Three men identified as members of the transnational MS-13 street gang were charged with murder after strangling a man to death in Galveston in June, Galveston police officials confirmed Thursday.
Two of the men, Luis Carbajal, 26, of Houston, who also goes by the name Luis Ernesto Carbajal-Peraza, and Christian Rene Chavez-Chavez, 23, of Galveston, were arrested on Aug. 7 for allegedly strangling and beating a man named Christian Hernandez Funes Escobar, 17, to death in Galveston on June 7. A grand jury voted to indict Carbajal for murder.
The murder charge for Chavez-Chavez is new; the grand jury previously indicted him only for tampering with a human corpse.
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Another man, Jairo Licona-Cardenas, 21, was arrested in Houston on Aug. 29 and also charged with the Galveston slaying, according to Harris County court records.
Licona-Cardenas has also been charged with murder for a killing in Houston on August 4.
In that case, a man got into an argument at the La Union restaurant at 9598 Wilcrest and was fatally shot after leaving the business. Licona-Cardenas and a juvenile, along with the female getaway driver, Elida Lucia Jovel Medrano, have been arrested and charged with murdering the man.
“My understanding with MS-13 is it’s not like a drive-by shooting with random killings; they target their victims and know who they want to kill and why they want to kill them,” said Galveston Police Chief Vernon Hale. “There’s typically a reason behind it and we believe that’s the case here.”
Investigators determined Escobar was murdered by MS-13 members in Galveston hours after he was last seen on June 7, the day before his 18th birthday. Escobar was strangled to death in the area of Seawall Boulevard and Boddecker Drive, and his body was then transported to the 5300 block of West Fuqua in Houston and buried in a wooded area.
On Aug. 1, the Galveston police and Homeland Security investigators, with the help of other agencies, located the “clandestine grave” in Houston where Escobar was buried and exhumed his body. He was identified through medical records.
Galveston Police Detective Derek Gaspard said that investigators are still looking at people of interest in the Escobar killing.
Carbajal, Chavez-Chavez, and Licona-Cardenas are all citizens of El Salvador, where the street gang originated. All three men are undocumented immigrants and were detained on immigration holds.
Gaspard said that while he does not believe there is “any danger right now” as it pertains to MS-13 — he noted that this is the first MS-13-related death in Galveston in at least six years — the gang does have a small presence in the region.
“Well clearly by the arrests that we made of (Galveston) residents that are members of MS-13, there is a presence, I’m not gonna say that there’s not,” Gaspard said. “We believe it’s very incremental.”
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Carbajal and Chavez-Chavez are being held in Galveston County Jail. Licona-Cardenas is being held in Harris County Jail, but is expected to be extradited to Galveston County in the coming days. Carbajal’s bail is set at $500,000, while Chavez-Chavez’s bail is $350,000. Licona-Cardenas’ bail is set at $250,000.
Carbajal pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge in 2017, according to court records. Chavez-Chavez has no previous criminal charges in Galveston County. Licona-Cardenas plead guilty to a misdemeanor trespassing charge in 2016.
Both Carbajal and Chavez-Chavez have been appointed Galveston-based attorneys. Carbajal is being represented by Margaret Hindman, while Chavez-Chavez is being represented by Mark Diaz. Carbajal’s next court appearance is set for Sept. 10.
Licona-Cardenas was appointed a Houston-based attorney, Elihu Dodier. His arraignment date is scheduled for Oct. 17.
Brian Rogers contributed reporting.