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Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Barrio Azteca prison gang RICO, was used to prosecute six leaders and associates


11:25 |

Carlos "Shotgun" Perea, Manuel "Tolon" Cardoza, Benjamin "T-Top" Alvarez, Eugene "Gino" Mona, and Said "Shorty" Herrera face life sentences for their convictions of violations of the RICO statute.
Federal law created to bring down the Mafia in 1970 now has been used to lock up leaders of a powerful El Paso-based prison gang after a month-long trial that ended Tuesday with several convictions.
The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, was used to prosecute six leaders and associates of the Barrio Azteca prison gang. A jury in U.S. District Court found the men guilty of most of the crimes they were charged with.Sentencing for the gang leaders, who face up to life in federal prison, is set for Feb. 24.Law enforcement officials said gangs are the perfect example of organized crime, particularly when the gangs have leadership structures rules, and plan and commit crimes."RICO isn't used that often, but it's been very effective when it has," national gang expert Robert Walker said in a telephone interview from South Carolina. "They are an organization. It doesn't say it has to be the Mafia."
Walker worked in law enforcement for more than 50 years, including as a special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He is a private consultant and has been an expert witness in trials involving gang members in several states. He also consulted in a federal RICO gang-related trial in Virginia.Assistant U.S. Attorney Jose Luis Acosta tried to show the jury during the Barrio Azteca trial an organized militarylike structure among the gang with ranks of soldiers, sergeants, lieutenants and captains, as well as a thorough system for investigating prospective members and others.
The gang was known to communicate their orders through elaborately coded letters sent into and outside the prison system using "bridge" addresses to other gang members.Witnesses testified that gang members used threats and intimidation to further their efforts.Prison no deterrentCaptains issued orders from inside and outside prisons for criminal activities that took place in jails, prisons and cities.
Several of those on trial were behind bars when their crimes occurred.Acosta also called on witnesses to describe written rules they were shown at the time they became members.Among the charges the gang members were found guilty of were engaging in the affairs of an enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity, conspiracy to conduct the affairs of an activity through a pattern of racketeering activity, conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and conspiracy to possess heroin, cocaine and marijuana with intent to distribute.Arturo "Tury" Enriquez faces 20 years in federal prison for a conviction of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by threats or violence. He was acquitted of conspiracy to commit murder in aid of racketeering.Though RICO is effective in convicting gang leaders, Walker said, it's unlikely to stop gang activity."If you take a leader and put him in jail, what's going to happen? They're going to look for a new leader on the street," Walker said.
But Mary Lou Carrillo, who dealt with Aztecas on the streets before retiring last year as a sergeant with an El Paso police gang unit, was hopeful the convictions Tuesday would affect gang activity in the city."These are guys we have been working on for years, since the early days of the gang unit," she said. "I think this has already impacted the street gangs quite a bit because they are turning on each other."Before the trial, nine other defendants pleaded guilty to various charges.Many of those who pleaded guilty testified for the prosecution at the trial and were ex-gang members who made deals to lessen or avoid charges."This tends to create a lot of enemies of those who are testifying," Walker said. "They may have reprisals taken out against them at some point."Barrio Azteca often recruits prospects from El Paso street-gang members who are serving time in prison. Barrio Azteca is believed to have about 3,000 members across the Southwest and Mexico.
Carrillo, who tracked the gang for many years, said treating gangs like the organized-crime structures they are is a sure way to damage them."If you start working gangs on an individual basis, you're never going to go anywhere," Carrillo said. "RICO is the way to go, and it's going to require all agencies working together."The Barrio Azteca case included cooperation from multiple law enforcement agencies. The five-year investigation was led by the FBI with assistance from the El Paso Police Department, the district attorney's office, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Texas Department of Public Safety."The FBI, along with all of our law enforcement partners, will continue to pursue the leadership of organized criminal enterprises, such as violent street gangs, and use all available investigative and prosecutive means to disrupt their activities," FBI Special Agent in Charge David Cuthbertson said in a statement.Carrillo said she hopes law enforcement agencies will continue to work together to prosecute gangs."The key is not to stop," she said. "Many agencies throughout the country start seeing violence drop because of successful investigations such as this, and they start depleting gangs, but you really need to keep your thumb on them at all times. "You've got to cut the head off the snake and work it from the top, which is from the prison system," Carrillo said.
While increased attention against gangs may help limit their criminal activity, Walker said, the problem of gangs is unlikely to disappear in large cities."Gangs are like a cancer. They will continue to grow and grow and grow," Walker said.
He said that even if leaders are convicted, they are not likely to stop calling the shots on the streets from prison.Alvarez and Perea were convicted for crimes they committed while serving 15-year sentences in federal prison for a previous RICO conviction."You take the leaders of the Barrio Azteca and lock them up, and say they're locked up for life, they will continue to run the Barrio Azteca," Walker said before the verdict. "They're going to deal in narcotics, hurt people, kill people. They will do the same things now they were doing before they were convicted, if in fact they are convicted."


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