Prison Gangs and Organized Crime

(International Relations and Security Network, 12/05/2009)


The November 2008-April 2009 federal trial of six members of the Barrio Azteca prison gang was indeed one of revelations: Former gang members, policemen and other witnesses testified to the gang’s inner workings and, most significantly, to its connections to Mexican organized crime.


It was the first time this information had been aired in the public domain; yet the trial demonstrated only a small slice of the murky world of growing ties between Mexican criminal bosses and street gang foot soldiers doing their bidding north of the border.


The trial solidified what some analysts have argued for years: Connections exist between the Barrio Azteca, an El Paso-based prison gang, and top-level members of the Juarez Cartel drug trafficking organization (DTO) run by the Carrillo Fuentes family.


The six men were tried in a federal court under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. This same legislation was used to dismantle La Cosa Nostra in New York, and has most recently been used by prosecutors in Tennessee and Maryland to break up cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).


The trial underlined the very real threat that US gangs pose inside the United States as foot soldiers, informants, tax collectors and assassins for Mexican organized crime.


The Barrio Azteca story


The Barrio Azteca prison gang was formed in 1986 when five inmates in an El Paso prison came together to protect one another inside a threatening environment. Within 10 years, the gang had spread to a number of other prisons inside Texas, and had begun relying on a presence on El Paso streets, which grew stronger as some of the original members were released.


By the late 1990s, members of the Barrio Azteca reached out through their connections in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, and began working with members of “El Chapo” Guzman’s DTO, which became known as the Sinaloa Federation after El Chapo aligned with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes.


By 2003, the Barrio Azteca had become a major drug trafficking and criminal force in El Paso, attracting the attention of El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez.


“The police department brought to our attention that Barrio Azteca gang members were engaged in a lot of illicit activities, principally drug dealing, but were also intimidating small businesses on the south side, trying to extort money from them…so the police department wanted to do something to curtail their activities,” Rodriguez told ISN Security Watch.


With the help of the El Paso police department, Rodriguez gathered enough information to form the legal basis for a civil injunction against 32 members of the Barrio Azteca. The injunction defined a community safety zone, and specific Barrio Azteca members were not allowed to gather or conduct otherwise legal activities inside the zoned neighborhoods of southern El Paso.


“These members were prohibited from engaging in a number of activities…from using their cell phones, using gang signs, or their cars,” Rodriguez said.


The civil court injunction helped reduce crime in southern El Paso by as much as 13 percent, but it did not stop the gang’s growth on the south side of the border, where it had begun to work closely with the Juarez Cartel.


When El Chapo broke his ties with Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, the leader of the Juarez Cartel, in 2008, members of the Barrio Azteca chose to remain aligned with Carrillo Fuentes, which remained well entrenched in Ciudad Juarez.


This organization also grew close to Los Zetas, and by the beginning of November 2008, proof surfaced that members of the Barrio Azteca were working in Juarez.


On 3 November, Mexican police arrested 10 members of the Barrio Azteca in Juarez in connection to the murder of at least 12 people. When they were arrested, the suspects were armed with assault rifles, side arms and communication radios. According to some analysts, this was a group of hit men preparing for a mission.


This news broke only weeks before the beginning of the Barrio Azteca trial in November 2008. By that time, police in El Paso already knew that members of the Barrio Azteca prison gang were in regular contact with members of Los Zetas and the Juarez Cartel.


The trial


The trial against six Barrio Azteca members was successful in part due to the FBI’s efforts to infiltrate the gang.


Former Barrio Azteca member Josue Aguirre testified that gang members purchased drugs from members of the Carrillo Fuentes DTO at a discounted rate in Juarez, trafficked them across the border, and sold them at wholesale to dealers in El Paso.


These dealers, in turn, had to pay the Barrio Azteca a “tax” for the right to sell drugs at the retail level. Aguirre testified that at one point, the Barrio Azteca collected taxes from at least 47 different street-level dealers in El Paso. Failure to pay the tax resulted in death.


Some of the “tax” money went to pay the mid-level members of the Barrio Azteca who received between $50 and $200 a month. Some of the money was transferred to bank accounts held by the gang’s leaders, and the rest was moved back to Juarez to purchase more drugs.


Testimony also revealed that the Barrio Azteca received discounts from the Juarez Cartel in exchange for helping hide cartel operatives in El Paso, as well as perform the occasional hit against cartel enemies hiding out in Texas.


FBI informant Gustavo “Tavo” Gallardo testified that Barrio Azteca leaders sent him to pick up a man who had cheated the Juarez Cartel out of money. Gallardo kidnapped the man in El Paso and dropped him off at a safe house in another part of the city. Another team soon arrived to take the man, bound with rope and duct tape, from the safe house to a location across the border in Juarez. Gallardo said in court that he assumed the man was killed there.


A related case has proven that the Barrio Azteca managed to infiltrate the Public Defender’s office in El Paso. Ex-paralegal Sandy Valles New acted as a “bridge” to relay coded letters and phone calls between Barrio Azteca members in prison and members on the street in El Paso and Juarez.

According to a 19 March El Paso Times article, prosecutors in the case alleged that New passed along information about FBI investigations into the Barrio Azteca to the gang’s leader in Juarez, Eduardo "Tablas" Ravelo.


Ongoing ties


The trial and resulting life sentences handed to some of the Barrio Azteca members has likely interrupted the gang’s business and communications with the Juarez Cartel. Some analysts in Texas consider that the gang has decided to lay low until the Mexican military leaves Juarez – currently slated for September 2009.


“[The gang] has been fractured, broken up,” one gang investigator in El Paso who asked not to be named told ISN Security Watch.


“But once you take out the leadership, they just bring new leadership in,” he said.


Despite its disruptions, the Barrio Azteca is likely to continue working as a stateside distribution network and tactical support structure for Mexican organized crime. And other gangs such as the Texas Syndicate, the Mara Salvatrucha, the 18th Street, the Latin Kings and the Mexican Mafia have all worked out alliances with one or more organized crime groups.


The trial revealed how the Barrio Azteca has integrated with Mexican organized crime, but, more importantly, it demonstrated how Mexican organized crime relies on gangs inside the US for distribution and support.