Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The last remaining defendant convicted in the massive federal racketeering prosecution of the ultraviolent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang received a mandatory life sentence in a Las Cruces courtroom Wednesday.
The sentencing of Angel DeLeon, 44, capped a six-year law enforcement effort led by the FBI in Albuquerque that aimed at dismantling the gang, which has operated inside New Mexico prisons and within various New Mexico communities. To date, 12 SNM members, including a leader of the gang, have received life sentences for committing violent crimes in aid of furthering the gang’s influence.
Key to the convictions was the testimony of former gang members and associates turned cooperating witnesses.
DeLeon, whose attorney is planning an appeal, was extradited from his home country of Mexico in 2019 to face charges of helping strangle to death SNM member Frank Castillo more than 20 years ago while they were incarcerated at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility outside Las Cruces. DeLeon was released from prison and deported in 2002, while the murder went unsolved.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James Browning imposed the mandatory life sentence after DeLeon was convicted by a jury in September of the first-degree murder, which occurred on March 26, 2001, about the same time SNM members in another part of the prison killed Rolando Garza. Both inmates were “greenlighted” for death for violating gang rules.
DeLeon was accused of helping restrain Castillo, while another SNM member strangled him on his prison cell bed with a prison laundry bag cord. Three other SNM members indicted for their involvement in Castillo’s slaying were convicted of federal racketeering charges at trial in 2018.
The double homicide case had gone cold until after an FBI agent learned of an SNM plot to kill the head of the New Mexico Corrections Department and other top prison officials in the spring of 2015.
The resulting investigation, which enlisted state and local law enforcement agencies and corrections officials, documented historical evidence of the criminal actions of the gang dating back to its formation in the 1980s. In the process, nine cold case murders were solved, and more than 160 members, associates and others were arrested and charged with drugs, weapons and other crimes. Most were convicted.
The gang, which had as many as 500 members, has used violence, threats of violence, assaults, murder and intimidation to preserving its power, federal prosecutors have alleged.
It was six years ago this month that the murder plot to harm state corrections officials was foiled with the initial indictment of 24 alleged gang members and associates on charges of violating the federal Violent Crimes in Aid of Rackeetering law.
DeLeon remained at large until he was located in Mexico, where he has family.
His defense attorney, Sarah Gorman, asked on Wednesday that her client be incarcerated in Texas where his mother and other family members live.
She told the judge DeLeon was 7 years old when he came to the United States with his family. He grew up in the Fort Worth, Texas, area and later moved to Socorro, New Mexico.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Castellano told the judge on Wednesday that DeLeon’s prior criminal history included “a crime against a minor and a drug trafficking offense while in prison.”
After DeLeon’s deportation, Gorman told the judge, “Mr. DeLeon never returned to the U.S. for almost 20 years and but for this extradition he would have stayed in Mexico.” She said prosecutors in the past chose not to indict anyone for the Castillo murder until the larger RICO indictment.
She lamented that while her client “maintains his innocence,” government cooperating witnesses who are “far more culpable” have received “significantly lower sentences for the same conduct.”
Castellano said the DeLeon life sentence should be a deterrent and “send a message this conduct will not be accepted.”