Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The last defendant to stand trial in the long-running federal racketeering prosecution aimed at dismantling the violent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang was convicted Thursday in the strangulation death of a fellow inmate more than 20 years ago.
After listening to eight days of testimony from witnesses who included former gang members and DNA experts, the jury deliberated for about six hours in Las Cruces before finding Angel DeLeon guilty of first-degree murder. He faces life in prison.
DeLeon, 43, was convicted of participating in a double homicide carried out in 2001 by the SNM against two inmates at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility during an internal gang crackdown on its members.
DeLeon, a Mexican national who was deported in 2002, was charged in a December 2015 federal indictment, the first wave of charges to hit the SNM, which exerted control over members inside and outside prison walls, prosecutors say.
He was the last to face trial because he wasn’t located in Mexico until 2019, He was then extradited to the U.S. to face the charge of committing a violent act in aid of racketeering, which carries a life prison sentence.
DeLeon was accused of helping hold down SNM member Frank Castillo on March 26, 2001, while another SNM member strangled him on his prison cell bed. Three other SNM members indicted in Castillo’s murder were convicted of federal racketeering charges at trial in 2018.
In another homicide in a different area of the prison that morning, a different team of SNM members killed fellow member Roland Garza by strangulation. DeLeon wasn’t charged in that case.
In closing arguments, assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Castellano told jurors Thursday that Castillo, who went by the nickname of Pancho, and Garza had violated SNM rules “and were hit.”
Castillo’s death is now among 10 homicides considered solved as part of the FBI’s massive investigation dubbed “Operation Atonement.” The investigation into the gang’s criminal activities was initiated by the FBI in 2015 after authorities learned of a plot to kill two top state Corrections officials.
“There came a time when we had to use all means necessary to stop this gang,” Castellano told jurors on Thursday. The murder plot was foiled but the investigation dug into the gang’s past crimes dating back several decades.
Castellano said a corrections official testified that SNM at one time controlled New Mexico prisons. He said after fighting the gang’s influence since its formation in the early 1980s, corrections officials were “probably relieved” to see the results of the federal prosecution.
Aside from DeLeon, 10 SNM members, including top leaders, have been convicted at trial of committing murder to maintain or enhance their standing in SNM’s criminal enterprise.
To date more than 160 SNM members, associates and others linked to the gang have been arrested, with most convicted of either state or federal charges that include drug trafficking and firearms violations.
Key to the federal prosecution was the cooperation of former gang members and leaders, who renounced the gang, provided evidence and testified for the government at trial.
DeLeon’s defense attorney Sarah Gorman in closing arguments Thursday said that during the trial the federal government paraded “murderer after murderer, the worst of the worst” before the jury “hoping that because all these other criminals (committed murder) that you’ll believe Angel was a murderer too.”
She contended the FBI’s “crusade” against the SNM resulted in a failed investigation and prosecution in DeLeon’s case.
Investigators in 2001 found DeLeon’s DNA on a drawstring of the prison laundry bag used to strangle Castillo. But 13 years later a subsequent DNA test found no trace of his DNA, Gorman told jurors.
Gorman also attacked the credibility of the SNM government cooperators, noting that one defendant who gave the orders to kill Castillo initially faced life in prison but received a reduced sentence of 70 months after helping the government prosecute its case.
Castellano said a defense expert agreed that DeLeon’s DNA was detected in three places on the ligature. As for cooperators who received a reduced sentence, Castellano noted that ultimately a federal judge decides the length of sentence and is not “a rubber stamp” for the government.