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 Amazon.com
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.
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.