Four suspected members of the notoriously violent MS-13 gang, founded by Salvadoran immigrants, are now on trial after a federal judge in Boston denied a request to delay the case to ensure critical remarks made by U.S. President Donald Trump this week did not prejudice jurors.
During his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, Trump referred to the gang as "savage" and said that two teenage girls in New York state whose parents were in attendance were "brutally murdered" by the gang's members, Reuters reports.
Federal prosecutors allege that Herzzon Sandoval and Edwin Guzman were leaders of a Massachusetts-based MS-13 "clique" called Eastside Loco Salvatrucha. They are charged with racketeering conspiracy, along with Cesar Martinez and Erick Argueta Larios.
Thursday's opening statements took place two days after Trump sharply condemned MS-13 in his speech to Congress. The White House blames the gang's existence mostly on illegal immigration from Central America.
MS-13, which started in Los Angeles in the 1980s, has since grown into a cross-border criminal organization with leadership in Salvador that has 30,000 members worldwide and 10,000 in the United States, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Trump, during Tuesday's address, called on Congress to close "deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country."
In a motion, Sandoval's lawyers argued the trial should be delayed to March to allow the impact of Trump's remarks to dissipate. But U.S. District Judge Dennis Saylor denied the request on Wednesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Lawrence on Thursday told jurors Sandoval and his co-defendants were "fully committed to MS-13," a group that promoted using violence to eliminate rivals and to instill fear.
"Put simply, MS-13 is about violence," Lawrence said in her opening statement.
She said the clique, which operated in Chelsea, Everett, and elsewhere in greater Boston, thought it was owed respect for murders and violence it committed in the past, but by 2015 was on "shaky ground" with MS-13's leadership in El Salvador.
Facing pressure, the clique sought to "breathe new life" into their organization by recruiting a new member who had recently killed a 15-year-old boy, Lawrence said.
Defense lawyers questioned the motivations of the prosecution's cooperating witnesses and said that, despite recordings of the group's meetings, no evidence existed that their clients conspired to commit murders or robberies.
"There is no credibly believable evidence that Mr. Sandoval personally committed any of these crimes," Martin Murphy, one of his lawyers, said.