Alejandro Enrique Ramirez Umana is the first member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), gang to be sentenced to death under the federal system of capital punishment. NPR reports that 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 the U.S. heartland.
Umana, 25, allegedly killed five people in his role as a traveling evangelist for the MS-13 gang. After he was charged with one murder in a state case, federal authorities entered the picture, taking over the state case and finding three other murders Umana allegedly committed. Federal authorities 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. The FBI says 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 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. The Justice Department recently merged two separate teams to devote more resources to the surge in gang activity.