The Santa Muerta Gang Cult of Death, Left a Trail of Murder Across Chicago

Fear Me” read the sticker with an image of a skeletal, scythe-wielding figure on the back of Roberto Cerda’s 1991 Mercury Grand Marquis.

The image was of La Santa Muerte — Holy Death or Saint Death — a female deity meant to provide protection and deliverance to the afterlife. Cerda, 30, had built a shrine to the dark icon in his West Side bedroom, laying offerings of alcohol, chocolate and cigarettes at the bony feet of seven figurines.

He had good reason to seek protection.

By day, Cerda worked at a chocolate factory but, in his off hours, he plied a darker trade, moonlighting as “The Watchdog” — an enforcer for a violent drug and robbery crew that has collectively been linked to at least 13 murders committed from 2009 to 2011, according to Cook County prosecutors, court records and trial testimony. The crew has been charged in 10 of those.

The Santa Muerte death cult was the crew’s calling card, prosecutors said — members had stickers on their vehicles, tattoos on their bodies, shrines in their homes and even Santa Muerte-stamped bands to hold their cash.

“They were a team and that was their team logo,” said Assistant State’s Attorney Nina Ricci at Cerda’s March trial. The crew sold powder cocaine but also robbed and killed would-be customers, according to prosecutors, court testimony and records.

Last week, Cerda’s days as an enforcer came to an end. Seven years after his arrest, he was sentenced to life in prison for the 2010 killings of two drug dealers and the middleman who helped set up the deal.

He is the first crew member to be convicted.

“This was a vicious, cold-hearted scheme … to execute in this cold-blooded manner three persons whose only sin was getting involved in low-level drug dealing,” Cook County Judge Timothy Joyce told the courtroom during sentencing as an emotionless Cerda looked on.

For a city dealing with an increasingly deadly and fragmented gang culture, Cerda’s brutal method of operation shows how much violence even a small crew can unleash.

The crew is charged with more murders than the notorious Hobos “supergang” that in January was convicted in what federal authorities at the time said was the largest Chicago gang prosecution in recent history, for eight slayings over a decade.

Rising violence among Latino gangs has gained the attention of the FBI. Last year, the bureau’s special agent in charge in Chicago, Michael Anderson, created a gang squad that focuses on Latino gangs to supplement the bureau’s three other gang squads.

No trial date has been set for two other members of the outfit, the uncle of Cerda’s girlfriend, Raul Segura-Rodriguez, 42, and the alleged ringleader’s cousin Augustin “Auggie” Toscano, 36.

Between them, they are charged with a total of seven slayings straight out of “Breaking Bad,” including four men who were bound with duct tape and shot dead in front of two young children in a Southwest Side garage, prosecutors say. Lawyers for Segura-Rodriguez and Toscano did not respond to a request for comment.

The crew’s alleged ringleader, Arturo, is dead. He was killed in a wild shootout, at 37, in 2011 with Chicago police after he, Segura-Rodriguez and Toscano allegedly slit the throats of three men, only one of whom survived.

A fiance’s grief

The toll of the violence was on stark display at Cerda’s trial.

“That’s the person who took my husband’s life,” Angelica Foeller angrily told jurors during the trial as she identified Cerda, who stared straight ahead. Though they were never married, she said that Andres Butron, 34, had proposed to her the day their daughter was born.

“My hatred for Mr. Cerda is strong because of the horrible acts he committed,” Foeller said.

Butron himself led a dual existence, working full time at a suburban candy factory and also setting up drug deals for the crew. It was not for long. He was found suffocated in the trunk of a car where two buyers were fatally shot, point blank.

To Cerda, it was all part of his job as enforcer, prosecutors said.

A former drug dealer testified at trial that Cerda served as the muscle when the crew did business. Renoras McDonald, who testified that he once sold drugs but now owns a South Side jerk chicken restaurant, said he once asked Ibarra, the alleged ringleader, why Cerda remained silent at meetings.

“He’s not there to talk,” Ibarra allegedly responded, making a gesture as if he were shooting a gun.

“It meant he a shooter,” McDonald testified. “He there if something go wrong.”

But Cerda’s attorney, Richard Kling, said that at trial there were no eyewitnesses or any physical evidence that tied his client to the triple homicide. Kling told the Tribune there’s no evidence he had seen that Cerda was involved in any of the other murders — some of which happened after his client was locked up.

Like Cerda, Rodriguez and Ibarra also had day jobs. Theirs worked at a West Side roofing company where they were highly regarded employees, their boss previously told the Tribune. Toscano, who has a Scarface tattoo on his right arm, was on public aid, according to court records.

The beginning

Police trace the beginning of the crew’s violent reign to 2009.

Victorino Chavez, 43, was found dead inside his blue Kia Sportage that August after it crashed into the El Milagro tortilla factory building in Brighton Park, according to a search warrant affidavit filed by police. He had been shot twice, records show.

Chavez, who had a prior drug conviction, was in financial trouble and had recently fallen behind on his mortgage payments his wife told detectives, the affidavit said.

Police investigators zeroed in on Ibarra after learning that a witness saw a white SUV similar to the white GMC Yukon that Ibarra drove emerge from an alley near West 36th Street and Albany Avenue and ram into Chavez’s car after three gunshots rang out. They also learned that before the crash, Chavez had a cellphone conversation just before he died with a person whose phone was using the cell tower closest to Ibarra’s home.

Ibarra was never charged with Chavez’s murder. Police later cited the killing in the search warrant affidavit after Cerda and his fellow crew members were arrested.

About eight months later, in April 2010, police came upon another grisly scene.

Officers found the bound bodies of Stephen Bailey and Tyrece Bailey, two sibling drug dealers, as well as Crawford Davis — who family has said was a driver for the brothers — inside a 2007 Grand Prix parked in the 2300 block of West 36th Street. The three, one of whom had been reported missing, had been beaten to death and robbed. Toscano and Segura-Rodriguez eventually were charged with those killings.

Police then learned that the three had been scheduled to meet Ibarra’s crew for a drug purchase, but officers found no physical evidence tying the crew to the slayings, according to the affidavit.

Less than a month later — on May 18, 2010 — the crew allegedly struck again, this time with another triple homicide and robbery. At this point, Chicago police had put Ibarra under surveillance, according to a prosecution court filing.

A mounting toll

Then in September, the bloodshed continued, prosecutors say. Ibarra and his crew allegedly robbed and fatally shot four men — Noel Cazares, 25; Luis Santillan and Roberto Rivera, both 30; and Alonso Pena-Villareal, 32 — in a West Lawn garage after binding their arms and legs with duct tape in front of Cazares’ two small children, according to prosecutors and the search warrant affidavit filed by police. Segura-Rodriguez would eventually be charged with these murders.

Butron had done time with Ibarra in federal prison, so when the two men bumped into each other in a South Side Target store not long after his daughter was born, he jumped at the chance to more than double the small salary he earned at the candy factory, according to prosecutors and trial testimony.

Soon he was setting up drug deals for Ibarra, even enlisting the help of his fiance who helped by counting cash and who once took their infant daughter to a drug deal at a South Side strip mall, Foeller testified.

But Butron didn’t want Foeller to go to the deal he was doing with Ibarra that night, she testified. Ernesto Alequin, 42, a father of five, and Hector Romero, 28, who had a narcotics past but was working for a gang-mediation organization called CeaseFire Illinois, were set to meet with Ibarra.

Alequin and Romero were found dead on May 18 in the back seat of a car on the Southwest Side, their faces covered with duct tape and hands zip-tied together. Butron was found suffocated in the trunk, possibly after Ibarra’s crew forgot they had shut him inside and he asphyxiated, prosecutors said.

Police began watching Ibarra’s house nearby when Cerda pulled up, went inside the home and walked out with what prosecutors said was a sawed-off shotgun hidden under a jacket.

Cerda was pulled over, and police said they found the shotgun — which was not the murder weapon — and a rifle in his car. Cerda was arrested on a gun charge. He was wearing a black Santa Muerte T-shirt.

Later that day, police found the actual murder weapon when they searched Cerda’s home, along with $4,000 that prosecutors said was his cut on the robbery and triple murder.

Ultimately, Santa Muerte had come back to haunt Cerda. He was convicted in part because security video showed a vehicle similar to his Grand Marquis — including its distinctive Santa Muerte window decal — leaving the isolated, industrial South Side area where the bodies were found in the car.

Cerda was held in the Cook County Jail on the gun charge, but the rest of the crew remained on the street until nearly a year later.

In February 2011, police, who had by then put the crew under “intense surveillance,” according to prosecutors, saw Ibarra, Toscano and Segura-Rodriguez leave an apartment building in the 5800 block of North Winthrop Avenue about the same time police had been called about a shooting there.

Officers tried to stop the gray Ford F-150 the men were driving but the three sped away, crashed into a police car and opened fire, striking a Chicago gang intelligence officer in the leg, authorities said. The officer would recover, but Ibarra was killed by police after he allegedly raised his gun at officers.

Back inside the Winthrop apartment, police found the bodies of Joel Diaz, 33, and Ramiro Mendoza, 37, both of whom had their throats cut that day after being restrained with duct tape. A third man survived and identified the three members of the crew as the killers, according to the search warrant affidavit.

Segura-Rodriguez and Toscano were arrested that day.

In court last Tuesday, Cerda, who has a tattoo on his shoulder depicting a Santa Muerte figure holding a dog by a chain, declined to say anything before he was sentenced.

“Tell him no,” he ordered a Spanish interpreter when the judge asked if he wished to speak.

When it was over, Romero’s family said they were glad justice had been done after seven years.

“Ernesto did not deserve to die that way,” Alequin’s sister Ada Nieve wrote in a victim-impact statement that prosecutors read in court.

She wrote that one of Alequin’s sons had just started at the police academy, training to become a police officer.

Article Org: chicagotribune.com
sschmadeke@chicagotribune.com

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