Tom Diaz

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In Corruption, Crime, Gangs, Informants and other sophisticated means, Latino gangs on April 22, 2009 at 8:17 am

I woke up this mornin’,
There were tears in my bed.
They killed a man I really loved
Shot him through the head.
Lord, Lord,
They cut George Jackson down.
Lord, Lord,
They laid him in the ground.

“George Jackson,” Lyrics by Bob Dylan, sung here.

[Metropolitan Transition Center Guard Musheerah] Habeebullah is quoted as saying it used to be that just one officer on a shift might smuggle contraband.

“Now you got, like, seven, eight people,” she said. “Soon it’s the whole [expletive] shift.”

Henri E. Cauvin, “Inmates, Md. Prison Guards Face Drug Smuggling Case,” Washington Post, April 17, 2009

George Jackson Founded the Black Guerrilla Family in a California Prison.  His Book -- "Soledad Brother" -- Was a Cultural Icon for Some During the Racial Turmoil of the 1970s

George Jackson Founded the Black Guerrilla Family in a California Prison. He and His Book -- "Soledad Brother" -- Were Cultural and Political Icons for Some During the Racial Turmoil of the 1970s

A task force of federal, state, and local law enforcement agents fanned out at the crack of dawn one day last week in Maryland and arrested a singular mix of miscreants: Black Guerrilla (also spelled “Guerilla” in some sources) Family prison gang members — and some of the correctional officers charged with guarding them.  The case — led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein — is a current example of the problem of corruption in prison, often (but not always) driven by the corrosive trade in illicit drugs.  (See Part One here for an introductory overview.)  The Washington Post described the scheme:

Prosecutors said the gang known as Black Guerilla [sic] Family recruited prison employees and used hidden compartments in shoes to smuggle heroin, ecstasy, tobacco, cellphones and other contraband into prisons in Maryland and elsewhere.

The gang members sold the drugs to other inmates, prosecutors said. They allegedly used the cellphones to communicate with associates outside, approving targets for robberies and arranging attacks on cooperating witnesses.

There is no doubt that the enormously profitable drug trade is corrupting some prison staff.  The question is, how widespread is the problem?  According to the reported excerpt from a federal wiretap quoted above, Maryland guard Musheerah Habeebullah apparently thinks it is widespread, at least where she works.  She may be right, or she may have been rationalizing her alleged actions — thinking something like, “Everybody’s doing it, so I’d be crazy not to get my share!”

Gary D. Maynard, the head of the Maryland agency that oversees prisons, said at a press conference that, while the allegations in this case are serious, he does not think they are widespread.  “I strongly believe that the majority of our staff are good,” he said, “but it only takes a few bad seeds to make everyone look bad.”

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General reported last year that it had 238 open cases of alleged misconduct against federal Bureau of Prisons employees.  This is a mere fraction of the agency’s approximately 36,000 employees (of whom about 26,000 are male, and 10,000 are female), supervising about 167,000 inmates in BOP facilities.

But given that many modern prison gangs control a bigger criminal structure outside of the prison walls — as is apparent in this case — even just a few corrupt corrections officers may be “force multipliers.”  Their cooperation is the fulcrum to a lever of violent gang criminality that affects victims in the “free world” as well as in prison.

Power of Prison Gangs

Retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sergeant Richard Valdemar explained to me that he only began to understand fully the dimensions of his rookie assignment at the Los Angeles County Jail when an older inmate (a cop-killer, by the way) took him aside to explain the facts of jail life.  The inmate explained that gangs ran the world inside the wall.  From that incident — described in my forthcoming book No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press June 2009) — Valdemar learned that he had to “see” two different worlds inside the walls:  the official world and the gang world.

In the Maryland case, it appears prison authorities would not disagree.  This is from the Washington Post story:

“The BGF runs the prison system when it comes to controlling contraband,” said Capt. Phil Smith, assistant director of the state prison system’s intelligence unit.

This is also confirmed by a tidy description of the power of prison gangs from the web site Into The Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs,by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.:

In gang-dominated prisons, gangs rule the roost. Which inmates eat at what times and where they sit in the dining hall, who gets the best or worst job assignments in the prison, who has money and nice clothes, who lives and who dies – all of these things, and others, are determined by gangs in the prison. Their very presence requires special attention from prison authorities.

The Black Guerrilla Family

Corrections officials call prison gangs “security threat groups,” and the Black Guerrilla Family is one of the earliest. Here is a description of BGF from the National Gang Intelligence Center’s National Gang Threat Assessment 2009:

Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), originally called Black Family or Black Vanguard, is a prison gang founded in the San Quentin State Prison, California, in 1966. The gang is highly organized along paramilitary lines, with a supreme leader and central committee. BGF has an established national charter, code of ethics, and oath of allegiance. BGF members operate primarily in California and Maryland. The gang has 100 to 300 members, most of whom are African American males. A primary source of income for gang members comes from cocaine and marijuana distribution. BGF members obtain such drugs primarily from Nuestra Familia/Norteños members or from local Mexican traffickers. BGF members are involved in other criminal activities, including auto theft, burglary, drive-by shootings, and homicide.

Here is another, more historical description from an article by Alfonso J. Valdez, “Prison Gangs 101” in Corrections Today, February 2009:

The Black Guerilla [sic, throughout] Family is the most politically oriented of all the California prison gangs, following and espousing Marxist Leninist Maoist revolutionary philosophies. The Black Guerilla Family was established around 1966 by a Black Panther leader, George Lester Jackson, in San Quentin prison. Jackson established this group because he believed the Black Panther Party was not responding to the needs of black prison inmates. First called the Black Family, prospective members were solicited by suggesting their crimes were a result of white oppression.

Jackson soon changed the name to the Black Vanguard after a sizable membership was established. This name remained with the gang until 1971, when Jackson was killed during an escape attempt. Since that time the gang’s membership has grown and the its name changed to the Black Guerilla Family.

The Black Guerilla Family has a very close relationship with a splinter group of quasi-criminal revolutionaries, the Black Liberation Army. Some prison gang experts believe the Black Guerilla Family is just an extension of the Black Liberation Army.

There are two tattoos that are commonly associated with the Black Guerilla Family. One is a prison watchtower surrounded by a dragon with a quarter moon depicted in its body. The second shows the silhouette of a rifle with a sword lying over it to form an X, and includes the initials BGF.

BGF Tattoo of Watch Tower and Dragon

BGF Tattoo of Watch Tower and Dragon

It is worth noting that although most large, national prison and street gangs are essentially criminal enterprises fueled by the illegal drug trade, many of them profess or were rooted in aspects of political ideology and mythic history.  The touchstone of these ideologies is the perception that the members of the gang are victims — even “political prisoners” — of the dominant culture’s racial or ethnic exploitation.  This is true even of the white gangs, in which case the dominant culture is not perceived as “white” but as an impure mixture dominated by “lesser” groups.

The following excerpt from a long and detailed affidavit filed with an application for a search warrant in the case contends that BGF has a national presence and is seeking to expand its power outside of prison, at least in Maryland.  The excerpt also describes some of the gang’s leadership structure:

During a series of debriefings in late 2008 and early 2009, a reliable confidential informant (CS1)who is a member of BGF advised investigators that BGF is a nationwide prison gang with a presence in every correctional institution in the country. CS1 related that he/she has been in various prisons throughout the country and at each institution there has been a faction of BGF. CS1 related that BGF is violent both inside and outside prison, but that historically BGF has not been well-organized outside of prison. CS1 stated that currently, BGF is attempting to change this within Baltimore, Maryland by becoming more organized and effective on the streets.

CS1 explained that within the prisons, BGF has a group of individuals who are in leadership roles/positions of authority and that this leadership group is known as the “Supreme Bush.” All members who are not in the Supreme Bush are considered “members” of the Bush or Mansion. The only place Bush members hold rank is within the correctional system; once a Bush member is back out on the streets, he or she is considered a regular BGF member.

Also worth noting is the insight this case gives on modern “sophisticated means” of investigation.  The 100-plus page affidavit is a classic for study of how the DEA uses Title III wiretaps to let traffickers fashion handcuffs out of their own words.  These operations were alluded to in the press release issued by the Md. U.S. Attorney’s office:

Mr. Rosenstein added, “Inmates are cautious about using monitored prison phones to run their criminal enterprises and intimidate witnesses, but they have not been as concerned about their smuggled cell phones. We want the inmates to know that we also can listen in on their cell phone calls.”

“This is the first time that DEA Baltimore provided real time inside intelligence information to the Maryland Department of Corrections,” stated Ava A. Cooper-Davis, Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Washington Division. “Our joint effort resulted in the seizure of drugs and various contraband by DOC officials.”

Another interesting point about BGF:  Because of their blood rivalry, the two Latino prison gangs in California — the Mexican Mafia (La Eme) and La Nuestra Familia — made allies inside the walls with strange bedfellows.  Thus, the Black Guerrilla Family became an ally of La Nuestra Familia and the white racist gang Aryan Brotherhood lined up with La Eme, confounding usual racial and ethnic distinctions.

The Maryland prison case is by no means the first, last, or only such case of prison corruption driven by the drug trade.  Fairly Civil will examine several more such cases in the next post in this series.


In Corruption, Crime, Gangs on April 19, 2009 at 5:48 pm

An "O.G." (Original Gangster"), "Iron" Felix Dzerzhinksy Was the Intelletcual Architect of the Soviet Secret Service That Became the KGB

An "O.G." ("Original Gangster"): "Iron" Felix Dzerzhinksy Was the Intellectual Architect of the Soviet Secret Service That Eventually Morphed Into the KGB

From their prison cells and with the help of corrections staff, authorities say, members of a violent gang were feasting on salmon and shrimp, sipping Grey Goose vodka and puffing fine cigars – all while directing drug deals, extorting protection money from other inmates and arranging attacks on witnesses and rival gang members.

Justin Fenton , “Indictments reveal prison crime world: Officers, inmates charged in drugs, extortion,” The Baltimore Sun, April 17, 2009

Situatsiya verbovochnaya — Recruitment Situation

The main circumstances which give rise to a recruitment situation include: the target’s psychological state is propitious for exerting influence on him in order to induce him to cooperate secretly; external factors which make it possible to achieve the recruitment covertly; circumstances which compromise the target and put him in a position of dependence vis-a-vis the intelligence or counter-intelligence agencies, thus creating an effective basis for recruiting him; or the availability of data offering a real possibility of a recruitment on an ideological and political basis, or on the basis of a desire to secure material or other personal advantages.

Vasil Mitrokhin, KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook , p. 373

What distinguishes a corrupt prison guard from a gangster when he (or she) is working with — or for — an incarcerated gangster?

Probably only that the gangster is making a lot more money than the guard.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS):

Median annual earnings of correctional officers and jailers were $35,760 in May 2006. The middle 50 percent earned between $28,320 and $46,500. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,600, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $58,580. Median annual earnings in the public sector were $47,750 in the Federal Government, $36,140 in State government, and $34,820 in local government. In the facilities support services industry, where the relatively small number of officers employed by privately operated prisons is classified, median annual earnings were $25,050.

Better than pushing cheeseburgers.  But in a case I write about in my forthcoming book — No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press, June 2009) — a Mexican Mafia boss running a street gang operation from prison had a box containing half-a-million dollars in cash stored in his girl friend’s closet.  He was also receiving thousands of dollars of income monthly from a street gang operation “taxing” local dealers.

Many cases of corruption in prison are just another facet of the enormously corrosive effect of the modern drug traffic.  The most lucrative business in history is a river of acid at flood stage.  It rolls over obstructions in its path, seeks out alternate courses, and above all eats at the foundations of everything it comes in contact with — from families, to prisons, to governments.

This examination of prison corruption is no “dis'” on the many fine public servants working in our prisons.  It’s just a look at stark reality.  As of September 30, 2008, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice’s  Office of the Inspector General reported to Congress that it had 238 open cases of alleged misconduct against federal Bureau of Prisons employees. “The criminal investigations covered a wide range of allegations, including introduction of contraband, bribery, and sexual abuse.”  That is a very low rate,  considering that the BOP has about 36,000 employees (not all of whom, of course, are in contact with offenders).

Working in a "Correctional" Institution Can Be Stressful and Hazardous

Working in a "Correctional" Institution Can Be Stressful and Hazardous

Prison guards are also known as “correctional” or “detention officers.” Here is how the BLS survey describes the work:

Working in a correctional institution can be stressful and hazardous. Every year, correctional officers are injured in confrontations with inmates. Correctional officers may work indoors or outdoors. Some correctional institutions are well lighted, temperature controlled, and ventilated, but others are old, overcrowded, hot, and noisy. Although both jails and prisons can be dangerous places to work, prison populations are more stable than jail populations, and correctional officers in prisons know the security and custodial requirements of the prisoners with whom they are dealing.

Job prospects in the field are “excellent” according to BLS:

Employment of correctional officers is expected to grow 16 percent between 2006 and 2016, faster than the average for all occupations. Increasing demand for correctional officers will stem from population growth and rising rates of incarceration. Mandatory sentencing guidelines calling for longer sentences and reduced parole for inmates are a primary reason for historically increasing incarceration rates. Some States are reconsidering mandatory sentencing guidelines because of budgetary constraints, court decisions, and doubts about their effectiveness.

The problem is that in the wake of the era of law and order  — “longer sentences and reduced parole” ought to teach them a lesson — there is so little correcting and so much warehousing going on in America’s prisons, the staff are little more than widget production line drones.  Many law enforcement officials refer to prison as a place for higher education in crime.  It is certainly true for gangsters, where a spin in prison is regarded as a prestigious life passage.

Warehouse:  Not Exactly A Stimulating Environment

Warehouse: Not Exactly A Stimulating Environment

Imagine a life in which your job is to move a monotonous series of what “the system” views as so many interchangeable product models from Point A to Point B, then to Point C, then to Point D, then back to Point A — then repeat — at more or less the same time in a monotonous cycle every 24 hours.  Now consider that the products are human beings — or, unfortunately in the view of much of today’s society, humanoid — with actual internal lives and external relationships.

Yes, they think, they feel, they bleed.  And they don’t get to go home between shifts, so imagine the boiling pressure inside your average con.  (I have visited one prison and several jails as a lawyer or journalist, and the sense of regulated confinement I felt even as a visitor was suffocating to the point of claustrophobia.  It’s hard to imagine what it must feel like to actually live or work in such a place.)

On occasion, one of these human inventory products may try to kill or maim you or — more often — another product.

Your work environment is supposed to be sterile — a sanitized place where access to life’s easy pleasures is strictly controlled or prohibited.  No drugs.  No sex.  Even rock and roll is rationed.

But some of the product forms you move about inside the concrete and steel box every day are organized into criminal enterprises — mostly prison gangs.  There is big money to be made in contraband, and the gangsters are making it.  They run prostitution, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, access, whatever you want, they have it — for a price.  On the outside these mobsters would be driving Cadillac Escalades and sporting diamonds in their teeth.  Every now and then one of them makes a pass, figuratively waving a roll of bills in your face.  The temptation to supplement a middling civil service paycheck is seductive.

Recruiting a prison employee into corruption is not overly different than recruiting a spy.  In fact, one might say that the environment is ideal.  All that remains to be found is the person with — in the KGB’s felicitous phrase quoted above — a “propitious” state of mind.

Sean Connery Was An Incorruptible Space Marshal in Outland

Sean Connery Was An Incorruptible Space Marshal in Outland

A bit of dialogue from the 1981 film Outland comes to mind.  Sean Connery stars as federal marshal William T. O’Neil, one lone man fighting pervasive corruption (drug smuggling) in a futuristic but incisively metaphoric outer space prison colony:

Station Manager Sheppard: If you’re looking for money, you’re smarter than you look. If you’re not, you’re a lot dumber.
Marshal William T. O’Neil: Then I’m probably a lot dumber.

Most corrections officer are, as expressed in this film’s equation, “dumber” rather than “smarter.”

But some significant minority succumb to the wiles of Delilah and take the bait.  And, as the KGB and other such organizations know, once you bite for the little bribe — what could it matter? — you’re hooked for the bigger payoff to whomever is holding the other end of the line.  How does one explain that night with Delilah to a grim-faced administrator?

Delilah's Embrace Can Be Deadly in Prison ("Samson and Delilah," School of Rembrandt, c. 1630, Rijksmuseum)

Delilah's Embrace Can Be Deadly in Prison ("Samson and Delilah," School of Rembrandt, c. 1630, Rijksmuseum)

In succeeding parts, Fairly Civil will examine some examples of corruption inside the Big House.  These cases run the gamut from the recent Maryland case involving the Black Guerrilla Family — one of the oldest prison gangs and mortal enemy of the Mexican Mafia — to corruption instigated by correctional officers themselves.  The latter include a spectacular prison lobby shootout in 2006 that took the lives of a federal agent and an indicted federal  prison guard.

Read Part two here.


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on April 17, 2009 at 1:08 pm
Peaceful View of Violence-Wracked Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Peaceful View of Violence-Wracked Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

As the aerial map below demonstrates, El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico lie cheek to jowl along the border.  The Barrio Azteca prison gang had its roots among offenders in the Texas prison system from El Paso.  BA is now firmly planted on both sides of the border.

The U.S. Gang Intelligence Center describes the role of border gangs generally in Mexican drug trafficking:

Some larger gangs have developed regular working relationships with DTOs and other criminal organizations in Mexico, Central America, and Canada to develop sources of supply for wholesale quantities of illicit drugs and to facilitate other criminal activities. According to law enforcement information, gang members provide Mexican DTOs with support, such as smuggling, transportation, and security.

Barrio Azteca is one of those gangs, according to the U.S. Department of Justice Gang Unit:

The Barrio Azteca is one of the most violent prison gangs operating within the U.S…primarily in federal, state and local correctional facilities in Texas, as well as on the outside in communities located in Southwestern Texas and Southeastern New Mexico. Barrio Azteca’s main source of income is derived from the smuggling of heroin, powdered cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. for distribution both inside and outside the prison systems. Members of the Barrio Azteca often transport illicit drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border on behalf of DTOs.

Parts One and Two of this series have described the BA’s organization and provided an overview of its operations.

“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

This Problem of Border Control Is Apparent From This Aerial View Of The El Paso-Juarez Area

This Problem of Border Control Is Apparent From This Aerial View Of The El Paso-Juarez Area

But, how exactly are drugs smuggled into the United States from Mexico — whether by BA or another gang? This is a vague area of public knowledge.  It is revealed through serial anecdotes and often treated in summary description.

The private intelligence service Stratfor issued an excellent report and analysis this week going into much-needed detail about this process.  “Drug smuggling,” Stratfor reports, “is one of the most accessible ways for a gang member to make money when he is released from prison.”  The full report can be read here, but here are a few excerpts to provide a background for a look into a Texas appeals court’s description of one smuggling attempt involving a Barrio Azteca member that went awry:

As products move through the supply chain, they require more specific handling and detailed knowledge of an area, which requires more manpower. The same, more or less, can be said for drug shipments. This can be seen in interdiction reports. When narcotics are intercepted traversing South America into Mexico, they can be measured in tons; as they cross the border into the United States, seizures are reported in kilograms; and by the time products are picked up on the streets of U.S. cities, the narcotics have been divided into packages measured in grams. To reflect this difference, we will refer to the movement of drugs south of the border as trafficking and the movement of drugs north of the border as distributing.
The only certainties are that drugs and people will move from south to north, and that money and weapons will move from north to south. But the specific nature and corridors of those movements are constantly in flux as traffickers innovate in their attempts to stay ahead of the police in a very Darwinian environment. The traffickers employ all forms of movement imaginable, including:

* Tunneling under border fences into safe houses on the U.S. side.
* Traversing the desert on foot with 50-pound packs of narcotics. (Dirt bikes, ATVs and pack mules are also used.)
* Driving across the border by fording the Rio Grande, using ramps to get over fences, cutting through fences or driving through open areas.
* Using densely vegetated portions of the riverbank as dead drops.
* Floating narcotics across isolated stretches of the river.
* Flying small aircraft near the ground to avoid radar.
* Concealing narcotics in private vehicles, personal possessions and in or on the bodies of persons who are crossing legally at ports of entry.
* Bribing border officials in order to pass through checkpoints.
* Hiding narcotics on cross-border trains.
* Hiding narcotics in tractor trailers carrying otherwise legitimate loads.
* Using boats along the Gulf coast.
* Using human “mules” to smuggle narcotics aboard commercial aircraft in their luggage or bodies.
* Shipping narcotics via mail or parcel service.

These methods are not mutually exclusive, and organizations may use any combination at the same time. New ways to move the product are constantly emerging.

What A "Kilo" -- 1 Kilogram = 2.2 Pounds -- Of Cocaine Looks Like.  This Was Smuggled Into Montreal In A Bucket Of Frozen Mango Puree.  Yummee!

What A "Kilo" -- 1 Kilogram = 2.2 Pounds -- Of Cocaine Looks Like. This Was Smuggled Into Montreal In A Bucket Of Frozen Mango Puree. Yummee!

A 2004 Texas appellate court decision, Ojeda vs. Texas, contains a nitty-gritty description of the reality of the cross-border pipeline in a particular kind of transport — the use of the body cavities of human “mules.”  Stratfor reports that “a large part of the process simply involves saturating the system with massive numbers of expendable, low-skilled smugglers who are desperate for the money.”

The story unfolds as Alejandro Ojeda and his female passenger attempted to cross the border into the United States.  They seem to be their own worst enemies — but, remember that these are not masterminds, just the lowest level of fodder, workers in the modern sweat shops of gang criminal enterprise:

At approximately 8 p.m. on November 3, 1999, [Ojeda] driving a gray 1991 Chrysler Caravan, approached the U.S. Customs inspection booth at the Paso Del Norte Bridge. Martha Guerra was sitting in the front passenger seat.

During routine questioning, Customs Inspector Armando San Roman asked [Ojeda]for his citizenship, his purpose for traveling to Mexico, and inquired about the vehicle’s ownership. [Ojeda] responded that he was a U.S. citizen, and that he had bought the vehicle about thirty days prior in Mexico. As he was conducting the questioning, Inspector San Roman noticed [Ojeda] “moving around and sitting upright and getting nervous.”

Noticing that the vehicle did not have a front license plate, Inspector San Roman asked [Ojeda] and Ms. Guerra for identification and proceeded to the back of the vehicle.  Inspector San Roman testified at trial that [Ojeda’s] demeanor by this time was unusual; [Ojeda] was talking loud, getting tense, and then he sat upright and appeared to be getting anxious. According to Inspector San Roman, [Ojeda’s] nervous behavior was out of the ordinary.

In addition, Ms. Guerra, with the exception of declaring her citizenship, did not utter a word, although Inspector San Roman testified that he directed some questions towards her.  Inspector San Roman testified that she was sitting at the edge of her seat, just looking at him; she appeared to be nervous and anxious. Inspector San Roman testified that [Ojeda’s] behavior and Ms. Guerra’s silence made him get suspicious.

Inspector San Roman walked to the back of the vehicle and saw that the vehicle’s plates were from Kansas. He returned back to the driver’s side and proceeded to ask the same questions he had asked before to verify that the answers were the same. This time, [Ojeda]stated that he had been in Juarez for about two to three hours and that the reason for his trip was to take Ms. Guerra’s cousin to Mexico. Inspector San Roman then noticed that the names on [Ojeda’s] and Ms. Guerra’s ID’s matched the names provided on a “be on the lookout” bulletin. Inspector San Roman sent the vehicle to the secondary inspection station.

At this point, Ojeda and Guerra are fixed like a bug on an entomologist’s needle.  It’s all over but the details for them.  But keep in mind that at most busy border crossings, time is not standing still.  Other vehicles with other mules or concealed packages are getting through.  The next bit of the story describes the quotidian work of winkling out the dope:

Inspector John Maxwell, trained as a canine enforcement officer, was asked to screen [Ojeda] and Ms. Guerra with the canine. He testified that the canine is trained to alert to marijuana, hash, cocaine, heroin, and crystal meth, and that he is what is called a passive alerter. This means that if the canine gets the odor of narcotics, he changes his behavior by wagging his tail, his ears come up, his breathing gets heavier, and then he sits next to where the odor is detected. On this occasion, Inspector Maxwell testified that the canine alerted to both the Appellant and Ms. Guerra, who were standing about a foot apart. The canine then went over to the open door of the vehicle, sniffed the passenger seat and alerted to it as well.

[Senior Inspection Officer Maria Elena] Frazier testified that she saw Ms. Guerra walking funny, as if she was holding something between her legs, but that she had not suspected she was hiding contraband, until the heroin was found. Inspector Criss-man testified that Ms. Guerra was taking very small steps, as if she was having a hard time walking.

Frazier placed Ms. Guerra in a holding cell and then requested the assistance of Inspector Dianne Crissman in conducting a pat-down of Ms. Guerra. Inspector Frazier asked Ms. Guerra to stand, put her hands against the wall, and spread her legs. Initially, Ms. Guerra did not want to comply and had to be asked several times before Inspector Frazier had to push open her legs. In conducting a pat-down of Ms. Guerra, Inspector Frazier felt a foreign substance in Ms. Guerra’s groin area. Inspector Frazier asked Ms. Guerra to remove the object, but it was not until she asked Ms. Guerra if she needed medical assistance in removing the object that Ms. Guerra complied. Ms. Guerra removed from her vaginal cavity a condom containing about four to five golf size balls of a black tar like substance which were wrapped in another condom. The two condoms combined formed a cylinder like shape. The substance field tested positive as heroin. Further laboratory testing con-firmed that the substance was in fact pure heroin containing some adulterants and dilutants, and that it weighed 125.19 grams.

Upon searching Ms. Guerra’s purse, Inspector Crissman testified that she found among other things, a condom. A search of vehicle uncovered an open plastic bag sitting in between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat that contained an unopened box of condoms, an open box of condoms, two open condom wrappers, and lubricants, one container which was open. The condom in Ms. Guerra’s purse matched the brand on the condom wrappers and both boxes.

Cocaine pellets confiscated from detained body packers in Jamaica. Left: Multiple=

Cocaine pellets confiscated from detained body packers in Jamaica. Left: Multiple pellets spontaneously evacuated. Right: Surgically extracted pellets from the stomach of an offender.

Note that this incident happened ten years ago, so procedures of gang and law enforcement alike could have changed.  For an engaging and counter-trend analysis of drug trafficking and terrorist networks, and how they learn, read Michael Kenney’s From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation.
In fact, a recent study of similar smuggling attempts through Jamaica found that the drug traffickers have indeed changed their methods in response to law enforcement’s having developed a profile of their old method.  Here is the abstract from “The Changing Demographics of Cocaine Body Packers in Jamaica” in The Internet Journal of Forensic Science (2009):

Cocaine trafficking by body packers has become epidemic in Jamaica. In 1999 the Jamaican government created a specialized anti-drug task force aimed at intercepting body packers at international airports. An important method used to identify these packers is passenger profiling. International experience suggests that the majority of body packers are single females from under-privileged backgrounds with multiple dependents. This retrospective study describes the demographics of Cocaine body packers detained at the largest international airport in Jamaica between January 2002 and December 2006.

There were 189 body packers identified, with a marked preponderance of male offenders (81% vs 19%). There were 153 males, with a mean age of 34.3 +/- 9.5 years (Range 17 to 57; Median 33; Mode 38). Only 35 offenders were female, with a mean age of 29.9 +/- 10.4 years (Range 17 to 55; Median 27; Mode 27). The demographics of the Cocaine body packer in Jamaica have changed. The typical body packers are now young males. The anti drug task forces must be aware of these trends in order to effectively identify and detain offenders.

Gangster life sells itself to its young recruits as a font of family, respect, and glamor.  It reality, it is a sordid, dangerous, and poisonous tool of exploitation, as these cases illustrate at the grittiest level.  While the drug lords live lives of flashy opulence, the desperate and the poor pack poison into their bodies, gram by gram.


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Informants and other sophisticated means, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on April 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm
Perp Wal in El Paso -- FBI Agents Walked Barrio Azteca Gang Members Jose Martin Garcia (foreground) and John Michelleti (Rear) to U.S. Federal Courthouse from El Paso County Jail.  Michelleti Cut Deal, Flipped, and Testified Against His Carnales

Perp Walk in El Paso -- FBI Agents Walked Barrio Azteca Gang Members Jose Martin Garcia (foreground) and John Michelletti (Rear) to U.S. Federal Courthouse from El Paso County Jail. Michelletti Had Been Working for FBI Since 2005 and Testified Against His Carnales

The Texas prison gang Barrio Azteca (BA) is one of the most violent gangs in the United States.  It is intimately tied into the trans-border drug traffic from its home base in El Paso, and has a counterpart organization across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  (Go here for Part One and here for Part Three of this series on BA.)

A federal RICO indictment resulted in the conviction of six alleged members and associates in December 2008.  Testimony and other evidence in the trial opened a window into the gang’s operations — aided by a “flipped” member, Johnny (“Conejo” or “Rabbit”) Michelletti, who snitched for several years and then testified in open court about BA’s organization and criminal deeds.  These gangsters swear all manner of blood oaths about loyalty and the fabled code of silence.  But when the big federal-prison-time-with-no-parole generator cranks up and starts to hum, somebody usually breaks and starts singing. In addition to Michelletti, who revealed in court that he had been working for the FBI since 2005, another gangster — Gustavo “Tavo” Gallardo — blinked and decided to cooperate and testify at trial against his homies, his barrio, and his gang.  Oh, well.

“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

Here is the rundown on Barrio Azteca from the National Drug Intelligence Center’s May 2008 West Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis:

Barrio Azteca controls cocaine, heroin, and marijuana distribution in El Paso. Because of its connections to Mexican DTOs operating in the El Paso/Juárez plaza, Barrio Azteca has a direct source of supply for heroin and other illicit drugs. However, the gang’s activities have been limited as a result of a “safe zone” injunction initiated in 2003 that prohibits its members from being on the street after dark…Barrio Azteca’s activities may be further limited as a result of the recent arrest and indictment [and since this report was issued, conviction, see] of several of the gang’s key members.

Among details that came out in the trial, according to news reports:

  • Barrio Azteca was heavily into drug dealing and collection of “taxes” or “quotas” from drug dealers.  Such collections are nothing less than old-fashioned extortion, a staple of organized crime in the U.S. for decades.  I write about similar operations run by the Mexican Mafia (with a “clica” of the 18th Street gang) in Los Angeles, and the Chicago “Motherland” Latin Kings in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press, No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement.
  • BA supplied cocaine to working women in El Paso area strip joints, who sold the drug to customers.
  • The gang infiltrated the Federal Public Defender’s office in El Paso.  A paralegal there, Sandy Valles New, acted as a “bridge,” forwarding messages from gangsters inside prison to those on the outside.  More importantly, according to federal prosecutors, New also tried through her job to find out about the FBI’s investigation of the gang and to obtain court filings.  These could be used to track down informants within the gang.  Attempted infiltration by female associates of law enforcement offices, public defenders, and public utilities is a common gang tactic in the U.S. and abroad.
  • The BA gang has a paramilitary style structure, with specific ranks.
  • Like most of these fraternal love-ins, the gangsters went at each other in the trench warfare of internal power struggles.  One erstwhile boss, or “capo,” David “Chico” Meraz, was allegedly murdered in a knife attack in Juarez, Mexico after he was forced from power by his beloved homies.
  • BA gangsters turned some of their own over to Mexican gangsters to face charges of skimming drug money or otherwise disobeying cartel rules.  The offending gang members were typically bound, gagged, wrapped in tape, stuffed in a vehicle,  and dropped off in Juarez to be brutally disposed of with several rounds to the back of the head.
New Problems For Old El Paso

New Problems For Old El Paso

Michelletti told the court how he got into Barrio Azteca.  Originally a member of a local gang called “Los Fatherless,” he was sent to prison for assaulting a police officer.  In prison he was approached by a BA “sponsor” who invited him to join the gang.  “He (the sponsor) becomes your representative.  Your padrino, your godfather.  You have to show you are down for the organization.”  Throughout gangland, “being down” for the gang means being prepared to step up and commit brutally violent acts.

In the next part of this three-part series, Fairly Civil will look at a specific case that illustrates the mechanics of physically getting drugs across the border.  In the meantime, the private intelligence and security service Stratfor has issued a truly excellent report and analysis of this drug movement, which can and should be read here.


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on April 8, 2009 at 2:55 pm
El Paso From The North -- Mexico Beyond (Wikimedia)

El Paso From The North -- Mexico Beyond (Wikimedia)

El Paso is the very avatar of the problems of the U.S.-Mexico border.  The city — which lies just across the border from Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez — is the Texas prison gang Barrio Azteca’s  home base.  Barrio Azteca (BA) was born in the Texas prison system among prisoners from El Paso in the mid-1980s.   The gang and the city of El Paso are intimately entwined in the drug trade and the violence associated with it.  (Go here for Part Two and here for Part Three of this series.)

From its earliest days, El Paso has embodied the special relationship between Mexico and territory that was once Mexico, and the peculiarities of the old “Wild West.”  This description is from the Online Handbook of Texas:

El Paso is at the far western tip of Texas, where New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua meet in a harsh desert environment around the slopes of Mount Franklin on the Rio Grande, which has often been compared to the Nile. As they approached the Rio Grande from the south, Spaniards in the sixteenth century viewed two mountain ranges rising out of the desert with a deep chasm between. This site they named El Paso del Norte (the Pass of the North), the future location of two border cities-Ciudad Juárez on the south or right bank of the Rio Grande, and El Paso, Texas, on the opposite side of the river. Since the sixteenth century the pass has been a continental crossroads; a north-south route along a historic camino real prevailed during the Spanish and Mexican periods, but traffic shifted to an east-west axis in the years following 1848, when the Rio Grande became an international boundary.

Most authorities agree that the arrival of the railroads in 1881 and 1882 was the single most significant event in El Paso history, as it transformed a sleepy, dusty little adobe village of several hundred inhabitants into a flourishing frontier community that became the county seat in 1883 and reached a population of more than 10,000 by 1890. As El Paso became a western boomtown, it also became “Six Shooter Capital” and “Sin City,” where scores of saloons, dance halls, gambling establishments, and houses of prostitution lined the main streets. At first the city fathers exploited the town’s evil reputation by permitting vice for a price, but in time the more farsighted began to insist that El Paso’s future might be in jeopardy if vice and crime were not brought under a measure of control. In the 1890s reform-minded citizens conducted a campaign to curb El Paso’s most visible forms of vice and lawlessness, and in 1905 the city finally enacted ordinances closing houses of gambling and prostitution.

Today, El Paso is struggling with its connections to the drug traffic, Mexican drug trafficking organizations, and U.S.-based gangs, including one of the most violent in the nation — BA.

“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

The private intelligence service Stratfor has an excellent report on Barrio Azteca. This excerpt from that report describes the gang’s formation and growth:

Spanish for “Aztec Neighborhood,” BA originated in a Texas state penitentiary in 1986, when five inmates from El Paso organized the group as a means of protection in the face of the often-brutal ethnic tensions within prisons. By the 1990s, BA had spread to other prisons and had established a strong presence on the streets of El Paso as its founding members served their terms and were released.

According to the El Paso Police Department:

Most of the original members were from the Second Ward (Segundo Barrio) area of El Paso, which is located in the south central region of the city. As the Aztecas grew in numbers, they became involved in the now standard activities of prison gangs: narcotics, extortion, assaults, murders, theft and intimidation. The Aztecas recruit directly from the pool of street gang members who have been arrested or imprisoned; however, [they] also form alliances and intimidate various street-level gangs who have not progressed to the prison system.

Here is how the U.S. Department of Justice’s Gang Unit sums up Barrio Azteca as it exists today:

The Barrio Azteca is one of the most violent prison gangs operating within the U.S. Barrio Azteca is a highly structured criminal entity and has an estimated membership of 2,000 persons. Most members of the Barrio Azteca are either Mexican nationals or Mexican-American males. Barrio Azteca is most active in the Southwestern region of the U.S., primarily in federal, state and local correctional facilities in Texas, as well as on the outside in communities located in Southwestern Texas and Southeastern New Mexico. Barrio Azteca’s main source of income is derived from the smuggling of heroin, powdered cocaine and marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. for distribution both inside and outside the prison systems. Members of the Barrio Azteca often transport illicit drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border on behalf of DTOs. Barrio Azteca members are also involved in crimes such as alien smuggling, arson, assault, auto theft, burglary, extortion, intimidation, kidnapping, robbery and weapons violations.

The reach of prison gangs like BA outside of the walls is not unique.  I write about the street gang connections and associated drug trafficking operations of two such gangs — the Mexican Mafia in California and the Latin Kings in Chicago — in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press (No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement).

Simply put, prison gangs control offender life inside the walls.  Any street gang, or individual renegade gangster, who bucks the authority of the relevant prison gang will be “green-lighted” — targeted for punishment, which often means death.  Originally, members of Latino street gangs learned that they could and would be whacked inside prison if they did not cooperate.  Only a few street gangs still operate independently in California, for example.  And prison gangs now assign hits outside of the prison walls to members of street gang affiliates or to made members of the prison gang after their release from confinement.

Here  is an overview of the relationship between Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and U.S. street and outlaw motorcycle gangs (OMGs), from the National Drug Intelligence Center’s National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 :

Although gangs do not appear to be part of any formal Mexican DTO structure, several Mexican DTOs use U.S.-based gangs to smuggle and distribute drugs, collect drug proceeds, and act as enforcers. Mexican DTOs’ use of gang members for these illegal activities insulates DTO cell members from law enforcement detection. Members of most Mexican Cartels–Sinaloa, Gulf, Juárez, and Tijuana)–maintain working relationships with many street gangs and OMGs…Most gang-related criminal activity along the U.S.-Mexico border occurs in South Texas and California… Street and prison gangs… transport and distribute illicit drugs throughout the South Texas area. Some of these gangs have established associate gangs or chapters in border cities in Mexico…

Barrio Azteca fits this pattern.  (Its counterpart on the Mexican side of the border is known as the Aztecas.)

In subsequent posts, Fairly Civil will examine in more detail the specific structure and operations of the U.S.-based Barrio Azteca gang.


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Terrorism, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, Transnational crime on April 6, 2009 at 10:17 am

Instead of being run by a handful of massive, price-fixing ‘cartels’, the Colombian drug trade, then and now, was characterized by a fluid social system where flexible exchange networks expanded and retracted according to market opportunities and regulatory constraints.

Abstract, “The Architecture of Drug Trafficking: Network Forms of Organisation in the Colombian Cocaine Trade,” in journal Global Crime, by Pennsylvania State University professor Michael Kenney,  author of From Pablo to Osama: Trafficking and Terrorist Networks, Government Bureaucracies, and Competitive Adaptation.

American officials attributed the delays to cumbersome U.S. government contracting requirements, negotiations over exactly what equipment is needed, and the challenges of creating an infrastructure to deliver an aid package that spans four dozen programs and several U.S. agencies.

“U.S. Aid Delays in Drug War Criticized; Mexicans Seek ‘True Solidarity’,” Washington Post, April 5, 2009.

Look at almost any law enforcement organization — from local police to the U.S. Department of Justice — and you will see a classic bureaucratic structure not overly different from that of the Social Security Administration, the Postal Service, or the Boy Scouts.  Responsibility, authority, and funds flow downward through a series of boxes.  The bureaucracy’s being branches from the head of the agency or department at the top of a vertical pyramid down to the unit or squad at the bottom.

Add in the invisible external forces of the executive (president, governor, mayor) and legislative (council, legislature, Congress) decision-making process and you have a cumbersome beast.  That beast then has to coordinate what it does with the other beasts thrashing around in the law enforcement underbrush, all of whom have historically been reluctant to share their turf.

U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. Census Bureau

U.S. Department of Justice

U.S. Department of Justice

A case in point is the implementation of the Merida Initiative, under which the United States is supposed to be helping Mexico fight its drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to the two countries’ mutual benefit.

Last June, Congress appropriated $400 million.  According to the Washington Post (April 5, 2009), the State Department announced in December 2008 that $197 million of that funding had been “released.” But the paper’s close examination “shows that just two small projects under Merida — the delivery of high-speed computer servers in December and an arms-trafficking workshop attended by senior U.S. officials at a Mexican resort last week — have been completed.”

Here’s one bureaucrat’s explanation quoted by the Post:

“We are moving as fast as we can, but we also have to do this right,” said Roberta S. Jacobson, who, as deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, helped negotiate the Merida Initiative. “We are creating a $1 billion program essentially from scratch, and if we try and move faster than our own procedures — and those of Mexico — can manage, we risk the careful oversight and monitoring that we and Congress expect.”

Agility and speed are not strong points of such bureaucracies.

“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

Drug Traffickers Cash and GunsSeized by DEA and Mexican Police in 2007

Drug Traffickers Cash and Guns Seized by DEA and Mexican Police in 2007

Contrast the speed and agility with which the DTOs operate.  These guys move this kind of money — and more — around in suitcases.  The $400 million Congress appropriated is chump change to drug barons.  A former senior official of a federal law enforcement agency told me last week about a case in which the agency seized a suitcase with $250 million in cash.  Monitoring of drug bosses’ conversation later revealed that they didn’t blink an eye–they took it as just a cost of doing a much bigger business.

Part of the difference between transnational criminals and bureaucracies is ruthlessness.  Any DTO underling who took this long to deliver the proceeds would get a terminal headache — from a couple of bullets in the back of the head.

But the more important difference in the view of many experts is the way drug trafficking organizations — and many other transnational criminal organizations — are…well, organized.

West Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA)

West Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA)

Here, for example, is a description of drug trafficking organizations in the El Paso/Ciudad Juarez plaza, “a principal smuggling corridor and staging area for drug transportation to markets throughout the United States,” according to the April 2007 West Texas High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis, published by the National Drug Intelligence Center:

Over the past few years, the structure of Mexican DTOs operating in the El Paso/Juárez plaza has changed from traditional hierarchical organizations to much more efficient organizations composed of decentralized networks of interdependent, task-oriented cells. For example, one cell may be responsible for transporting drug shipments across the U.S.-Mexico border, another for transporting drugs to U.S. markets, and another for laundering drug funds. The variety of relationships that these individual cells can have with one another as well as their insular nature, particularly for organizational heads, renders these DTOs more difficult for law enforcement to dismantle than DTOs with a traditional hierarchical structure. In addition, if the head of the DTO or cell leaders are identified and arrested, the decentralized, interdependent nature of these DTOs ensures that they can continue to operate unimpeded.

Bureaucratic Model Slower Than Bullet-to-the-Head Model (Model from Ariel Zellman's Wordpess blog)

Bureaucratic Model Slower Than Bullet-to-the-Head Model (Model from Ariel Zellman's WordPress blog)

This segmented but integrated network is “flat,” compared to the Christmas tree bureaucratic structure.  Yet, it still lends itself to the severely authoritarian rule of the narco bosses.  “The leaders of these organizations…give the orders and expect them to be followed.” (Gregory D. Lee, Global Drug Enforcement: Practical Investigative Techniques, p. 288.)   It’s like a giant, global LEGO factory set — the pieces can be custom designed, moved around, plugged in, and shifted to different shapes to meet different needs and respond to law enforcement pressures, all the while preserving operational security.

Here is how Michael A. Braun — former assistant administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — described it in his March 12, 2009 statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

The Mexican cartels’ ‘corporate’ headquarters are set up South of our border, and thanks to  corruption, cartel leaders often times carry out their work in palatial surroundings. The cartel leaders manage and direct the daily activities of ‘command and control cells’ that are typically located just across the border in our Country. Those command and control cells manage and direct the daily activities of ‘distribution, transportation and money laundering cells’ all across our Nation.

The cartels operate just like terrorist organizations, with extremely complex organizational structures, consisting of highly compartmentalized cells: distribution cells, transportation cells, money laundering cells, and in some cases assassination cells or ‘hit squads.’ Many experts believe Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations are far more sophisticated, operationally and structurally, then Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. In fact, some experts   believe that Middle Eastern terrorist organizations actually copied the drug trafficking cartels’ sophisticated organizational model for their advantage. This sophisticated organizational model continues to thwart law enforcement and security services around the globe. Cell members are so compartmentalized that they possess little, if any knowledge of the greater organizational model that encircles and supports their nodes; therefore, they can share little of value when apprehended.

The DEA has long noted the intersection of terrorist organizations and drug trafficking:

For many years the…DEA special agents have recognized that terrorist organizations rely on drug traffickers as a straightforward, easy source of income to finance their political agendas.  Drug traffickers, in turn, rely on terrorists to provide protection for their laboratory and drug distribution endeavors.  Through protection rackets, extortion, or “taxation” of drug traffickers, terrorists receive the funds necessary to carry out their violent acts.  (Lee, p. 287)

Nimble, quick, deadly — and aimed at you.


In Crime, Guns on April 4, 2009 at 11:50 pm
Funeral of Slain Oakland Police Officers

Funeral of Slain Oakland Police Officers

An article in The Forensic Examiner last year reported on the latest of a series of three intensive studies the FBI has done on cop-killers.

According to the article, in the most recent study the FBI researchers looked  in-depth at 40 incidents selected from a pool of more than 800 cases. The researchers  interviewed survivors (officers and perpetrators), reviewed records, and visited crime scenes.

Of the 43 perpetrators involved, 13 admitted gang affiliation/membership and involvement in drug trafficking.

Some of the findings.

1. The offenders were experienced shooters:

Most of the offenders who shot an officer had prior experience firing handguns. They typically began carrying a gun when they were between 9 and 12 years old. By the time they were 17, the vast majority of them were carrying all of the time. Nearly half of the offenders were involved in shootings (as victim and/or offender) prior to their assault on an officer. Ten offenders (all of whom were considered “street combat veterans” and were from inner city, drug-trafficking neighborhoods) had been involved in five or more shootings.

2.  The offenders had more experience using deadly force than the officers.

Of note, the offenders had more experience using deadly force on the street than did their victim-officers. Only 8 of 50 victim-officers had participated in a prior shooting (one officer had been involved in 2 prior incidents and another in 3), with 7 of those 8 having killed a perpetrator.

3.  The offenders practiced shooting more than the officers.

Nearly 40% of the suspect-offenders had some type of formal training with firearms, primarily from the military. More than 80% of the offenders included in the study practiced shooting on a regular basis, averaging 23 intentional practice sessions per year. It is significant to note that the offenders actually practiced with their firearms more than the victim-officers did. The officers averaged only 14 hours of sidearm training and 2.5 qualifications per year. Only 6 of the 50 victim-officers practiced regularly, beyond that required by their department; most of this was in the context of competitive shooting.

4.  The offenders were “surprisingly coldblooded.”

As described by the researchers, the offenders were “surprisingly cold-blooded,” turning instantly to deadly violence. On the contrary, the victim-officers were unwilling to use deadly force as long as they thought they had another option. Thirty-six of the 50 officers had been in situations where “deadly force” would have been an appropriate and legitimate response, “but chose not to shoot.” On average, those 36 officers had been in four such prior incidents. Unlike the officers, the offenders acted from a “shoot or be shot” mentality, with absolutely no hesitation about pulling the trigger. They operated under the presumption that if they hesitated, they would be killed.


In Crime, Gangs, Guns on April 3, 2009 at 11:22 pm
Chicago Gangster Had His Day Here--Didn't Go So Well for Him

Chicago Gangster Had His Day Here--Didn't Go So Well for Him

They don’t call the U.S. Supreme Court a “temple of justice” for nothing.

The interior of the Fortress of The Law is cool marble and quiet dignity. The proceedings of The Tuscaloosa Lady’s Sunday Afternoon Tea Club and Literary Salon are a riot by comparison.  Even the justices’ walkers are oiled so they don’t make a sound.

I once covered the Supreme Court as a reporter for The Washington Times and I never heard a voice raised in anger — or even believable passion (as opposed to thespian art from one or another advocate) — inside the court’s chamber.

Well, pretty much.

There was the morning in November 1983 when the Court was hearing argument in the case of Keeton v. Hustler.  Porno magnate Larry Flynt, whose magazine was being sued, decided to weigh in.  He hoisted himself up in his gold-plated wheel chair at the back of the spectator’s section and shouted a string of profanity.  Chief Justice Warren E. Burger ordered the marshals to ”take that man into custody.”

Potty Mouth Porn Magnate Larry King Hurled Insults at Court from His Gold-Plated Wheel Chair

Potty Mouth Porno Magnate Larry King Hurled Insults at High Court from His Gold-Plated Wheel Chair

For the most part, however, parties keep their mouths shut in the legal holy-of-holies.  The lawyers who appear before conduct themselves  in a most magisterial way.   All the place needs is incense.

This week, the Court decided the appeal of Chicago gangster Michael Rivera, in the case of Rivera v. Illinois. The case arrived at the court on a technicality concerning a defense challenge to one member of the jury that found him guilty of first degree murder.  In 1998 Rivera shot to death a man whom he mistakenly believed was a member of another gang.

Rivera presented no factual defense at the trial of the case, so the Court’s reported opinion — which ruled against Rivera — is strictly on the legal technicalities.  It’s pretty dull reading for most of us.

But there’s a story behind every case that makes it up to the Supreme Court.

For example, there were a number of death penalty cases during the period I was covering the Court,  I found it remarkable that the media hardly ever reported in detail the facts of murderers’ crimes.  It was as if their brutal depredations had no place in the public debate about the ultimate penalty.  I thought otherwise, and made it a point to dig the underlying facts out of the briefs so that my readers could have the whole picture.

The facts underlying the case of Michael Rivera are a perfect illustration of gangster culture as it is.  The following summary is extracted from the report of one of Rivera’s several appeals in Illinois state courts:

Defendant was a member of the “Insane Deuces” street gang and held the rank of “chief enforcer.” In the early morning hours of January 10, 1998, defendant was riding in a van with several individuals who were gang members. Defendant saw the victim walking near a housing complex known as the Lathrop Homes. Defendant mistakenly believed that the victim was a “Stone,” a member of a rival gang. Defendant left the van accompanied by two fellow gang members. Defendant fired several shots from a revolver. One bullet struck the victim in the back of his head and killed him. After the shooting, defendant and the two other gang members returned to the van yelling gang slogans including “Stone killer.” Later, displaying the revolver to other gang members, defendant bragged that he was a “Stone killer.” The police recovered the revolver from another gang member.

There is no gang squad in any city of any size whose members can’t reel off a litany of similar murders.  Gangster on the prowl are a small facet of Hannah Arendt’s philosophical concept of the “banality of evil” — the gangsters have normalized and rationalized their senseless killing in such a way that they think being a “Stone killer” is to be good, not bad.  (In April 2008 six Insane Deuce gangsters were convicted in a federal RICO case in Chicago, some of them on several counts of murder.)

The facts of Rivera’s case fit seamlessly into the template of two Chicago gang murders I write about in my forthcoming book (No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement).   Gangsters go out riding around with a gun looking for a rival or perceived rival to kill, because that is just what gangsters do.  The murder for which Latin King leader Gino Colon was originally sent up was the same kind of random street assassination.

Ana Mateo Was Killed By Gangster's Stray Bullet in Pilsen Neighborhood of Chicago

Ana Mateo Was Killed By Gangster's Stray Bullet in Pilsen Neighborhood of Chicago

In another case I write about, the punk kid gangster doing the shooting missed his intended target.  But one of the bullets he fired hit a beautiful seven-year old girl two blocks away in the back of her head, taking her innocent life.



In Corruption, Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on April 1, 2009 at 7:20 pm
U.S. Marshal Kind of Work

U.S. Marshal Kind of Work

The private intelligence service Stratfor has published a podcast for subscribers  in which analyst Fred Burton discusses the case of Vincent Paul Bustamante, a U.S. Marshal found shot dead in Mexico.

In an earlier report on the incident, Stratfor wrote that Bustamante:

…was found in a canal with what appeared to be multiple gunshot wounds to the head, was identified by fingerprints and an identity document.

A USMS spokesperson said that before his death, Bustamante had surrendered his badge, credentials and weapon, as he had been placed on administrative leave for failing to appear in court on charges associated with criminal theft of public property (possibly a shotgun). According to one account, there had been a warrant out for Bustamante’s arrest since March 18. Such charges could be associated with accusations of corruption.

Little additional information is available at this time, and while there is no evidence yet that Bustamante’s death was linked to organized crime, there is strong reason to believe that this is the case. If so, Bustamante’s death represents a significant development in the cartel war in Mexico, as it would be the first time a U.S. federal law enforcement officer has been killed in Mexico in the last few years.

CNN reported that their law enforcement source said Bustamante was doing a law enforcement version of dipping into the till:  pawning official guns and then buying them back after pay day:

Bustamante, 48, was charged with stealing U.S. government property including Glock and Ruger handguns, a shotgun and a pair of binoculars, according to court documents.

According to the federal source, who was not authorized to speak about details of the case and asked not to be named, a pawnshop owner became suspicious when Bustamante attempted to pawn a shotgun and called the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The source said Bustamante would buy back items he had pawned on his pay days and return them.

Burton, however,  goes beyond this in the podcast to suggest that Bustamante “could have gone rogue, could have gone dirty.”

If so, the consequences could be profound.   “This is just not a dead cop–this is larger,” Burton warns.  Investigators must “unpack” Bustamante’s “knowledge base” to find out what he knew and what he might have given up if he was dirty.

One extremely sensitive area: protected witnesses.  I write about several extremely sensitive transnational gang investigations in my forthcoming book (No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement) in which “flipped” and later protected witnesses were crucial.  (You’ll have to read the book, but two cases contain details never before written about publicly.)

There is an axiom among agents about organized crime cases:  “no informant, no case.”   [OK, another more cynical one is, “No case, no problems.”]

Naturally, the Mexican drug cartels and their affiliates would love to find out who flipped, where they are, and how the U.S. government protects them.  This is true “sources and methods” stuff — not the imagined worries that too many federal law enforcement executives use to keep the American public in the dark.  This is the kind of stuff that gets people killed.

Marshals Service Runs the Federal Witness Security Program

Marshals Service Runs the Federal Witness Security Program

Well…the Marshals Service runs the federal Witness Security Program — often also called the federal “Witness Protection Program.”   Since the program by any name started in 1970, says the Marshals Service, “more than 7,500 witnesses and over 9,500 family members have entered the Program and have been protected, relocated and given new identities.”  The service also states that “No program participant who follows security guidelines has ever been harmed while under the active protection of the Marshals Service.” (Be sure to read the fine print in that statement — warranty voided if you don’t follow the rules or are not under “active protection.”)

But Burton’s warning does not end there.  He argues that the Bustamante case demonstrates that “we have to take control of the corruption on this side of the border.”   This is especially interesting in light of  Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s explosive statement to BBC this week:

There is trafficking in Mexico because there is corruption in Mexico…But by the same argument if there is trafficking in the United States it is because there is some corruption in the United States… It is impossible to pass tonnes of cocaine to the United States without the complicity of some American authorities.

As I wrote in a report on gun trafficking to Mexico released this week, Calderon is not just making this up:

U.S. officials also worry about the potential for corruption of law enforcement officials at all levels of government in the United States. In May 2008, for example, there were reported to be about 200 open cases investigating corruption among U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials working on the border. The agency’s inspector general reportedly saw an increase in cases that it investigated from 31 in 2003 to 79 in the 2007 fiscal year.

“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


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on April 1, 2009 at 11:29 am

“If someone bothers you, you talk to someone in the neighborhood,” said Bobby, illuminating how deeply Drew Street had fallen into gangster hands. “If someone stole from you, it would be handled. It was like a neighborhood watch. We don’t call the cops. We beat up people.”

From, “Drew Street Drug House Demolished; Creepily, some neighbors miss the gang’s terror, a Neighborhood Watch of sorts,” By Christine Pelisek.

Innovative Los Angeles Program Targeted, Took Down Drew Street Gang Fortress Known as "Satellite House"

Innovative Los Angeles Program Targeted, Took Down Drew Street Gang Fortress Known as "Satellite House"

People in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Glassell Park called the house at 3304 Drew Street “The Satellite House.”  The antennae sprouting from the roof were a symbol of drug-trafficking affluence in a graffiti-scarred area hanging on by its fingernails.  Like the  colonial headquarters of an occupying power, it was Government House for the Drew Street clica of the Avenues Gang.

According to Los Angeles law enforcement officials and a federal indictment, the Avenues Gang and its Drew Street clique are affiliated with the powerful Mexican Mafia prison gang, which in turn is plugged into the transnational network of the Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  (See Part One).   Los Angeles-bred Gangs like the Avenues, MS-13, 18th Street, and others around the nation (like the Latin Kings and Barrio Azteca) are today’s organized crime, the “mafia on steroids” someone quipped–a burgeoning force that is richer, more heavily-armed, more wired into global criminal networks than La Cosa Nostra in its best days.  They’re operating in Canada, for crying out loud!  It may not look this way at the level of some baggy-pants mope with bad teeth on a street corner moving little packets of mind-worming dope.  But that pimply-faced gangster is a soldado, a foot soldier, in a vast army of crime.  The new gangsters and their racketeering organizations defy national borders.  They love law enforcement organizations that are trapped in static thinking generated by organization charts and “stove-pipes” of “responsibility” and “mission statements.” (“That’s not in our lane,” I recently heard a senior federal law enforcement official say.  Your lane?  You need to retire–lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way, dude!)

Flexible, adaptive, smarter-than-you-think and often operating in ad hoc networks, transnational criminals operate at will throughout the Western Hemisphere, with growing tentacles to Africa and Europe.

It Was Personal With Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo (Center) -- Avenues Gangsters Harassed Him as a Kid. Delgadillo is Flanked by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton

It Was Personal With Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo (Center) -- Avenues Gangsters Harassed Him as a Kid. Delgadillo is Flanked by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton

At every level — from the street corner to the Western Hemisphere — gangs and the bigger criminal enterprises they are wired into raise a fundamental question: who’s in charge here?  Who rules this turf?  The legitimate government or the gangsters?  It is a serious mistake to underestimate the territorial mentality of the new gangsters, their assertion of the artifacts of sovereignty, and their willingness to confront civil government violently.

The Drew Street gang experience has been an almost perfect laboratory in which to see this concept of territorial confrontation at work.  The neighborhood (see map) it which the Avenues clique operated is boxed in, virtually sealed off,  by a cemetery, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and a freeway.  Like many of the gang-tortured neighborhoods of the New World, Glassell Park was once affluent and quiet, an area of single-family homes.  But change seeped in — including immigration (legal and otherwise) from Mexico — and it went downhill.  Public housing apartment blocs that government planners and social engineers dreamed up turned into gangster strong points, bunkers into which the thugs could fade, invulnerable to police action.

Maria "Chata" Leon, Alleged Gangster, Mother of 13, Immigrated Illegally from Tlachapa, Mexico, Live in Satellite House

Maria "Chata" Leon, Alleged Gangster, Mother of 13, Immigrated Illegally from Tlachapa, Mexico, Lived in Satellite House

Satellite House was the home of a woman named Maria “Chata” Leon, an undocumented immigrant from Tlachapa, Guerrero, Mexico.  According to police, Leon ran the gang’s operations out of the house along with a brood of sons, relatives, and gangsters.  (Leon is said to have given birth to 13 children fathered by various men while she was accumulating a series of felony arrests and convictions dating back to 1992.)  The gang’s writ was so strong that in February 2008, LA Weekly ran an article titled “The Gangsters of Drew Street, Glassell Park — Why neither God nor the police can stop them.”

But while it may have looked like the gangsters had defeated even God (or at least LAPD), Los Angeles officials and law enforcement officers had already mounted a concerted attack on the Drew Street gang and its perverse rule.

In the first place, Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo has been a leader in devising ways to use civil law as a powerful complementary force to law enforcement efforts against gangs.  These ways include injunctions, lawsuits to collect money damages from gangs, and notably in this case a program known as TOUGH (Taking Out Urban Gang Headquarters) program. TOUGH is based on the “nuisance abatement” theory of civil law. The program “files lawsuits seeking aggressive and specifically tailored injunctive relief against property owners and gang members, including stay away orders, closure of properties, hiring of security guards, installation of video camera systems and other remedial improvements to the properties.”
 In 2007, Delgadillo and his team won a lawsuit filed in 2005 that closed Satellite House as a “nuisance” and–after further legal manuevering–led to its ultimately being demolished by a bulldozer.

Danny Leon Was Killed Brandishing an AK-47 in Shootout With LAPD

Danny Leon Was Killed Brandishing an AK-47 in Shootout With LAPD

Before the house was finally taken down, however, an episode of blatant gangster violence in February 2008 generated a maximum law enforcement investigative effort against the gang.  Avenues gangsters shot to death a 36-year old man as he was walking his 2-year old granddaughter near an elementary school. Shortly later, when the gangsters were confronted by LAPD police officers, they opened fire on the cops and a running gun battle ensued. One of Maria’s sons, Danny Leon, opened up with an AK-47 rifle. He was killed by return fire and his cousin, Jose Gomez, 18, was wounded and later charged with murder and attempted murder.

The incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “When you shoot at my police officers, all bets are off,” Police Chief William Bratton later said. A joint local and federal  HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) task force zeroed in on the gang.  That eventually resulted in a RICO indictment. Trial in that case is now pending, so all involved are –but, of course– entitled in court to a presumption of innocence until proven guilty.  You can draw your own conclusions.

Meanwhile, the question of who’s-in-charge-here has been answered. Concerted, creative, and cooperative effort by legitimate government has smacked down the Drew Street gang–at least for now. The gang weed is deeply rooted and resilient.


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