Why the Trinitarios Gang Killed an Innocent Teenager by Mistake

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One of the last things Lesandro Guzman-Feliz heard before a gang of Trinitarios chased him down and hacked him to death last summer was a cryptic number, phrased as a question: 1090?

The number was a test, designed by a Trinitarios leader, to determine if someone was a member of a rival group, according to testimony on Monday from a gang member who has pleaded guilty to taking part in the killing.

Only allies would know how to answer. Lesandro, who was 15, did not understand and fled, so the gang went after him, the witness, Kevin Alvarez, said.

The group of Trinitarios was out hunting for enemies last summer when they encountered Lesandro and mistook him for a member of a rival set within the same gang.

They chased the boy for blocks, on foot and in cars, in the Belmont section of the Bronx, prosecutors said. He tried to hide inside a bodega near his home, but they found him. They dragged him from the store, and attacked him with machetes and knives. His murder was captured by security cameras and cellphone videos.

“He was alone, unarmed, defenseless, outmanned and out-armed by this group of men,” Morgan Dolan, the lead prosecutor said in her opening remarks. “He begged for his life.”

The murder of Lesandro, also known as Junior, reverberated in New York City as few crimes have in recent years, prompting national outrage and empathy from city officials and celebrities.

At a time when crime in the city has reached record-low levels, the case also spotlighted the viciousness and vitality of the Trinitarios, a highly organized Dominican gang that federal authorities had tried to dismantle nearly a decade ago after a federal takedown.

But on Monday, Mr. Alvarez, who was one of the 14 men involved in the attack on Lesandro and was videotaped dragging Lesandro from the bodega, provided the first detailed look at why the gang believed the boy was a member of a rival group.

It was a faulty assumption, Mr. Alvarez said, based on Lesandro’s willingness to walk in an area known to be enemy territory and his response to the test question.

The leader of the Bronx Trinitarios, Diego Suero, had developed “a code” to weed out members of a Brooklyn-based set of Trinitarios called Sunset, Mr. Alvarez said.

Members of two sets of the Bronx Trinitarios — the Bad Boys and Los Sures — had spent June 20 hunting for Sunset members. They wanted revenge because a member of Sunset had shot a member of the Bad Boys in the face, Mr. Alvarez testified.

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

Mr. Suero had given the soldiers orders to go to East 183rd street and Adams Place, where their rivals were known to hang out, Mr. Alvarez said. The gang had received information that a member of Sunset had been spotted in the area.

That night, Lesandro had told his mother he was headed out to lend a friend $5. He left their home on Bathgate Avenue, visited a friend’s apartment, then walked toward Adams Place, where he sometimes met with neighborhood friends.

The men, traveling in four cars, saw Lesandro walking while on his phone, Mr. Alvarez said. They shouted out a Trinitarios call: “Po-po!” When Lesandro looked up, several of the gang members got out of the cars and went up to the boy.

Next, came the test question: “1090?” Mr. Alvarez said the code was used to identify Sunset members, who were unaware they were being hunted. He said someone from one of the other sets of the Trinitarios would know to say which gang they belonged to.

Lesandro’s response did not satisfy the men. “The only thing I heard him say is that he wasn’t Sunset,” Mr. Alvarez said. The men continued to press him with questions, and then one made a gesture as if he were going to hit Lesandro, who turned and ran.

Mr. Alvarez, who is 20, choked back tears as he spoke, stopping repeatedly to wipe tears from his cheek.

For the past three weeks jurors have heard testimony against five of the men on trial for killing Lesandro: Jonaiki Martinez Estrella, Antonio Rodriguez Hernandez Santiago, Jose Muniz, Manuel Rivera and Elvin Garcia, who all face charges of first-degree murder, second-degree conspiracy, first-degree gang assault and related offenses.

Prosecutors have said Lesandro was caught in a bloody internecine feud within the Trinitarios between two Bronx sets and the Brooklyn-based Sunset faction. The fighting had intensified last summer, and at least 10 other people were maimed in June in tit-for-tat attacks.

Jan Ransom is a reporter covering New York City. Before joining The Times in 2017, she covered law enforcement and crime for The Boston Globe. She is a native New Yorker. @Jan_Ransom

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