BOSTON (Reuters) - The leader of a Massachusetts-based unit of the notoriously violent MS-13 gang was convicted on Tuesday of racketeering conspiracy in the first trial in Boston to stem from a crackdown that led to charges against 61 people, prosecutors said.
Rafael Leoner Aguirre, a Salvadoran national who prosecutors said led an MS-13 “clique” in Chelsea, Massachusetts, was found guilty by a federal jury in Boston following a two-week trial, prosecutors said.
Republican U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed to crush criminal gangs, especially MS-13, and referred to gang members as “animals” and “thugs.”
Prosecutors said Leoner Aguirre, 22, encouraged members of the gang known as Enfermos Criminal Salvatrucha in Chelsea to attack and kill rival gang members and commit robberies. Leoner Aguirre himself attempted to commit two murders, prosecutors said.
Leoner Aguirre, who illegally immigrated from El Salvador in 2013, faces up to 20 years in prison and will be subject to deportation following any prison term. His sentencing is scheduled for March 2.
A lawyer for Leoner Aguirre did not respond to a request for comment.
The conviction came as the U.S. Justice Department is pushing to break up cross-border criminal organizations. MS-13, which the department says has more than 30,000 members worldwide and 10,000 in the United States, is a prime focus of that effort.
MS-13, also called La Mara Salvatrucha, was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s in part to protect immigrants fleeing civil war in El Salvador. It has since grown into a sprawling cross-border criminal organization.
Leoner Aguirre was charged in January 2016, before Trump took office. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the gang crackdown that led to his arrest in a September speech in Boston about efforts to combat MS-13, whose members he described as “some of the worst of the worst.”
Both Sessions and Trump have tied what they say is the need to fight the gang to the administration’s initiatives targeting illegal immigration.
To date, 23 other people charged in the Boston case have pleaded guilty. The next trial is scheduled for January.
Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Scott Malone and Tom Brown