Pubdate: Sun, 18 Dec 2011
Source: Brownsville Herald, The (TX)
Copyright: 2011 The Brownsville Herald
Author: Madeline Buckley, The Brownsville Herald


Sentenced to several years in state prison for a drug conviction,
Graciano Castaneda instinctively knew he needed to belong to a group
to survive the prison system, which he described as a dangerous
society for those that enter alone.

Castaneda, who spent eight year in prison in the 1990s for two drug
convictions, had an older brother in the Mexican Mafia, a notorious
prison gang.

Later in his life, he would lose the mother of his children to the
Mexican Mafia. A high-ranking member of the gang ordered her murder.

After his first drug conviction, his brother warned him to stay away
from the prison gangs, known for drug trafficking and holding a rigid
and brutal reign inside the system. But Castaneda knew the gang
leaders preyed on inmates who were not already part of a group.

"Basically when someone goes to prison, they test you out to see
whether you are alone or with somebody," he said. "If you're alone,
the prison gangs try to befriend you, and get you to come with them."

So the Harlingen man banded with a group of inmates also from the Rio
Grande Valley. They protected each other, and warded off threats from
the gangs, whose leaders forced prospective entrants to beat other
inmates and smuggle contraband to prove themselves.

"We thought about survival all the time," he said. "Prison is a
different world."

Joining a prison gang is joining for life

Non-violent felons may enter the prison system on relatively minor
offenses, such as theft or forgery. They face a maximum of three years
in prison. They are not brutal, life-long criminals.

What they encounter in the state and federal prisons, though, changes

Ramon Vela , a former captain with the Harlingen Police Department,
sees it all the time.

Prison gangs such as the Mexican Mafia and Texas Syndicate have a
strong pull inside Texas state prisons and out on the streets, Vela
said. They employ coercive tactics to recruit felons inside the prisons.

"People go into prison, and they get intimidated, assaulted, there are
mind games," Vela said.

The prison gangs are exceptionally organized and structured with an
army-like hierarchy, he said. They recruit heavily, using force.
Often, felons don't have a choice about joining the gang.

Sometimes, they recruit with promises of protection and

"By the time they leave prison, they turn into a lifetime prison gang
member and violent offender," Vela said.

For an inmate that was inducted into a prison gang during time served,
his first duty is to report to a gang leader on the outside, Vela said.

"You belong to the gang 100 percent," he said. "Your family, your job,
everything comes second."

At the Harlingen Police Department, Vela worked with the
Investigations Unit and Gang Intelligence. He has since retired, and
is a pastor at Breathe Life Christian Church in Harlingen, often
counseling prisoners and former gang members.

Along with the Texas Syndicate and Mexican Mafia, the Valluco gang has
a stronghold in the Rio Grande Valley, Vela said.

Throughout the state, close to 20 prison gangs have members populating
the cells, and that doesn't include numerous street gangs with members
in the prison system, Sgt. Sandra Tapia of the Edinburg Police
Department said.

Isolating prison gang members

This presents a problem for the Texas Department of Criminal

Prison officials are faced with the task of isolating known gang
members from the general population, in an attempt to stop the rapid
recruitment of members and other criminal activity orchestrated from
the inside.

Law enforcement keeps databases of known gang members and identifying
markers, such as tattoos. When a new inmate is booked, officials look
for signs of gang membership, and isolate known members.

"It's a process we have to go through to avoid conflicts inside the
prison, fights, riots," she said.

Vela said the process is a difficult one. Confirmed gang members
already in the database are put in solitary confinement, he said, but
authorities need more to go on than a tattoo.

"They need evidence such as a voluntary emission," he

But many gang members, particularly members without rank, slip through
into the general population and gang leaders who have been isolated
find cracks in the system.

The gangs operate illegal activities such as drug smuggling and human
trafficking from inside the cells. They are responsible for murders
throughout the state, Tapia said.

"They find ways to communicate," she said.

A high-ranking member of a prison gang on the inside can give orders
via a friend or family member that visits, letters or phone calls.
Even inmates that have limited communication privileges find ways to
get word out, she said.

Tapia said she once heard of a case where inmates managed to smuggle
cellphones into the jail.

Finding and convicting the leaders

After the 2003 disappearance of a 33-year-old Harlingen mother - the
mother of Castaneda's two daughters - Texas Ranger Lt. Victor Escalon
assisted Harlingen police with the investigation.

Early on, investigators received information the disappearance and
eventual murder of Jo Ann Chavez had ties with the Mexican Mafia,
Escalon said.

Proving it took more than a decade.

Last month, a Cameron County jury convicted Wilfredo Padilla, a
high-ranking member of the prison gang, of murder after an
investigation and trial that lasted years.

The case is an example of the difficulties of finding and trying gang

"It was a long investigation," Escalon said. "It led me throughout the
state of Texas and certain parts of the U.S."

Police traced the Mexican Mafia drug trafficking business from Mexico,
to the Rio Grande Valley, up through Texas and eventually to northern
states such as Ohio and Michigan.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in dealing with gang-related murders,
Escalon said, was locating witnesses who would talk. Prison gang code
forbids cooperation with law enforcement.

"People are truly hesitant to get involved and put themselves in a
position of risk," he said.

Eventually, members of the Mexican Mafia cooperated with the
investigation and implicated Padilla as the man who gave the order for
the murder.

Prosecutors said after the jury handed down a 50-year sentence for the
murder that the case was almost impossible to prosecute because
Padilla was insulated by the fact that he didn't commit the murder. He
wasn't present at the scene of the crime.

Although Padilla, a captain in the Mexican Mafia, is off the streets,
Vela said he will likely retain his rank and title in prison.

"He'll still be a heavyweight in the prison," Vela said. "He still has
a say-so on what happens outside and inside the prison."

Counseling in the prisons and on the streets

Castaneda managed to avoid joining a prison gang during his time
served, but on the outside, he again got involved with drugs, often
doing business with the Mexican Mafia.

Drug smuggling landed him in prison a second time, but it wasn't until
Chavez's body was discovered in 2005, and a beating shortly after,
allegedly by Mexican Mafia members, nearly killed him and put him in a
wheelchair for months.

Doctors told him his heart stopped five times while they tried to save

"As soon as they said that to me, I made the decision to change my
life around. I never went back," he said.

Now, Castaneda is a minister. He received an associate's degree in
business. The man counsels inmates and works with teenagers on the

"I try to reach a couple of those kids to keep their mindset away from
gangs, and put their minds back to being prosperous in life and
helping somebody else," he said. 
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