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Press Release

Gaithersburg MS-13 Associate Sentenced to 20 Years in Federal Prison for Kidnapping Conspiracy, In Connection with the Murder of an Individual he Believed to be a Rival Gang Member

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Maryland
Admitted Participating in the Murder of the Victim

Greenbelt, Maryland – U.S. District Judge Paula Xinis sentenced Jose Israel Melendez-Rivera, a/k/a “Liar,” age 21, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, today to 20 years in federal prison, followed by five years of supervised release, for conspiracy to kidnap. 

The sentence was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Robert K. Hur; Acting Special Agent in Charge Cardell T. Morant of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI) Baltimore Office; Acting Chief Marcus Jones of the Montgomery County Police Department; and Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy.

MS-13 is a gang composed primarily of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador, with members operating in the State of Maryland, including Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Frederick County, and throughout the United States.  In Maryland and elsewhere MS-13 members are organized in “cliques,” smaller groups that operate in a specific city of region.  Cliques of MS-13 often work together cooperatively with the purpose of increasing the gang’s levels of organization, violence, extortion, and other criminal activity, and to assist one another in avoiding detection by law enforcement.  MS-13 members are required to commit acts of violence, both to maintain membership and discipline within the gang and against rival gangs.  MS-13’s creed is based on one of its mottos, “Mata, roba, viola, controla,” which translates to, “kill, steal, rape, control.”  One of the principal rules of MS-13 is that its members must attack and kill rivals, known as “chavalas,” whenever possible.

Prospective members who sought to join MS-13 were required to complete an initiation process.  Individuals who associated with and were friends of the gang were called “paisas.”  Individuals who did favors and other acts for the gang were called “paros.”  Persons being observed by the gang for potential membership were called “observations,” and individuals who had advanced to the final level before being “jumped in” were called “chequeos,” or “cheqs.”  To become a full member of MS-13 or a “homeboy,” prospective members were required to complete an initiation process, often referred to as being “jumped in,” during which other MS-13 members would beat the new member, usually until a gang member finished counting aloud to the number 13

According to Melendez-Rivera’s plea agreement, he illegally entered the United States in 2014 from El Salvador, where he held the rank of observation in MS-13.  Initially, Melendez-Rivera did not participate in gang activities when he arrived in the United States, but in December 2015, he was recruited back into the L.A. clique of the gang by an MS-13 member in El Salvador.  In the spring of 2016, that MS-13 member provided Melendez-Rivera with the cell phone number of co-defendant Neris Moreno-Martinez, who was a paro in the L.A. clique and lived in New Jersey.  After talking for several months, Melendez-Rivera and Moreno-Martinez agreed to work together to accomplish MS-13 goals.  According to the plea agreement, Moreno-Martinez wanted to achieve the rank of chequeo, which required him to participate in a murder, but he was concerned that there were not enough forests in New Jersey where he could dispose of a victim.

As detailed in the plea agreement, in the summer of 2016, Moreno-Martinez told Melendez-Rivera about the victim, Jordy Mejia, whom Moreno-Martinez alleged was a member of the rival 18th Street gang, although there is no evidence to suggest that was true.  Prior to October 1, 2016, Moreno-Martinez created a social media account in the name “Shaila Smith.”  Between October 2 and October 15, 2016, Moreno-Martinez posed as Shaila Smith and through social media expressed to Mejia that Shaila Smith was romantically interested in Mejia.  Melendez-Rivera admitted that he and co-defendant Reynaldo Alexis Granados-Vasquez, who was a paro in MS-13 at that time, were aware of the ruse and that the goal was to trick Mejia into coming to Maryland where the three intended to murder Mejia.

According to the plea agreement, Moreno-Martinez traveled to Maryland to meet Melendez-Rivera on October 15, 2016.  Later that day, at the direction of Moreno-Martinez posing as Shaila Smith, Mejia also traveled to Melendez-Rivera’s address in Gaithersburg, where he was told someone would pick him up.  While Mejia waited to be picked-up, Melendez-Rivera admitted that he drove his co-defendants to a residence near a wooded area where the two were to lay in wait for Mejia, then drove back to his apartment, picked up Mejia, and drove back to the wooded area where his co-defendants were waiting.  Thinking that Melendez-Rivera was Mejia, Moreno-Martinez and Granados-Vasquez accidentally struck Melendez-Rivera with a brick or rock and Mejia then ran toward the road.  As detailed in the plea agreement, Granados-Vasquez caught up to Mejia, kicking him into a small stream, where Melendez-Rivera and Moreno-Martinez held Mejia’s head under the water, drowning him.  Melendez-Rivera admitted that the three defendants then carried Mejia’s body into the woods nearby, dug a shallow grave in which to place Mejia, and then each took turns stabbing Mejia’s dead body with machetes they had brought.

Neris Moreno-Martinez, age 22, of New Jersey, and Reynaldo Alexis Granados-Vasquez, a/k/a “Fuego,” age 23, of Gaithersburg, have also pleaded guilty to the kidnapping conspiracy and are scheduled to be sentenced on June 25, 2019 at 10:00 a.m., and on July 9, 2019, at 2:00 p.m., respectively.

United States Attorney Robert K. Hur commended HSI, the Montgomery County Police Department, and the Montgomery County State’s Attorney Office for their work in the investigation and thanked the Gaithersburg Police Department and the Guttenburg, New Jersey Police Department for their assistance. Mr. Hur thanked Assistant U.S. Attorneys Thomas P. Windom and Timothy F. Hagan, Jr., who are prosecuting this Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force case.

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Marcia Murphy
(410) 209-4854

Updated June 17, 2019

Violent Crime