Lesandro ‘Junior’ Guzman Feliz: Five gang members convicted of hacking innocent teenager to death with machete

Jan Ransom

Five men have been convicted of first-degree murder over the killing of a 15-year-old boy who was hacked to death with a machete in a case of mistaken identity.

Lesandro ‘Junior’ Guzman-Feliz was dragged out of a convenience store in the Bronx borough of New York and slashed with the weapon on 20 June last year.

His death triggered the #JusticeJunior campaign which led local politicians to introduce legislation that requires small businesses to protect children in their community.

A jury found defendants Jonaiki Martinez Estrella, 24; Manuel Rivera, 18; Elvin Garcia, 23; Jose Muniz, 22, and Antonio Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago, 24, guilty of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, gang assault and conspiracy for the killing of Lesandro.

Prosecutors said the convicted men are members of the Trinitarios gang and had mistaken Lessandro, a member of a New York Police Department youth outreach program, for a rival gang member.

After the verdict, Mr Muniz showed no remorse and shouted, “Popote, hasta la muerte!” slang for Trinitarios “until death”.

The murder of Lesandro rattled the city, prompting outrage on social media and calls for justice from elected officials and celebrities, including rapper Cardi B and New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia. New Yorkers flooded investigators with tips. Hundreds attended his funeral last summer.

“Junior came to symbolise all of the young people who have lost their lives to brutal gang violence,” the Bronx district attorney, Darcel D Clark, said. “Today’s verdict fortifies the Bronx community’s stand against violence.”

Lesandro’s mother, Leandra Feliz said, “I’m not going to have my son back, but those killers, those murderers, they’re not going to be outside killing another kid.”

The murder of Lesandro, who went by the nickname Junior, was well documented on videotape from security cameras and the mobile phones of witnesses, providing prosecutors with hard proof to support their case.

But some of the most powerful evidence came from two gang members involved in the attack who testified for the prosecution in return for lenient sentences: Kevin Alvarez, 20, and Michael Reyes, 20.

Alvarez and Reyes described how their subsets of the Trinitarios terrorised rivals, including a Trinitarios splinter group called Sunset.

They said their subsets, called Los Sures and Bad Boys, abided by a strict code of conduct. Members of Los Sures took orders from a leader named Diego Suero, whom the members called “Santa Claus”.

It was Mr Suero who had sent them out on 20 June armed with machetes and knives, to search for members of Sunset to attack, the two cooperating witnesses said. Mr Suero’s trial is expected to start soon.

That order came during a bloody feud within the Trinitarios that had pitted Sunset, which is based in Brooklyn, against Mr Suero’s two Bronx sets, the witnesses said. At least 10 people had been injured in June in a series of street battles.

Reyes said the conflict started when two Sunset members joined the Bad Boys, angering a Sunset member who had gone to prison for a crime the two members had committed.

Members of the Bronx sets also wanted revenge because a Sunset member had shot one of the Bad Boys in the face, Alvarez said. The night before Lesandro was killed, a large fight had erupted between the gangs, he said.

Mr Suero had warned his members to carry a weapon at all times and said if they saw a rival member to “do whatever possible to hurt the Sunset member,” Alvarez said.

Lesandro had bruising, scratches and small puncture wounds on his body, according to autopsy photos. But it was Martinez Estrella who delivered the fatal blow when he shoved a large knife into the side of Lesandro’s neck, penetrating 4.5 inches and cutting his jugular vein, a medical examiner testified.

Martinez Estrella, a probationary member, boasted to the others that Lesandro would not “eat for a very long time because I hit him in the neck,” Reyes testified.

Defence lawyers for the four other defendants said in their closing arguments that the order from Mr Suero had only been to injure a Sunset member, not to kill someone. They attempted to cast blame on Martinez Estrella for Lesandro’s death.

They also argued their clients were pretending to stab Lesandro because gang leaders were watching the assault. If they did not participate, the lawyers said, they would have been disciplined.

But Morgan Dolan, the lead prosecutor, said that “weapons like knives and machetes kill” and the gang members “went in knowing that”.

After the attack, the gang returned to Mr Suero’s home, Alvarez and Reyes said. There, leaders passed around pictures of various Sunset members and asked the returning “soldiers” to identify the person they stabbed.

Alvarez testified that Lesandro was not in the photos.

“I didn’t see the person who had just finished getting stabbed there,” Alvarez said, choking back tears. “I didn’t see the kid.”

New York Times