SANTA ROSA – Some send orders to kill through the mail disguised as letters to lawyers. Others scrawl notes in tiny letters on scraps of paper and wrap them in plastic for visitors to hide in their bodies.
Federal prosecutors say gang leaders have orchestrated hundreds of murders from inside maximum-security prisons. The Corrections Department says there’s little it can do to stop the killings, ordered by inmates who have nothing to lose and nothing but time.
Authorities say five imprisoned leaders of the powerful Nuestra Familia gang were responsible for the murders of at least five men between 1997 and 1999. They and other members unsuccessfully tried to arrange the killings of at least 10 more men and women.
“The murders were generally people who were affiliated with the organization,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Mark Young. “They weren’t just innocent bystanders that were caught up. They were somehow involved in the organization and somehow fell out of favor with the organization.”
Operation Black Widow, a three-year, $5 million, local, state and federal investigation began in Santa Rosa and culminated in the 25-count indictment of a total of 12 men and one woman on federal charges of murder, robbery, conspiracy and drug-related crimes.
Nuestra Familia gang leaders are accused of ordering and carrying out a campaign of intimidation, assaults and killings to control a crime syndicate and drug distribution empire reaching as far south as Bakersfield.
Authorities say last week’s indictments cover just a few of scores of crimes they can link to the organization. A federal judge on Thursday entered innocent pleas to all charges on behalf of the 13 defendants.
Eight gang leaders were serving time at Pelican Bay when they gave the orders to kill, prosecutors say. Deemed high-risk, they lived in the 1,056-bed “prison within a prison” known as the SHU, or security housing unit.
These inmates live alone in antiseptic cells that are painted white with a glass wall so that guards can always see inside. Meals are brought to the cells and they are allowed outside only one hour a day, alone, to exercise in a small concrete yard.
Clothing, bedding and personal items are X-rayed before they’re placed in a cell. Inmates sleep on a mattress on top of a concrete slab. Toilets are stainless steel, with no removable parts.
Despite such intense security, gang leaders have managed for years to effectively communicate with members and foot soldiers in other prisons and on the outside, prosecutors said.
“The hardcore prison gang members recruit these kids,” said Brian Parry, assistant director of the Corrections Department. “We know when certain gang members parole, they go out with a mission or orders to organize drug trafficking, commit robberies for money for the gang and hurt or kill those gang members who didn’t follow orders. Most of these gang members kill each other. They use that as their internal discipline.”
In California, 160,000 people are in prison, another 120,000 are on parole and at least one-third of the total are gang members, Parry said.
Inside prison, inmates wear badges that denote their gang affiliation. Whites, blacks, Hispanics from Northern California and Hispanics from Southern California generally don’t mix. They don’t share cells, use the exercise yard at the same time or eat together.
“I don’t think other states have as big a problem as California does,” Parry said. “The volume is what is difficult to deal with, plus we don’t have the space to move them around like we used to. Other states can move them around and dissipate (the gang’s) power.”
The gangs have a hand in at least 75 percent of prison violence, Parry added.
“We do ourselves a disservice if we talk about gangs. This isn’t a bunch of young hoodlums. This is organized crime,” said Commander Scott Swanson of the Santa Rosa Police Department, which traced local murders to Nuestra Familia members at Pelican Bay.
Nuestra Familia — its members are called “nortenos” — originated within prison walls in 1965 as a means to protect Hispanic inmates from rural Northern California. The rival Mexican Mafia — “surenos” — includes Hispanic prisoners from Southern California. They are the two most powerful gangs in the state prison system, officials say.
“You can’t just take off the top layer and say ’OK, we’re finished,”’ Swanson said. “There are thousands and thousands of members on the streets.”
He said 2,000 certified gang members live in Sonoma County alone. At least 1,000 of those are nortenos.
Also troubling is the highly organized and intricate communication system within the gang’s leadership, authorities said.
“Here is the most secure prison in California and this is what’s happening inside the walls,” Swanson said. “I don’t want to be a politician and say it’s a crisis. I would prefer to let the facts speak for themselves. But when you talk about a criminal enterprise that’s been responsible for hundreds of murders over the years and thousands of robberies, extortions and what it does to the community, is that a crisis? You decide.”
Prison resources are already stretched too far, Parry said.
“We’ve struggled with gangs for 40 years,” he said. “Unfortunately, there’s a never-ending group of young people who want to be in a gang.”
And in prison, gang members have nothing but time and nothing to lose.
“They’re at no risk,” said Joseph McGrath, Pelican Bay’s warden. “Many of them are serving life terms. They don’t have to worry about being stabbed or challenged by other inmates because of their secure environment. Yet they can send an order out, and because their structure is so sophisticated they know that if somebody doesn’t carry out their orders, someone else will take care of that person.”
Investigators uncovered “hit lists” sent through the mail or hand-delivered by parolees.
Inmates write in urine on the back of innocent-looking drawings. The dried urine remains invisible until held next to a heat source.
They also send “ghost writings,” using a pointed object on the inside of a manila envelope. The recipient rubs pencil lead lightly over the markings to read the message.
Investigators also uncovered elaborate codes, including one based on an ancient Aztec language dialect.
Anyone who refused to obey the group’s rules or directives, or sought to withdraw from the Nuestra Familia, were ordered killed, prosecutors say.
State Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, in a letter Tuesday, asked Gov. Gray Davis to create a task force “to target prison gangs and the neighborhood violence and terror they have spawned on the North Coast.”
The request follows criticism by Santa Rosa and Sonoma County law enforcement officials that top state officials ignored pleas for financial help over the past several years.
Davis spokeswoman Hilary McLean said Friday the governor had not yet responded to Chesbro’s request, but would review it along with all the other funding requests he has received.