A federal prosecutor charged Monday that two leaders of the MS-13 street gang "left a path of death and destruction from one end of Long Island to the other for no better reason than to earn respect for their gang."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Raymond Tierney spoke at the opening in federal court in Central Islip of the trial of Heriberto Martinez, 25, of Far Rockaway, and Carlos Ortega, 23, of Brentwood.

The two are charged with murder and other counts in connection with five killings in six weeks in 2010 -- of a mother and her 2-year-old son in Central Islip; a suspected rival gang member in Brentwood; a security guard at a Hempstead bar who tried to stop gang members from leaving before they paid their bill; and an MS-13 member who was slashed and stabbed to death with a machete and knives in Far Rockaway because he didn't have the "heart" to kill members of rival gangs.

But one of Martinez's defense attorneys, Arnold Levine, of Manhattan, strongly disagreed with Tierney, saying the government's case is based on "unreliable testimony . . . unreliable evidence.

Levine said many of the government's witnesses were involved in gang crimes and are looking for a deal that would give them a lesser sentence.

"They go to bat for the government; and the government will go to bat for them," Levine said.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Levine scoffed at Martinez's alleged confessions to many of the crimes, because he said they had been elicited after his client had worked all day without sleep and then questioned for 20 hours in series of interrogations by detectives from New York City, Nassau and Suffolk counties, and the FBI.

One of Ortega's attorneys, Ira London, followed a similar line of defense in his opening statements, questioning the honesty of the former gang members who will testify for the government.

"Be suspicious of somebody who is . . . [trying] to get out of jail," London told the anonymous jurors, whose identities have not been disclosed because of the potential threat due to the nature of the trial.

Spectators in the courtroom include relatives of some victims and relatives of Martinez.

Claribel Fiallo, mother of David Sandler, 20, of Brentwood, who was killed in February 2010 because, authorities contend, he was mistaken for a member of the rival Latin Kings gang, would only briefly say, "I'm here for justice."

Oscar Arguetta -- whose sister Vanessa Argueta and her son -- his nephew -- Diego Torres, 2, were among the five victims -- said, "Hopefully, justice will be done and they will get what they deserve."

Martinez's sister-in-law, Luisa Martinez, also was in the courtroom with her husband, Pablo, who is Martinez's brother, along with their 2-year-old son, Jowell.

She said they did not believe Martinez is guilty.

"He was hanging around with the wrong crowd," she said.

The trial is expected to last six weeks before U.S. District Judge Joseph Bianco.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

If convicted, Martinez and Ortega could face life in prison.