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Prison gang leader, 2 others guilty

Members of Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico: Anthony Ray Baca, upper left, Carlos Herrera, upper right, Rudy Perez, lower left, Daniel Sanchez, lower right.

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

In a high-profile case that relied on “cooperators” and other prison gang members, the purported leader of the notorious Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico and two other gang members were convicted Monday after a federal prosecution triggered by a plot to murder then-Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel and another top prison official.

After nearly a week of deliberations, jurors convicted Anthony Ray Baca, the purported leader of SNM, and Daniel Sanchez and Carlos Herrera of federal violent crimes in aid of racketeering charges in the 2014 murder of inmate Javier Molina at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, near Las Cruces.

Baca was also convicted of conspiracy to murder the two Corrections Department officials, one of whom, out of fear for his safety, asked the Journal not to use his name. Three other defendants charged in that foiled murder plot have already pleaded guilty.

A fourth defendant who stood trial, Rudy Perez, was acquitted. Perez had faced conspiracy and murder charges in Molina’s death.

Perez, who is physically disabled, was accused of providing his walker for the shanks used in Molina’s death and boasted in an undercover recording about his participation in the murder.

But during a pretrial hearing, Perez testified that he had lied and had no involvement. His attorneys also claimed he’d been threatened, according to court records.

“With respect to Rudy Perez, we feel the jury absolutely reached the right verdict,” said Perez’s attorney, Justine Fox-Young of Albuquerque.

Jury deliberations came after more than a month of trial in federal court in Las Cruces, in which U.S. District Judge James Browning presided.

It marked the first of three scheduled trials for defendants indicted in what the FBI dubbed Operation Atonement. Two more trials are set for the coming months.

More than 60 people who have been charged with various crimes in the investigation have pleaded guilty, including Christopher Garcia.

Garcia, who had been out of prison and living in Albuquerque, pleaded guilty just before trial to charges of conspiring to kill the two prison officials and being a felon in possession of a weapon.

Garcia is expected to be sentenced to 30 years in prison and did not cooperate. He was accused of providing the murder weapon for two other SNM members out on the streets to carry out the Corrections Department killings. He also is accused of ordering that one of the hit men he came to distrust be killed with a lethal dose of heroin after the murders.

Marcantel, who resigned in late 2016, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday. But he did testify at trial.

SNM leader Baca was alleged to have initiated the plot to kill Marcantel as revenge for SNM members being locked down in their prison cells after Molina’s death. He also told another inmate of the “benefits of murdering a high-ranking official to gain national recognition and respect.”

Defense attorneys characterized the SNM case before trial as “perhaps the single largest and most complicated prosecution this district has ever seen.”

For years, the prison gang wielded influence inside state prisons and out on the streets, relying on drug dealing to finance its enterprise and murder and other violent crimes to exert control and authority.

But after learning of the Marcantel plot, an FBI-led team of investigators and federal prosecutors opted to file federal racketeering charges to break up the gang and ensure its members were scattered out of state and serving lengthy federal sentences.

Baca, who was already serving time in state prison on a murder conviction, faces a sentence of life in prison, as do Sanchez and Herrera. When the case was indicted in late 2015, the government announced it could seek the death penalty, but that was taken off the table.

Building the racketeering case involved plea agreements with more than a dozen alleged accomplices who testified at trial, court records show. Several others not charged federally also agreed to testify.

Jurors were informed that the cooperators’ testimony provided for the possibility of a “lesser sentence.” The cooperators haven’t been sentenced yet.

Browning’s instructions to jurors also noted that 17 of those who testified “may be considered abusers of drugs” and jurors had to determine whether their testimony was affected by the use of drugs or the need for drugs.

Undercover recordings of conversations between inmates, some working for the government, as well as wiretapped conversations, were also introduced into the evidence.

Molina, prosecutors argued, was targeted for death in 2014 because SNM leaders considered him a “snitch.”

In September 2016, the FBI case agent filed an affidavit in court contending the gang was fighting back by marking victims, witnesses, informers and even perceived informers for death.