Pubdate: Sun, 22 Apr 2001
Source: Press Democrat, The (CA)
Copyright: 2001 The Press Democrat
Author: Mike Geniella, The Press Democrat


Instructions are written in tiny print on small scraps of paper that are 
wrapped in protective coverings and hidden in body cavities of departing 
prison parolees and inmate visitors.

Called "kites" or "wilas," the smuggled messages are a key part of an 
elaborate communications system that has enabled Nuestra Familia gang 
leaders at Pelican Bay State Prison, 250 miles north of Santa Rosa, to run 
organized crime syndicates on the streets of Northern California 
communities, authorities say.

But now, through a wide-ranging investigation dubbed "Operation Black 
Widow," federal prosecutors are targeting top criminal commanders who have 
ruled from their cells despite 24-hour surveillance in one of the nation's 
"super-max" prisons.

Five of the highest-ranking Nuestra Familia leaders are to be moved today 
from Pelican Bay to a federal detention center in the East Bay. All of them 
reached Pelican Bay, where the state's most hardened criminals are housed, 
by committing murder or attempting murder.

They are to be arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court for a new set of 
charges under a 25-count indictment accusing them of murder, attempted 
murder, drug trafficking and racketeering.

Eight other gang leaders are named in the indictment, which became public 

The charges grow out of an investigation launched by Santa Rosa police 
nearly four years ago. It expanded to include the FBI, the U.S. Justice 
Department and other agencies, costing $5 million and uncovering "hit 
lists" and other orders prepared in prison and smuggled to gang members on 
the outside, police say.

Santa Rosa police Cmdr. Scott Swanson said Saturday the indictments are 
"intended to strike at the heart of the Nuestra Familia criminal 
organization and disrupt its operations by removing the leadership's 
ability to control its street gang members."

Until now, Nuestra Familia had exploited a prison system that allowed gang 
warlords, guarded and free from the violence that permeates the gang 
underworld outside, to pass on instructions to thousands of followers.

Included were orders to kill errant gang members who betray their trust, 
directives on how to collect "taxes" from drug dealers operating within 
gang-controlled neighborhoods, and demands for retribution against rival gangs.

"It's not easy to acknowledge the extent to which these notorious gang 
leaders communicate with the outside, allowing them to maintain control 
over criminal activities that are being committed on their behalf," Pelican 
Bay Warden Joseph McGrath said.

"I'm sorry to say that it's true."

On most days, a chilly coastal wind blows across the treeless yard at 
Pelican Bay. Inmates who are allowed to mingle and exercise together huddle 
in separate cyclone-fenced areas for Latinos, blacks, whites, Asians and 
American Indians.

"If we put them in together, they would kill each other," McGrath said.

In such a tense environment, the strength and determination of Nuestra 
Familia gang members stand out. They engage in rigorous exercise routines, 
the sight and sound mimicking a military boot camp. "It's as if they're 
training for an invasion," said prison investigator Mark Piland.

The yard is cold and stark. But an even harsher prison world, separated by 
electrically charged fences and barren ground, is the 1,056-bed "SHU," 
named for security housing unit.

The isolation is even more pronounced than Death Row at San Quentin. Each 
prisoner sits alone in an antiseptic cell, painted white and with a glass 
wall so that guards can always peer in. Meals are brought to each cell; 
each prisoner is allowed out only one hour a day, alone, to exercise in a 
concrete courtyard smaller than a basketball court.

This is where Nuestra Familia's "high command" shares an eerie silence with 
leaders of the state's toughest gangs: the Mexican Mafia, the Aryan 
Brotherhood, the Black Guerillas and the Nazi Low Riders.

Inmates' clothing, personal belongings and bedding are X-rayed before they 
are placed in a cell. A prisoner's bunk is a mattress on top of a slab of 
concrete attached to the back wall. Stainless steel toilets have no 
removable parts that could be used to make weapons.

In this utilitarian environment, a small television set is often a 
prisoner's only companion.

Eight cells form a pod, which are arranged in a cluster around a 
computerized control room so corrections officers can monitor virtually 
every inmate movement.

Pelican Bay opened 11 years ago as a home for the most violent, predatory 
offenders in the 160,000-inmate state prison system. The isolation of its 
275-acre site in a clearing along the North Coast between Crescent City and 
the Oregon border was a major factor in deciding where it should be built.

Now overflowing with inmates, the high-tech prison is divided into two 
sections: the high-security unit and a general population wing. Overall, 
Pelican Bay today houses about 3,400 inmates, 1,100 more than its designed 

How imprisoned gang leaders, some nearly 1,000 miles from their 
neighborhoods, continue to orchestrate criminal activities on the outside 
is testament to their ingenuity and to what Warden McGrath describes as 
chronic understaffing in Pelican Bay's prison gang investigative unit.

Mounds of mail spill over the desks of the three prison investigators who 
are assigned to monitor the contents of hundreds of pieces of 
correspondence flowing daily in and out of the complex.

Sometimes an imprisoned gang leader writes his directives in his own urine 
on the back of an innocent-appearing drawing before sticking it in an 
envelope and mailing to an outsider. When the urine dries, the contents of 
the message remain invisible to the naked eye until the recipient holds the 
paper to heat so its secrets can be revealed.

Or messages called "ghost writings" are lightly embossed with a pointed 
object on the inside of a manila envelope. The envelope is glued back 
together, and mailed with other documents to an outside contact, who rubs 
pencil lead lightly over the markings so the message can be read.

 From these intercepted messages, investigators gleaned chilling new 
insights into the gang's inner workings.

One ghost-written message from imprisoned Nuestra Familia leader Javier 
Zubiate, convicted killer of Joseph "Littlewolf" Lincoln in a Santa Rosa 
motel in 1995, asked a gang leader in the East Bay to travel to Sonoma 
County and kill a Zubiate rival. Another Zubiate message asked the same 
East Bay gang leader to organize a Nuestra Familia "colony" in Sonoma County.

Prison authorities acknowledged they're unable to keep pace with the 
underground communications network that serves a rapidly expanding prison 
population. At Pelican Bay, a facility with an operating budget of $83.8 
million and a custody and support staff of 1,317, a total of four prison 
investigators handle the task of monitoring prisoners' communications.

"I probably sound like another government bureaucrat complaining that we 
don't have enough staff to do our jobs, but it's the truth," said Pelican 
Bay Warden McGrath. "Just look at the numbers."

McGrath is lauded by Sonoma County authorities for assigning Piland to work 
full-time with local and federal investigators who secretly probed the 
inner workings of the Nuestra Familia leadership during "Operation Black 

Brian Parry, chief of the state Department of Corrections' law enforcement 
unit, said that a total of 40 gang investigators currently are in place 
inside the state's 33 prisons to monitor thousands of gang members' 
contacts with the outside world.

"We could use just that number alone at Pelican Bay and Corcoran state 
prisons," Parry said.

During a three-year investigation into criminal activities of the Nuestra 
Familia prison gang, a special organized crime task force uncovered "hit 
lists" sent through the mail or delivered by prison parolees on behalf of 
gang leaders.

Targets included disloyal followers, gang rivals and even tenacious 

The task force uncovered how gang leaders hide behind constitutional 
guarantees of confidential communication between attorneys and clients by 
using followers who either work for lawyers, or who can fabricate legal 
letterheads and envelopes.

Because high-risk inmates don't have access to computers, typewriters or 
word processors, they send handwritten notes to outside associates who 
transform the contents into phony legal documents. Then they are sent back 
to designated inmates on the inside in envelopes marked with an attorney's 
return address.

A message smuggled into the prison in the rectal cavity of a Nuestra 
Familia gang member reports on the activity of the gang at the prison from 
which he was transferred. The tiny writing takes up five lines per one 
regular line of paper. (Press Democrat photo by John Burgess)

Pelican Bay prison investigator Piland and Andrew Mazzanti, a Sonoma County 
district attorney investigator who worked with Piland and others on the 
special task force, told federal prosecutors that they reviewed about 3,000 
letters written by Nuestra Familia members over the course of a nearly 
four-year investigation.

They discovered that imprisoned gang leaders devised elaborate codes, 
including the use of the Huazanguillo dialect of the ancient Aztec language 

Piland, Mazzanti and other task force members also intercepted written 
provisions of the Nuestra Familia "constitution" that direct gang members 
and associates on the outside to deposit drug profits and money scored in 
armed robberies and other criminal activities in "regimental banks" 
overseen by the leadership.

"The specifics of the organizational structure of Nuestra Familia is 
constantly evolving, but the street operations are overseen by a ranking 
gang member from within Pelican Bay prison. Gang members and associates 
build status and credibility with their leadership based on their ability 
to accomplish profitable and or violent criminal activity through others 
while incarcerated," according to an internal FBI document.

While the extent of the gang's intricate communications network has been 
amply documented, what can be done to lessen its effectiveness is the focus 
of debate.

"They're at no risk," McGrath said. "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."

"We talk about the long arm of the law. But now there's the long arm of the 

Because inmates enjoy unmonitored communication with their lawyers, McGrath 
said the bizarre details surrounding a San Francisco dog mauling case 
involving two attorneys and a Pelican Bay inmate they adopted as a son are 
extreme but troubling examples of how far afield things get.

"I'm not saying the legal protections prisoners and their lawyers enjoy 
have been corrupted. But it only takes a few willing accomplices to do 
serious damage," McGrath said.

McGrath acknowledged there are few additional restrictions that can be 
imposed on imprisoned gang leaders even if they are caught illegally 
communicating with the outside.

"If someone is already serving a life sentence, and he is housed in SHU," 
McGrath said, "there really isn't much more punishment we can hand out 
without coming into conflict with the constitutional rights of prisoners."
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