... -apnewyork

Alleged MS-13 gang member faces federal charges

April 13, 2006, 11:32 AM EDT

CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (AP) _ An alleged member of the MS-13 street gang is on trial in federal court on Long Island facing conspiracy, murder and weapons charges, part of a trend by prosecutors to target gang members under federal racketeering statutes.

Prosecutors are attempting to prove Leonel Mejida carried out the crimes to "maintain and improve" his position with the gang, and that MS-13 is an organized group committing crimes.

Mejida, 21, of Uniondale, faces up to life in prison if convicted.

In an opening statement Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney James McGovern said Mejida allegedly killed because "it gave him the opportunity to finally make his quota" of crimes initiating him into the gang. He is accused of fatally shooting Edgardo Sanchez, 18, an MS-13 member suspected of being a government informant, on Sept. 13, 2003.

McGovern told jurors Mejida killed Sanchez because, as a new member of the Hempstead "clique" of MS-13, he had to commit a violent act against an "enemy of the gang," Newsday reported in Thursday's editions.

Defense attorney Randall Unger cautioned jurors to keep an open mind and urged them to be wary of a confession Mejida allegedly gave to prosecutors.

"What led up to the statement is just as important as what he said," said Unger. "Probe underneath the surface."

Federal prosecutors are becoming more aggressive in going after members of MS-13, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, a gang made up largely of immigrants from Central America that has an estimated 10,000 members in the United States.

Earlier this month, a federal indictment against alleged members of MS-13 was unsealed in Greenbelt, Md., that added murder, conspiracy, witness tampering and other charges to a racketeering case against the group.

In December, a member of MS-13 in McLean, Va., was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to murder in aid of racketeering in connection with a 2004 shooting of a rival gang member.