez and an unidentified suspect have been indicted at the federal level for the same alleged murder, though the Department of Justice has only identified the victim as “A.R.”

Locals in Mendota last year identified a victim to The Bee as Abel Rodriguez, matching the name on the state indictment.

The street terrorism counts relate to Rodriguez’s killing and several other incidents in 2017 and 2018, according to the state indictment.

Other counts relate to conspiracy to commit a crime involving several of the defendants traveling to MacArthur Park in Los Angeles on June 11, 2017 when they allegedly murdered victim Jose Mireles.

On June 23, 2018, several of the defendants drove back to MacArthur Park for the “purpose of re-establishing a presence” through violence, according to the indictment.

On or about July 18, 2018, several of the defendants identified victim Brian Marroquin at MacArthur Park as a rival gang member. Some of the defendants allegedly convinced Marroquin to join them at the “beach with drugs and girls,” but they drove him to a remote area where they allegedly killed him, according to the state indictment.

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Yesenia Amaro covers immigration and diverse communities for The Fresno Bee. She previously worked for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and the Las Vegas Review-Journal in Nevada. She recently received the 2018 Journalistic Integrity award from the CACJ. In 2015, she won the Outstanding Journalist of the Year Award from the Nevada Press Association, and also received the Community Service Award.