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Death To Gang Members: The Feds' New Tactic

Alejandro Enrique Ramirez Umana has an unfortunate claim on history. He is the first member of the MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, gang to be sentenced to death under the federal system of capital punishment, according to the Justice Department.

Prosecutors and FBI officials say the Umana investigation, which took them from North Carolina to California to El Salvador, is a model for how federal authorities will attack a growing gang threat that is leaching into smaller cities across America's heartland.

Umana is only 25. But over the course of his relatively short life, he allegedly killed five people in his role as a traveling evangelist for the MS-13 gang.

For the past few months, Umana has been living on federal death row in Indiana. Federal prosecutor Jill Rose helped put him there. "He murdered two men in a very busy restaurant in Greensboro, N.C., on a Saturday night. It was a few weeks before Christmas. He and some other gang members were having dinner in this restaurant," Rose says.

Two brothers who did not belong to a gang were eating nearby. They exchanged words with Umana. Then, Rose says, things went south.

"Mr. Umana stood up, pulled a Ruger 45 semi-automatic pistol out of his waist and blasted away there in the middle of this busy restaurant. He killed our two victims, continued to shoot as he backed out of the restaurant," Rose says.

Police captured Umana a few days later and arrested him on state charges in North Carolina. His lawyers say there was even a deal on the table: plead guilty to the state charges and serve life in prison.

"You know, here's a guy who probably, if the normal state prosecution had proceeded, he probably would have been locked up for a significant period of time if not the rest of his life," says John Bryson, who defended Umana.

Enter The Feds

But then the federal authorities entered the picture, taking over the state case and finding three other murders Umana allegedly committed.

Federal authorities have turned the investigation into a model for their strategy: to build bigger national prosecutions of gangs, to work with investigators across the U.S. and Central America, and to sometimes ask a jury to vote for capital punishment.

Aaron Escorza leads the FBI's national task force against the Mara Salvatrucha gang. He says that MS-13 is one of the most violent gangs in the U.S., with 10,000 members in more than 40 states.

As you get across the country and realize that [smaller cities] have the same budding gang problems that larger cities have had, you realize there's a need to team up.

"[Umana's] was probably one of the most significant MS-13 cases on the books for the FBI. More than anything we really used that investigation as the model for the way these transnational gang cases should be worked," Escorza says.

Budding Problems

The FBI says international street gangs like MS-13 are moving into heartland cities that may not have much experience prosecuting them, which makes federal help in investigating all the more important.

"As you get across the country and realize that places like Charlotte and Nashville and Greenbelt, Md., have the same budding gang problems that larger cities have had, you realize there's a need to team up and share the sort of experience that we're gathering here in Washington with folks that might benefit from it on the road," says Jim Trusty, who leads the Justice Department's gang unit.

Trusty and his team are going on the road and working with counterparts in Central America. The Justice Department recently merged two separate teams to devote more resources to the surge in gang activity.

According to Lanny Breuer, who leads the Justice Department's criminal division, an expert in capital punishment is also on the newly merged team. "There will be cases with respect to gangs at times where we will seek that ultimate punishment, where the facts and the crime are so egregious and deserving [of] it," Breuer says.

A Matter Of Prestige?

Martin Sabelli, a lawyer in California with extensive experience defending MS-13 cases, says taking gang cases like Umana's to the federal level and asking for the death penalty sound like a stretch.

"In this case, you've got a kid who's essentially convicted for what could have been really characterized as a street crime not associated with [MS-13]. The only theory tying it to the gang is that the fact of committing a murder is allegedly something that gains the defendant some sort of prestige or some sort of rank in the organization," Sabelli says.

Prestige matters to Umana. Like many MS-13 members, he is covered with tattoos. As the trial went along this year, prosecutor Jill Rose says Umana flashed gang signs to intimidate witnesses and tried to smuggle a sharp piece of metal into the courtroom.

"He was defiant from the beginning to the end. [For his] final words to the judge when the death penalty was being imposed ... he thumped his fist over his heart and said, 'And as for the rest, Mara Salvatrucha,' " Rose says.

Umana, a citizen of El Salvador, is beginning to work on his death penalty appeal and waiting to get new lawyers to help with a process that could take years to resolve.

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Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.