Mar. 6—Just as testimony in the racketeering and murder trial of yet another member of the ultra-violent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang was to begin this week in Albuquerque federal court, the FBI led an early morning raid to squelch threats made against a judge and others.
During the first day of testimony in the trial of Jody Rufino Martinez, a self-admitted "soldier" for the SNM, lead FBI case agent Bryan Acee testified Wednesday that four people had been arrested just hours earlier.
Under cross examination, Acee testified that Martinez of Truchas had been linked to two threats to kill FBI agents and prosecutors, including threats that have surfaced since Martinez has been incarcerated at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, west of Albuquerque.
Martinez, 41, is facing a potential life sentence if convicted of racketeering conspiracy and other charges, which included the 2008 murder of David Romero, 34, also of Truchas. Romero's body was discovered dumped off a bridge in Chimayó on Dec. 5, 2008, and former SNM members have testified in recent days to implicate Martinez as ordering the murder. Martinez has pleaded not guilty, and the trial is expected to take another several weeks.
The homicide had gone unsolved for 11 years, despite early tips to New Mexico State Police naming Martinez and others as suspects, a former New Mexico State Police investigator testified this week.
Over the six years of the ongoing FBI-led racketeering investigation into the SNM as a criminal enterprise, at least six "cold case" murders tied to the SNM have been solved. At the same time, death threats against FBI investigators, prosecutors, SNM cooperators and others have been commonplace.
Defense attorney Carter Harrison asked about recent threats on Wednesday. Acee replied, "Just this morning at 5 a.m. we were serving search warrants." He added that the most recent threat involves "new players" linked to the SNM.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Castellano interrupted to say there was an "ongoing investigation" into the matter.
When Harrison asked whether the new threats involved "a judge's name," Acee replied, "yes," but the judge wasn't identified.
Harrison responded that despite the threats, no one has been harmed, to which Acee replied, "Not yet. I don't know that they're over. It took them two years to get Smurf."
The FBI is still investigating the murder of a one-time SNM informant, Leroy "Smurf" Lucero, who was gunned down in his driveway in Las Vegas, New Mexico, in July 2019. No one yet has been charged in that murder, which investigators believe was in retaliation for Lucero's testimony in prior criminal trials against SNM members.
FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said he had no details about those arrested Wednesday or their charges.
To date, about 150 SNM members and associates have been arrested with the majority convicted of crimes that range from racketeering to murder to witness intimidation.
While the gang took root in the state prison system more than 40 years ago, Acee testified that 75% of the arrests so far in the FBI racketeering investigation have been SNM associates or members out on the streets, not in jail or prison.
The FBI became involved in March 2015 after New Mexico prison officials learned of letters from incarcerated SNM leaders setting out a conspiracy to kill the then-state Corrections Cabinet secretary and two top corrections officials.
Among the more than 30 SNM associates or members who have cooperated in the investigation, many have testified that they believe they are now targets of the SNM.
Rudy Salazar, a former SNM member turned cooperator, testified Thursday that he was one of several SNM members ordered by Martinez to kill Romero, who had promised he would smuggle drugs into jail for the SNM by turning himself in on a probation violation. Instead, Romero reneged and kept the drugs.
"I have a green light on me now," testified Salazar, referencing the SNM term for a gang-approved violent assault or death. Because of his cooperation with the government, he said, "I'm a dead man walking."
Salazar has pleaded guilty to federal racketeering conspiracy charges in Romero's death and faces possible life in prison. He is currently serving a state prison sentence of 22 years for a 2010 second-degree murder and kidnapping conviction.
To win entry into the gang, Salazar said, a SNM prospect must commit a violent act like murder or great bodily harm and "earn his bones."
So, Salazar testified, on Martinez's orders, he helped strangle Romero the evening of Dec. 4, 2008, inside a trailer in Chimayó, where he, Martinez and other SNM members were getting "high."
With a piece of jumper cable duct-taped to his hands, Salazar said he overpowered Romero, and looped the cable around the victim's neck while others held Romero down on a bed. Martinez then grabbed the victim's head, trying to break his neck, Salazar testified.
Martinez finally checked Romero's pulse and determined "he was gone," Salazar testified.
But to ensure Romero was dead, Martinez ordered that Salazar and SNM member Jerome Cordova slash his throat before they dumped Romero's nude body off a bridge into the Santa Cruz River, Salazar testified.
Salazar said he and Cordova later set Romero's clothes and other incriminating evidence on fire in an arroyo. Afterward, the group met back at the trailer. "I shook everybody's hands," Salazar testified. "That (slaying) was my 'bones' right there."
Years later, Martinez was on the list of potential "soldiers" in the gang who would have been called upon to kill Corrections officials, testified Roy Paul Martinez, a former high-ranking SNM leader, on Thursday. The plot was ultimately foiled by the FBI, and no one was harmed.
Acee testified it was Lucero's murder in 2019 that led the FBI to devote time and resources to investigating SNM's criminal history and network in northern New Mexico.
Based on those inquiries, the FBI developed evidence that led to Jody Rufino Martinez's arrest and indictment.