By Scott Johnson
Evidence is increasing that California prison gangs are forging close relationships with powerful drug-trafficking cartels in Mexico, according to U.S. law enforcement officials and gang experts who say the relationships have moved into a dangerous new area as Mexican cartels and American gangs swap tactical information, share intelligence and exchange techniques to avoid detection.
"What we're seeing is that highly sophisticated gangs, operating out of the prison system or from cartels in Mexico, are shot-calling, and then farming out the work to local street gangs in California, like the Norteños," state Attorney General Kamala Harris said recently by phone from Los Banos, the scene of a large anti-gang operation June 7.
Increased cooperation across borders and among organized crime syndicates threatens California in new ways, officials say. As evidence, they point to the beginnings of a spillover into this country of the sort of violence that has pitted cartels against the Mexican government and army.
Historically, the term "transnational gang" has been used by academics and law enforcement officials to refer to the spread of such Central American gangs as Mara Salvatrucha into North Carolina, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Those gangs were formed in part by refugees who had fled the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras in the 1980s and were deported back to their home countries. Many formed gangs to protect themselves. But they also exported violence.
A January report from the Congressional Research Service found that transnational gangs continue to expand, and over the past three years Congress has allocated more than $100 million to combat their growth in Central America and the U.S.
Harris said the term should be expanded to include the kind of cooperation she said is growing between California prison gangs and Mexican cartels that regularly traffic drugs, weapons and human beings across the U.S. border.
"There is good reason to connect the activities of these gang members here with Mexico," Harris said. "I think they're very connected."
Just after 7 a.m. June 7 in Los Banos, a quiet Central Valley town, a dozen police officers in dark blue jumpsuits, SWAT gear and M-4 assault rifles loaded into four unmarked police trucks in the parking lot of a Carl's Jr. They rolled through a quiet suburb of one-story ranch houses, European automobiles and leafy streets. Weapons ready, they knocked loudly at the door of a nondescript residence, and when a hefty Latino man in his mid-30s answered, they arrested him and quickly moved on.
Before the day was over, an additional 74 men would be taken in raids across the Central Valley in the largest gang sweep in California this year, according to detectives involved in the raid. More than 250 officers from 16 state and federal agencies swept into communities in two counties looking for members of a notorious California prison gang, Nuestra Familia, and its street affiliate, the Norteños.
The operation, "Red Zone," was the latest continuation of a two-year Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement investigation into what Harris calls "the scourge of transnational gangs." Two days later, a similar operation in Tracy netted 30 more alleged gang members.
Harris said she has made tackling transnational gangs a priority since her term began in January. Two major crackdowns, one in May and another in June, have resulted in almost 200 arrests of alleged gang members, and the seizure of about 200 pounds of methamphetamine.
After members of the Arrellano Felix cartel attempted to assassinate five members of a family in Palmdale, near Los Angeles, in February, Harris traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border to announce the expansion of a multiagency task force in Imperial County, along the border, to target transnational gangs.
Operation Red Zone was the latest sting in a two-year effort that provides a window into how the shift in gang methods may be taking place.
Officers from the Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement began tracking an increase in Norteño-related slayings in Salinas in October 2009.
There, Norteños and members of Nuestra Familia were importing up to 20 pounds of methamphetamine per week and distributing it regionally. As a result, police say, the homicide rate there doubled from 2007 to 2009, increasing to four times the national average.
When law enforcement caught on, many gang members fled. Some sought safety in the flat plains and farms of the Central Valley, in and around Los Banos, in Merced County. Nuestra Familia, meanwhile, was struggling to get a foothold in the rural areas. But the team that was tracking them in Salinas followed them as they moved east.
What they started to see worried them. Nuestra Familia has established networks all over Northern California and well into Oregon, Illinois, Texas, Colorado and Utah.
The gang also had regimental commanders in several California counties. The ties to the East Bay were also deep and well-entrenched. Detectives found connections to Oakland, Tracy, Concord and Morgan Hill on a regular basis.
In the Salinas takedown in May 2010, the team arrested Martin Mentoya, also known as "Cyclone," the regimental commander for the East Bay, responsible for Hayward, Oakland and Richmond. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms later indicted Mentoya on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute narcotics. Mentoya was also charged with two counts of firebombing.
"In Los Banos, they were working with people in the Bay Area to share resources," said Dean Johnston, the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement special agent supervisor and lead investigator on the recent operations. "It's part of a criminal organization; they all agree to help each other."
More distressing still were the ties to Mexico, which were more sophisticated than expected. "They're doing things proactively now to cooperate with each other," Johnston said. "Now there are signs these gangs are working with the cartels, and it's more sophisticated than we've seen before."
This strategic partnership appears to mirror a dramatic rise in methamphetamine production in Mexico. According to Malcolm Beith, author of "The Last Narco," a recent book about the drug war in Mexico, meth production in Mexico has soared since 2003, largely due to U.S. demand. In 2007, the Mexican army seized 22 meth labs. This year, it has already seized 89 -- an increase officials say signals radically increased production. One lab in Sinaloa was producing about 20 tons of meth annually at an estimated street value of $700 million.
The Nuestra Familia and Norteño members found what they thought was a shelter from law enforcement in the rural communities of the Central Valley. Many lived in nice suburban homes. It was quiet. The detectives began to piece together a picture of how the two organizations are working together. In the past, Johnston said, the cartels would only sell the narcotics that U.S. buyers could pay for up front. Now, he said, the Mexican cartels "are opening lines by giving them fronted amounts of drugs. They're helping them out, not just selling to them, and that's a big change."
Johnston said the cartel leaders have been reassured somewhat by the reputation Norteños have for being honest about their drug trafficking. Whereas other groups may cut their drugs with other products to increase their profit margins, Norteños do not.
"Nuestra Familia guarantees its product," the detective said. "If people complain about their ability to consume it, they'll return it. They're very strict on the quality of their substance."
This has also reassured the cartels, officials say.
"Recently, these drug-trafficking cartels are making large amounts of meth available to the gangs," Johnston said. "They're saying, 'We know you guys are good for it,' and that's a big difference."
Officials say they have also seen the cartels and the gangs getting more sophisticated. Detectives watched traffickers falsify tags on vehicles to bring cars across the U.S. border from Mexico. A Mexican official with access to vehicle registration was on their payroll. U.S. Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement officials said the Mexican official was getting paid $400 for each vehicle registration change. At least three registrations were changed. Nuestra Familia also began wiring money into bank accounts instead of dealing in cash transactions.
One of the most worrying developments was the sophistication of countersurveillance techniques adopted by the gangs.
"They were driving to meet locations and purposefully trying to avoid detection," Johnston said. "They never used to do that."
The more time and exposure the U.S. gangs had to Mexican cartels, the more they tended to adopt the methodology of the cartels, he said.
"The gangs are doing things now that we've seen the major drug-trafficking organizations do. They're learning our techniques, in part, and they're also learning new stuff from the cartels."
Officials say the effects of the recent raid will be felt statewide. Gangs and the Mexican cartels have national reach. They dabble in a multitude of transjurisdictional crimes, including weapons and the illegal trade of human beings, including children for the sex trade. Throughout, Nuestra Familia helps smooth transactions.
In the Los Banos case, for example, Norteños from Merced had purchased an AK-47, but didn't have ammunition for it. They reached out to Morgan Hill Norteños, who supplied them with bullets.
Johnston said he often sees guns used in crimes in the East Bay that resurface months later three counties away, having essentially been "washed" by crossing the county line.
"This is not just about one region," Harris said. "An operation like this affects the entire state."