Tom Diaz

Archive for November, 2008|Monthly archive page


In Gangs, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on November 23, 2008 at 1:43 pm

Four undercover agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) have fooled the Mongols MC.


This is not exactly a virgin group.

ATF agent William (“Billy”) Queen told the story of how he infiltrated the Mongols — a largely Latino motorcycle gang spawned in California — the first time in his book Under and Alone.  Queen’s courageous work resulted in the conviction of about 50 Mongols members.  The Mongols swore it would never happen to them again.


Bruce Ely/The Oregonian


After Queen’s penetration of the gang,  the “motorcycle club” increased its already stringent deep background checks on new members.  Pictures of known undercover agents were circulated among the membership.  One agent was able to convince the gangsters that they should not believe their own eyes — that the picture of him “palling around” with fellow ATF agents was not really him.  Three of the four agents were required to take polygraph (“lie detector”) tests and all passed.

Oops, they did it again!

A humongous (q.v.) 86-count, 177-page indictment was unsealed in October after more than 1,000 federal agents and police officers scooped up 61 Mongols gang members in California and five other states.  The federal RICO indictment was based on a three-year investigation.

You have to admire the courage of these ATF agents.

First they risked their lives going deep inside the Mongols.  These recreational motorcyclists are not such nice people.  The charges in the indictment include murder, attempted murder, racially motivated attacks on black people, torture, and gun and drug offenses.

Of course, in a court of law these bikers are precisely entitled to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.  (However that legal presumption does not mean and never has meant that people in a free society cannot make up their own minds about legal contests.  You really are allowed to be your own judge.)

As the case moves to trial, you can bet that the agents will be attacked, maligned, and traduced by the Mongols’ defense lawyers.  As Chris Rock’s mosquito character, Mooseblood, says in The Bee Movie, “Ma’am, I was already a bloodsucking parasite. All I needed was a briefcase.” (For more lawyer jokes, go here.  Or just watch the U.S. Senate “debates” on C-SPAN.)

Right now, for example, an annoyance of briefcase-bearing mosquitoes in Las Vegas is buzzing around the federal courthouse in the wake of another ATF undercover investigation code-named Operation Sin City Ink.  The bloodsuckers are dive-bombing erstwhile undercover agent Peter McCarthy with accusations that he toked up weed and used “racial slurs” during the investigation.  Accusations like these are standard blunt instruments from the defense bar’s tool box.  Oh my goodness, the lawyers contend, these agents even act like the criminals they are pretending to be. Heavens to Betsy — how could anyone believe them against the word of our recreational biker clients? (If the law is against you, pound the facts.  If the facts are against you, pound the law.  If the facts and the law are against you, pound the agents.)

Even if these scurrilous charges were true, none of them bear on the factual guilt (or innocence) of these clients.  But here is one fascinating refutation of the charge:

Charlie Fuller, executive director of the Georgia-based International Association of Undercover Officers, has provided a letter for the court record stating that he supplied the ATF with a quarter-ounce of the phony marijuana, “Wizard Weed,” which he says he had purchased from an established online smoke shop.

The substance smells like marijuana when it is smoked, but does not have its main chemical ingredient, THC, Fuller says in the letter.

“This product is used by many undercover officers from all over the United States as a legitimate and very effective undercover prop,” he explains.

Not Undercover Agents

Not Undercover Agents -- Not Mushroom Farmers

Finally, if recent history is a guide, ATF management will panic at the first sign of trouble.  Perhaps uniquely among federal law enforcement agencies, ATF has a history of getting into ugly contests with its deep undercover agents.

One of the most notorious examples is that of agent Jay Dobyns.  Highly decorated, shot twice in the line of duty, widely praised by his peers in the front line for his physical courage and steady nerves, Dobyns has somehow become a scapegoat for the “mushroom farmers” at ATF heaquarters.  You can read some of the long-running sordid story here and here.  (I have gathered a pile of public documents on this case and plan to return to the subject in depth next year, here and elsewhere.)

The root of Dobyns’ problems may go back to the publication of a book about the Hells Angels, another recreational group of fun-loving motorcyclists known for their civic spirit.  Boy Scouts on wheels.  Angels of Death: Inside the Biker Gangs’ Crime Empire describes in some detail Dobyns’ infiltration of the Hell Angels, even becoming a full patch member, as part of ATF’s Operation Black Biscuit.  I was told that the book’s description of undercover “sources and methods” gave ATF management a serious case of heartburn.  It did not help that the federal prosecution basically fell apart when the case went to trial, with ATF management and federal prosecutors turning on each other as the mosquitoes dive-bombed their case.

It all brings to mind a tee shirt I once saw.  Printed on the back was the following rueful observation on the dynamics of bureaucratic organizations:

Seven Stages of a Project

Phase 1: Uncritical acceptance.

Phase 2: Wild enthusiasm.

Phase 3: Dejected disillusionment.

Phase 4: Total confusion.

Phase 5: Search for the guilty.

Phase 6: Punishment of the innocent.

Phase 7: Promotion of non-participants.

Of course, there is nothing funny about any of this.

Motorcycle gangs, like street gangs, are primary conduits of the illict drugs being pumped into the United States by the Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The consequences of this smuggling can strike anywhere in America.  The drug traffickers are building and strengthening their links through their alliances with the street gangs, giving the DTOs a strong and ruthless chain of retail outlets.Undercover work is not a game.  It is an essential part of our national defense against this wave of plunder, violence, and corruption.

The reach of the drug empire is illustrated by a recent case in Fairfax County, a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC.  Ten teenagers and young adults — all between the ages of 19 and 22 — have been indicted for their roles in a heroin distribution ring targeted at teenagers.

They are allegedly responsible for several cases of overdose — including the deaths of three youngsters.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

Gangster “Machismo” Threatens Everyone

In Crime, Gangs, Transnational crime on November 14, 2008 at 7:36 pm

If you think violent Latino gangs are a threat only to exotic, ethnic, sepia-toned neighborhoods you are dead flat wrong.  Emphasize the “dead” part of that sentence.  Gang violence can explode anywhere. And you, gentle reader, can be the victim of a fatal encounter with evil.

FBI SWAT team arresting MS-13 gangsters (FBI Photo)

FBI SWAT team arresting MS-13 gangsters (FBI Photo)

The grieving family of 14-year old Tai Lam can attest to that.  Lam was shot dead November 1st while riding on a public bus in Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, DC.  Two of Lam’s companions were seriously wounded.  Their offense appears to have been being at the wrong place at the wrong time — perhaps compounded by having had the temerity to exchange a few innocent words with a couple of gang punksters.

The victims’ friends insist that the shooting was unprovoked.  There was no hostile exchange, no warning.  Just a sudden explosion of bullets from a handgun into the bus as the shooter stepped off.

Police have arrested three alleged members of the Latino gang MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) in connection with the murder.  The “alleged” perpetrators are — but of course, leave us not rush to judgment — “innocent until proven guilty” under law.  But the incident is a depressing echo of story after story of Latino gang violence that I document in my forthcoming book — No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press, Spring 2009).

The two most violent transnational youth gangs — MS-13 and the 18th Street gang — are present today in almost every state in the union.  Their virulent spread within the United States is a casebook study of “blowback,” the unintended bad consequence of what seems at the time like a good idea.

Both gangs were born on the boiling streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s.  Several thousand of their members were deported to Central America throughout the 1990s.  Most of these deported gangsters came to the United States as children, refugees from the violent wars that wracked the region during the 1980s.  Many of them knew nothing of the culture of their “home” countries and often had no ties there.  Some of them did not even speak Spanish.  There was only one thing that they knew how to do well — gang bang.  They promptly took over entire neighborhoods in these hapless countries, where law enforcement and civil institutions had been corrupted and gravely weakened by long wars.

When El Salvador and Honduras “cracked down” with programs like Mano Dura (“strong hand” or “iron fist”) and Super Mano Dura, the gangsters just took over the prisons.  Hooked into major drug trafficking organizations, they have now returned to the United States with a vengeance, controlling routes through which drugs and human beings are trafficked north and money and guns south.  Street gangs — black, Latino, and motorcycle gangs — are the primary retail outlets for illicit drugs in the United States today.  These are not your grandfather’s gangs, ethnic affiliations built around neighborhoods.  These are violent criminal machines.

Ordinary “normal” people look for a motive in violence like that which took the life of Tai Lam.  The poor kid must have done something, one thinks, to set these guys off.  But the gang world is upside down.  Normal is abnormal.  Abnormal is normal. Good is evil and evil is good to these ruthless gangsters.

The story of Tai Lam’s shooting reminded me of a similar murder in July 2000.  A 22-year old Latino, Mario Rubio-Martinez, was confronted in the parking lot of Culmore Shopping Center in Fairfax County, another suburb of Washington.  He was stabbed to death by Jose Rodriguez, a 14-year old MS-13 gangster. Rodriguez did not know Rubio-Martinez.  Nor did he exchange fighting words with his victim.  He was just out to kill someone in order to make himself look like a big man among his gangster peers.  The victim that night could have been anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path:

“It wasn’t robbery.  It wasn’t a grudge.  It wasn’t some sort of confrontation, said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney John R. Murphy, who said the killing has made Rodriguez a celebrity.  “There was only one motive, and that was gaining the defendant status in the world that he made himself a part of.”

(Maria Glod, “Fairfax Gang Member Gets 23 Years in Death; Teenager Stabbed Stranger to Impress Others, Officials Say,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2001.  I would like to provide a link, but The Washington Post links pop up one of those idiotic forms that force one to sign up before reading their stories.  Grrrrrrr.)

Rodrodriguez –who was born in Houston — was “jumped in” to MS-13 with a beating that lasted 13 seconds.  The beating in his case included blows from a crow bar. The wounds in his scalp required 14 staples.  His sister was “sexed” in to MS-13 when she was 10 years old.  That is, she was required to have sexual intercourse with 13 gang members.  The gangsters involved in violent depravity like this do not need “normal” motivation to go off on a shooting rampage.  They are deeply, pathologically committed to violence as a way of life.

To what extent is immigration a factor in the spread of gangs?  Retired Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department Gang Sergeant Richard Valdemar argues that illegal immigration is the very root and branch of the gang problem. I disagree with his ultimate conclusions about immigration.  But I certainly respect his experience and his opinions (unlike the knuckle-dragging emissions of crypto-racist anti-immigrant yahoos like that pasty pharaoh of phoniness, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, and the perpetually poisonous pundit Patrick Buchanan).  Go here to learn about some of Sgt. Valdemar’s opinions, and here to read some contrary (and to me sounder) views on immigration and crime.

One thing is beyond debate.  Latino street gangs like MS-13 and the 18th Street gang are potentially a much greater threat than the Italian mafia (or La Cosa Nostra) ever was.  Unfortunately, we as a nation are only dribbling out meager resources to deal with the problem at all levels — federal, state, and local.  Gang-fighting, intervention, prevention, and enforcement keeps getting bumped down the scale to make room for “national security,” mortgage fraud, and “offender reentry” schemes.  Our national strategy has been to dump the gang problem into the laps of law enforcement.  We keep our fingers crossed and hope that the cops can keep it out of sight.

They can’t do it alone.

The tragic death of Tai Lam is a sad example of why our feeble approach is a mistake.  If we don’t take it to the gangs, they will take it to us.


In Crime, Geezer Rants on November 10, 2008 at 9:44 pm

Illegal Alien Awarded Bronze Star, Third Army, August 30, 1945

On August 30, 1945, my late father of blessed memory was awarded the Bronze Star.  The medal was pinned on his left breast at a ceremony in Luxembourg.  It was for his dedicated service in Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army.  Not bad for a man who had entered the United States brazenly but illegally 21 years earlier.  CWO Gregorio A. Diaz retired in 1954 after 30 years of regular military service.  He went to his grave some three decades later without bothering to tell anyone else — including his wife and family — that his entry into the United States at El Paso in February 1924 was a fraud based on a single but oh-so-important lie.

Okay.  There were technically two lies, one not so, so important.  Sometimes, a man has gotta do what a man has gotta do.

My father’s service to his new country was in several ways very ordinary for Latino immigrants.

First he was not a raging criminal or a degenerate pervert.  He was a man of strong moral principles and considerable personal courage.

The relationship between crime and immigration is precisely the opposite of the line that  “race” experts and their twisted ilk peddle.

According to these grim Nativists, immigrants of the brown-skinned variety are a slavering horde of criminals pouring in to sell dope to our kids and rape our chaste womenfolk.  In fact, immigrants of every national origin actually have a much lower crime rate than their second-generation children (measured by their rate of imprisonment for criminal conduct). And foreign-born men are imprisoned at half the rate of non-Hispanic native-born white men. Here’s more news: Among Latinos, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Mexicans — “precisely the groups most stigmatized as ‘illegals’ in the public perception and outcry about immigration” — have the lowest incarceration rates!

Second, my father served his country in uniform, in peace and in war.  He did not go on a crime rampage the minute he was safely into El Paso.  He went to Ft. Bliss and joined the U.S. Cavalry.

Something I like to think about on Veteran’s Day.

Oh, yeah, my dad’s lies?  Well, he claimed he was born in Mexico, but he actually was born in Spain.  As hard as it is to believe today, in February 1924 Mexican nationals could legally cross the border and declare for immigration with a few token formalities, like a head tax and no apparent health issues.  But Spaniards?  Spaniards were subject to a relatively new quota system designed to preserve America’s racial purity.  My dad was from a poor fishing village in the Canary Islands, Garachico on Tenerife.  There was no way he was going to get one of the 130 or so visas allowed for Spaniards that year. So he just claimed he was from Mexico.  The inspectors waved him in.  (You know, we all do kinda look alike.)

My dad also added a year to his age at the border, claiming he was 18, rather than 17.

The man had true grit.


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