Trial for alleged MS-13 murders begins in Santa Maria


Opening statements in the first of two trials of alleged Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members accused of murdering 10 people began in Santa Maria court on Wednesday. 

Amid a string of gang violence, murders in Santa Maria increased from three in 2014 to 13 in 2015. Another six homicides occurred in the city in Jan. 2016. 

In March 2016, authorities arrested 15 foreign nationals from Honduras and El Salvador and detained another 40 individuals as part of a multi-state operation targeting suspects in the city of Santa Maria’s murder spree. Following the arrests, then-Santa Maria police chief Ralph Martin said investigators believed MS-13 committed the majority of the murders.

On Wednesday, trial began for five defendants in the case: Juan Membreno, Tranquilino Moraeles, Luis German Orellana, Juan Carlos Serrano and Marcos Torres. Five more defendants will be tried in a separate trial at a future date. [KSBY]

Prosecutors say the case consists of gun attacks on a total of 15 victims. Ten of the victims died as a result of the shootings, while five survived. 

The defendants were members of the  the Santa Maria Little Salvi’s, the local cell of MS-13. All of the victims were associated with rival gangs, and each of the shootings occurred in the Santa Maria territory of MS-13, according to the prosecution.

In each attack, the defendants allegedly shot the victim multiple times, with a maximum of 10 times. The defendants allegedly used seven guns in the shootings.

During opening statements, prosecutors said law enforcement personnel conducted wiretaps on four of the defendants’ phones between January and March 2016. While wiretapping the phones, police found photos of the defendants throwing up gang signs and wearing blue Dodgers gear, which is associated with MS-13. Investigators also found WhatsApp messages exchanged between the Santa Maria Little Salvi’s and individuals in El Salvador. 

Opening statements resumed Thursday morning.