Law enforcement officials: 13 gang arrests tip of iceberg |

Law enforcement officials: 13 gang arrests tip of iceberg

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (AP) – Police Chief Mike Dunbaugh likens the recent arrests of 13 Nuestra Familia gang members, including six Pelican Bay State Prison inmates, to ”cutting the head off a poisonous snake.”

But the Santa Rosa police chief warned Monday the snake already is growing another head, and that the state is unequipped to deal with it.

Twelve men and one woman face federal charges of murder, robbery, conspiracy and drug-related crimes. The 25-count indictment was returned Thursday by a grand jury that had heard testimony during the past year. It was unsealed Friday.

Nuestra Familia gang leaders are accused of ordering and carrying out a campaign of intimidation, assaults and killings to control a crime syndicate and drug distribution empire that authorities say reaches as far south as Bakersfield.

Since its inception in the mid-1960s, officials said, the gang has been responsible for at least 300 killings statewide.

”There’s a war occurring in our communities in California,” Dunbaugh said. ”This war is about power, control and money. It’s about drugs, crime and victimization.”

The indictments cap a three-year, $5 million undercover investigation code-named Operation Black Widow. Dunbaugh said additional arrests were likely, but he refused to elaborate. Santa Rosa gang investigators initially were tipped off by information received during their questioning of a Pelican Bay parolee.

Eventually, the FBI, U.S. Department of Justice and other state and local law enforcement agencies combined forces.

The Nuestra Familia gang – its members are called ”nortenos” – originated within prison walls in 1965 as a means to protect Hispanic inmates from rural Northern California. The rival Mexican Mafia – its members are called ”surenos” – is made up of Hispanic prison members from Southern California. They are the two most powerful prison gangs in the state prison system, officials say.

”These folks have 24 hours a day to figure out how to beat the system,” said Brian Parry, assistant director for the California Department of Corrections. ”There are mature, veteran gang members directing street gangs throughout California to conduct their crimes.”

The crimes listed in last week’s indictment were planned and carried out primarily by prisoners in the toughest section of Pelican Bay. Inmates sneak out handwritten coded letters, or ”micro-writings,” often transcribed and forwarded by their spouses and girlfriends and sometimes disguised as legal mail.

Parry said it’s impossible to monitor every single letter, phone call and visit of every single inmate.

”They have rights and we can’t stop communications,” he said. ”They’re very creative.”

Parry said Monday that changes in Corrections Department policy would be made, but he refused to provide details.

Five gang members, four of whom were already in prison, face murder charges for orchestrating the deaths of five men between March 1997 and April 1999, according to the indictment.

Two of them, Rico ”Smiley” Garcia, a gang member from Windsor and his alleged accomplice, Ceasar ”Lobo” Ramirez, were charged with a 1998 assassination of gang leader Michael ”Mikeo” Castillo. Garcia and Ramirez are in federal custody awaiting trial.

Henry Cervantes, Vidal Fabela, David Rocha and Diana Vasquez were arrested at several locations across Northern California on Friday, Dunbaugh said. Six gang members and inmates at Pelican Bay, James Morado, Cornelio Tristan, Gerald Rubalcaba, Sheldon Villanueva, Tex Hernandez and Daniel Perez, were transferred to federal custody Sunday.

All six lived in the Secure Housing Unit, a prison within a prison at Pelican Bay, and all were eligible for parole.

One gang member, Jacob Enriquez, was arrested in Visalia two weeks ago.

Dunbaugh said he has no idea what effect the Nuestra Familia arrests will have on the gang. He did, however, express concern the arrests may cause rival gang members to intensify their activities.

”This is just one investigation. It will not eliminate the hate and prejudice within prisons,” he said, adding that abolishing gang violence will not happen piecemeal. ”It has to be done with law enforcement coming together throughout California.”

AP-WS-04-23-01 1843EDT

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