by Daniel Borunda \ El Paso Times
The FBI's blow against the Barrio Azteca last week showed that the region's dominant gang has continued to operate in spite of past racketeering cases that sent gang bosses to prison for life.
Experts said breaking a criminal organization as large as the Barrio Azteca is not done in one swing, but could take years in the same fashion the Italian mob was eventually crippled.
U.S. Attorney John E. Murphy on Wednesday announced a federal indictment of 35 alleged leaders, members and associates of the Barrio Azteca.
Among those indicted are 10 men accused in the killings a year ago today of three people linked to the U.S. Consulate in Juárez.
El Pasoans Lesley Enriquez Redelfs, a consulate employee, and her husband, Arthur Redelfs, an El Paso County sheriff's detention officer, were shot and killed while driving home from a consulate children's party. Jorge Alberto Salcido Ceni ceros, whose wife worked at the consulate, was also killed after leaving the party at the same time.
Federal agents are searching for seven fugitives, including Eduardo "Tablas" Ravelo, reputedly the capo running the Barrio Azteca in Juárez, and Jose Antonio "El Diego" Acosta Hernandez, allegedly a boss in the Juárez drug cartel.
Ravelo is on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted fugitives list. The bureau is offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to his capture.
The Barrio Azteca-Juárez drug cartel connection is believed to be a source of much of the power of a gang that began so West Texas inmates could protect themselves in prison.
It has become a violent binational crime organization.
Law enforcement, court testimony and the 57-page indictment unsealed Wednesday described the workings of a gang, which was also known as the Familia Azteca when it was formed by Texas prison inmates in 1986.
The founders of the Barrio Azteca, or the BA, created a set of "sacred rules" forming the military-style hierarchy of the gang and its rules of conduct.
The capo mayor is at the peak of the command structure. He is chosen from the capos, or captains, who run the gang. The chain of command has lieutenants, sergeants and soldiers, known as "Indios."
Prospective members, or "prospectos," are mentored on the rules of the gang by a "padrino," or godfather.
"The BA rules provide that loyalty to the BA, or 'Familia' is paramount and superior to loyalties to God, country, family or friends," the indictment stated.
El Paso police started seeing the Barrio Azteca in the late 1980s as members of local street gangs began funneling into the BA in prison and then spreading to the streets once released.
"They had already started to establish themselves from the old little neighborhoods, from the different cliques that existed," said Mary Lou Carrillo, a retired sergeant with the police gang unit.
"A lot of the smaller cliques of gangs ended up joining forces. Like a lot of prison gangs do, they started for protection," Carrillo said.
The BA rules require members work for the organization after being released from prison. Membership is supposed to be for life and above all other relationships, documents stated.
Richard Schwein is retired but was the special agent in charge of the FBI's El Paso office from 1987 to 1994.
"The Aztecas were a small prison gang then, and they expanded and expanded and expanded," Schwein said. "All prison gangs grow. You have the Mexican Mafia, the Aztecas, the white supremacist groups. They breed in prison."
The Barrio Azteca started with about 35 members but in 20 years had grown to about 3,000 in the Texas and federal prison system and in the "free world" outside of prison.
By the mid-1990s, the Barrio Azteca had consolidated its hold of the El Paso County Jail after the murders of several rivals.
In 2001, federal authorities hit the gang with the first Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) investigation, dubbed Operation Carnalitos, which at the time was described as one of the most significant cases in El Paso in years.
The operation was named after "carnal," slang for brother and a term Aztecas use to refer to each other. The operation resulted in RICO indictments against 62 gang leaders and soldiers.
The law was created to dismantle the Mafia by holding leaders accountable for crimes carried out by members of criminal groups.
Operation Carnalitos resulted in several convictions, including capo mayor Benjamin "T-Top" Alvarez and capo Carlos "Shotgun" Perea, who were sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
Authorities at the time said the Barrio Azteca did not seem to have close ties to the Juárez drug cartel.
But the gang's alliance with the Juárez drug cartel (the Vicente Carrillo Fuentes drug trafficking organization) was evident when it was hit with another RICO case in 2008.
The cartel pays the gang with cash or discounted drugs for transporting drugs or serving as cartel enforcers. Investigators said gang leaders in prison issue orders to soldiers in the streets.
The 2008 RICO case resulted in capos Alvarez, Perea and Manuel "Tolon" Cardoza and two other members sentenced to life in prison. A gang associate was given 15 years in prison.
Before trial, nine other defendants pleaded guilty to various charges.
According to the latest indictment, the Barrio Azteca has groups in El Paso, Juárez, Chihuahua City, Midland and Odessa.
"Each of these geographical groups has some autonomy in deciding how it will achieve its criminal aims but always within the framework and rules of the overarching BA criminal enterprise," the document stated.
The gang collects "taxes, renta, or quota" from street-level drug dealers. Proceeds are sent to members in prison.
The Barrio Azteca divides El Paso into zones -- Central, Northeast, East Side, Lower Valley, Horizon, Socorro and West Side, which runs north through Las Cruces. Juárez is also divided into the sectors, such as Babicora and Aldama, copying that city's police districts.
Prosecutors alleged that gang activity continued despite the previous RICO case.
The latest indictment mentioned intercepted telephone conversations last year in which gang members allegedly discuss drug trafficking, extortion and placing "green lights" on four Barrio Azteca members.
A green light, in the code used by the gang, is a sanctioned murder. In some cases, a member who has fallen out of favor might be referred to in the feminine or as an "X."
FBI spokesman Special Agent Michael Martinez said the gang's military structure and its ability to communicate with bosses in prison makes it a challenge for law enforcement.
"The past RICO cases have disrupted the gang," Martinez said. "With any paramilitary group, they have soldiers in that group that move up the food chain when a leader is removed. It's like a cycle; they have people there ready to take over."
The previous RICO trial showed that the FBI was able to infiltrate the gang with informants, including a gang sergeant who testified to wearing a wire at gang meetings that he had called. Several gang members testified for the prosecution.
Schwein, the retired FBI agent, said the key to defeating organized crime is getting members to work for the government.
"What happened (to the Mafia) is, the old immigrants from Italy died off. They had the code of omerta where they wouldn't talk," Schwein said. "The younger ones, the native-born Americans, had a different set of values. They will cooperate often when they are facing life in prison without parole."
Carrillo said that the RICO cases weakened the gang and that it no longer has the stronghold in El Paso it had years ago.
"The best part about it (RICO) is the distrust that now exists in the gang," Carrillo said. "No one trusts each other. The best way to dismantle an organization is from within, to sow distrust."
Carrillo spent a career working with gang members, from middle-school children to middle-aged ex-cons. Gangs are not defeated by police alone, she said.
"Most of these prison gangs will recruit from your local street gangs," she said. "It happens in every city. It's not exclusive to El Paso. Every city has their major gang that feeds off street gangs the same way street gangs feed off these kids that have no direction, where a family unit is lacking."
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