A federal appeals court yesterday rejected a local MS-13 leader's argument that he "withdrew" from the gang once he was tossed in prison, saying that he continued to direct gang activities from behind prison walls - including ordering the murder of a member he thought had snitched.
That member was able to testify against Rafael "Tremendo" Leoner-Aguirre at his federal trial on racketeering charges because FBI agents learned of the order and warned the victim to flee, during an investigation that nine months later would culminate in charges against 61 members of MS-13 members in the Boston area. Most have since pleaded or been found guilty.
The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, which also rejected arguments by Leoner-Aguirre's attorney that the judge gave the jury incorrect instructions and that the government introduced evidence it shouldn't have, means the 24-year-old can expect to stay behind bars until roughly 2034. He's currently serving his time at a federal prison in Louisiana.
The court's ruling outlines Leoner-Aguirre's MS-13 career: The gang paid to fly him to the US in 2012 and he spent his first several months here in Michigan, creating promotional videos for the gang that "touted the gang's mission of killing rivals." He then moved to the Boston area, where he was tasked with building up Enfermos Criminal Salvatrucha of Chelsea into a full-fledged MS-13 "clique" or local gang.
Once that was done, Leoner-Aguirre ordered clique members to commit a number of crimes, including robberies, beatings, and murders - and personally took part in two attempted murders of members of the rival 18th Street Gang, one with a machete, once with a gun. While not occupied trying to kill off rivals, Leoner-Aguirre "committed multiple armed robberies using a machete and a gun" - one of which led to his arrest on Massachusetts charges in April, 2014, for which he was later convicted.
In January, 2016, Leoner-Aguirre and other local MS-13 leaders and members were arrested and charged in sweeps by federal and local law-enforcement agencies. In May, 2017, a federal grand jury formally charged him with violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, based on his alleged membership in MS-13 and his actions in committing and conspiring to commit crimes ranging from robbery to drug trafficking and murder.
One issue in his appeal was an attempt on the life of Christian Henriquez, a member of Leoner-Aguirre whom he suspected of "betraying the clique" by cooperating with law enforcement.
At the time the FBI learned of the threat on Henriquez's life, Leoner-Aguirre was in a state prison following his conviction on an assault charge. On appeal, Leoner-Aguirre's attorney argued that because he was in state prison he had "withdrawn" from participation in the gang, because he was behind prison walls, which means he should not have been charged with at least some of the RICO offenses - and that the judge violated his constitutional rights by telling the jury it was up to Leoner-Aguirre to prove he was no longer involved in gang activities once he landed in prison.
We flatly reject as a matter of law the argument that Aguirre's arrest and imprisonment necessarily constituted his withdrawal from the conspiracy. Imprisonment alone does not satisfy a defendant's burden of proving withdrawal. ...
There was ample evidence for a jury to find, as it did, that Aguirre not only remained in the conspiracy, but also actively participated in it following his arrest and imprisonment. There was testimony that Aguirre stated that the gang was his family and he would never leave it, and there was other evidence that he remained the leader of the Enfermos while in prison. Further, Henriquez's testimony and the recorded conversation between Menjivar [a member of Leoner-Aguirre's clique] and a confidential witness showed that Aguirre ordered the murder of Henriquez by MS-13 members while Aguirre was in prison.
The court added there was nothing wrong with requiring the defendant to prove he was no longer involved in gang activities.