There’s no shortage of gang leaders with a bloody legacy and, yet, Efrain “Cheko” Hidalgo stood out.
Over the course of 12 years, Hidalgo took part in four murders and five attempted murders.
Prosecutors say he was the unquestioned leader of the Seventh Street Gang, one of the city’s largest and most violent criminal organizations. They also believe he fueled a gang rivalry that turned the lower West Side into a bloody battleground.
Hidalgo, 30, was sentenced Wednesday to 27 years in prison.
“I’ve waited 12 years for this day,” said the former fiance of one of Hidalgo’s victims.
Viewed by law enforcement as the unofficial leader of the Seventh Street Gang, also known as Cheko’s Crew, Hidalgo was at the center of a turf war with the rival 10th Street Gang that led to murders and shootings, some of them involving innocent bystanders.
Arrested in 2011 after fleeing to Puerto Rico, he later admitted to taking part in the murders of Nelson and Miguel Camacho inside their Niagara Street apartment in 2004. The FBI says the murders were the result of a failed robbery.
Brandon Jonas, one of the two men with Hidalgo that day, has admitted killing the Camacho brothers with an AK-47 rifle.
At one point Wednesday, Hidalgo turned to the courtroom gallery, looked at Nelson Camacho’s former fiance and apologized for his role in the double murders.
“I wish I was never there,” he told her. “I wish I could go back and change things, but I can’t.”
Later, when asked about the apology, Camacho’s fiance, who spoke on the condition her name not be used, said she doubted his sincerity. She also noted his family’s presence in the courtroom and their request for a second chance at a life outside of prison.
“His family wants him to have a second chance,” she said, “but Nelson and me will never have a second chance.”
At the time Hidalgo and Jonas were charged with the murders, another man was already serving time in prison for the killings. Josue Ortiz’s murder conviction, based on a false confession, was ultimately vacated, and he was released from state prison.
Hidalgo, as part of his plea deal last year, also admitted taking part in the shooting deaths of rival gang member Eric Morrow in 2009 and Virgil Page in 2010. The two men were killed by other Seventh Street Gang members but Hidalgo was part of the group that planned and carried out the killings.
“All too often, we know gang violence and gun violence go hand in hand,” said Adam S. Cohen, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo.
Hidalgo’s sentence is the result of an investigation by the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force, a coalition of law enforcement agencies that includes the Buffalo Police and State Police.
The task force began its work shortly after the murder of a Seventh Street member kicked off its feud with the neighboring 10th Street Gang and the violence began to escalate.
“There was a reign of terror,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.
Six years later, both gangs have been eliminated and more than 50 gang members are in prison.
“What a difference since they’ve been taken out,” said Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda. “You have totally different neighborhoods because of what law enforcement did there.”
In asking U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara for leniency, defense attorney Clarence Johnson pointed to Hidalgo’s role in Ortiz’s exoneration and release from prison. He also cited his client’s rough upbringing and his eventual role as the family protector.
He said Hidalgo’s participation in the shootings stemmed from a gang rivalry that his client viewed as one more threat against his family and close friends.
“He thought it was his job to protect his family,” Johnson told Arcara.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi said there is “no denying” Hidalgo’s tough childhood but that, at some point, he went from someone people felt sorry for to someone they feared.
“He learned power only came through respect and respect only came through violence,” said Tripi.
Hidalgo’s sentence is the result of his guilty pleas to two felony charges – racketeering conspiracy and discharge of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence.