This article originally appeared at The Nation on February 23, 2011.
Federal prosecutors in Denver dropped gang conspiracy charges against six alleged Mara Salvatrucha members on February 18, amidst allegations that government attorneys withheld key information while applying for wiretap permissions from federal judges.
The Denver prosecutors offered no explanation in asking for dismissal of the case.
But defense attorneys there accused the government of offering “false and misleading” evidence to the grand jury in obtaining the indictments. The Denver Post reported that the defense cited The Nation article of last August 27, 2010 as showing a pattern and practice of official deception.
The Nation article, by this writer, reported on court documents that revealed that federal prosecutors used the top leaders within MS-13 as secret informants during a decade of murders and mayhem across the US and Central America. Prosecutors obtained more than 21 wiretap approvals while never telling judges that the top MS leaders already were in custody as informants. Under federal law, wiretaps must be approved on a showing of “necessity” that other intelligence-gathering techniques are not feasible. Significant omissions in wiretap applications are prohibited.
But federal prosecutors were hiding their access to top MS leaders going back to 2000. One of them, Jorge Pineda (aka Dopey), taped as many as 600 gang phone calls from “all over the world” while the FBI was listening. Pineda reported directly to Nelson Comandari, nicknamed “the CEO of Mara Salvatrucha” by law enforcement. Comandari was been in custody since 2006. Both have been extensively interrogated by the FBI and agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department.
The information about the withheld evidence was revealed last year during the ongoing federal prosecution of Alex Sanchez, a former MS gang member who became the Los Angeles leader of Homies Unidos, a well-known gang prevention and intervention agency. In June 2009, Sanchez was indicted along with 23 MS members and was accused of leading a double-life. Sanchez was defended by a cross-section of clergy and human rights activists, and received bail seven months later.
The federal prosecutor in the Sanchez case, Elizabeth Carpenter, was present during the interrogations of Comandari, which were never revealed to the wiretap judges. Also present during the interrogations was Frank Flores, the LAPD’s lead officer on the case. Both are subject to the accusation of violating federal law by failing to report that they had MS leaders in custody while claiming the necessity for wiretaps.
Meanwhile, the Sanchez trial is stalled more than 18 months after the indictments of June 2009. The federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering a government appeal to allow three roles for officer Flores – as a member of the prosecution team, an expert witness on MS, and a potential victim of a gang hit that never occurred. The defense argues that having the multiple roles constitutes a conflict-of-interest.
Despite the prosecution’s determination, it is unknown when the Sanchez trial will finally begin and, in light of the mysterious Denver dismissals, if it will begin at all.