Part I-Operation Black Widow
Gang Expert: George Collord
Santa Rosa Police Department Detective (retired)
Gang instructor, FBI's national in-service training for field agents
Gang instructor, FBI's national in-service training for field agents
Gang violence rocked the city of Santa Rosa in the late 1990s, shaking up this wine country community an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. Shootings, stabbings and fights erupted throughout the city, reflecting the violence erupting in a number of California communities throughout the golden state. Gang detectives from Santa Rosa Police Department (SRPD) became exhausted trying to clamp down on this bloodshed. The fight seemed hopeless.
Then something began that evolved into one of the largest and most penetrating gang investigations ever tackled in California. It began small, slowly spreading until local state and federal investigators joined hands to take down one of the most powerful prison gangs to ever emerge from the largest penal system in the nation. These gangsters called themselves Nuestra Familia (Our Family). This is the story of Operation Black Widow, a joint task force that penetrated the very core of this gang and shook up California gangland worse than any earthquake.
The story begins in 1997. It is a story told by one police officer who was there at the beginning and stayed to the end. It is a story of determination, danger, and personal sacrifice. It is a story of team work between law enforcement agencies throughout the State of California—local, state and federal. It is a story of a case that took five years to bring federal indictments against the leadership of the gang.
And after all this effort and expense, don’t look for a happy ending.
It is my pleasure to introduce my friend and former partner, George Collord. He is currently a gang instructor at the FBI Headquarter’s in-service nationwide training program for field agents. He is also a consultant to a number of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in this ever-changing war against gang violence. He has been called to provide consultation to a number of television, movie and media outlets regarding their effort to accurately portray the gang threat in California and other parts of the nation. George retired from SPRD a few years ago and continues to work with law enforcement regarding gang issues.
MARK: To understand Operation Black Widow (OBW), help us understand what gang detectives were up against in 1997.
GEORGE: Mark, thanks for the opportunity to inform your readers. We were up against it as a community and as a police department. We’d been caught slippin’, as they say, by a wave of gang violence that started in the late 1980’s and hit its stride in the early 1990’s. At first it was groups of what I call “fad” gangsters, fringe kids who fell in with the gang life style as a result of films such as Colors, Boyz in the Hood and Menace to Society. But once the fad faded, we were left with two main opposing forces, younger latino kids in huge groups, one wearing red, the other wearing blue. The colors had nothing to do with Crips and Bloods, though we did not know that at the time. We had assaults (beat downs, stabbings, shootings) and murder that jumped off in the schools, malls, streets and housing projects. We could not figure out what caused it. The board of supervisors, city council and community leaders were alarmed to say the least. They were opposed to the term “gang-related” because that meant a threat to tourist dollar coming into the Sonoma/Napa wine country. But there was no denying the wounded and dead bodies. So the police departments were charged with coming up with ways to stop the violence.
MARK: How did the Nuestra Familia (NF) come to be? Why were they formed? Who were they?
GEORGE: Well, the NF started as a defensive organization in the California Department of Corrections. You have to back up to just after World War II. In the pen there were no gangs, just inmates. But in 1957, a small group of latino inmates from Southern California, who’d been affiliated on the outside with one another in LA and Bakersfield, came together for protection at Duell Vocational Institute in Tracy, California. They called themselves the Mexican Mafia or La Eme.
Essentially, they wanted to protect themselves from bigger, meaner white and black inmates. The idea caught on and their numbers swelled. The black inmates soon came together in a gang known as the BGF, Black Guerilla Family. The whites came together as the Aryan Brotherhood.
This left one large unaffiliated group, latino farmer worker types who’d come from the Central Valley, San Jose, and Salinas who had no gang affiliation on the street. They found themselves the object of extreme abuse from rape to extortion.
In the mid 1960’s, due to physical and mental problems among military serving in Viet Nam War, a number of latino soldiers wound up in the pen. Some of them found their way into numbers of the unaffiliated latino inmates who came from the farms. They, along with some disaffected Mexican Mafia members, helped to organize the rural latinos into a self protection group known as La Nuestra Familia. The NF formerly announced its existence with a series of vicious attacks on La Eme starting on Mexican Independence Day, September 16, 1968. The war that ensued cost the lives of nearly 300 inmates in the prisons of California. The CDC began separating inmates from Northern California from those in Southern California in a bid to stop the violence, hence the North-South conflict we have today.
MARK: How much of this did you know before Operation Black Widow began?
GEORGE: Very little. I’d gone through the Oakland Police Academy in 1982-1983 and there was absolutely nothing on this prison problem in our classroom instruction because it was not relevant at the time on the streets of Northern California.
MARK: How much power do Nuestra Familia (NF) leaders wield?
GEORGE: The leaders’ words are the difference between life and death. They can control, via proxy, thousands of inmates in state pens, county jails and juvenile halls. They control the streets via older more influential street gang members or parolees from that gang.
MARK: What is the organizational structure of the NF?
GEORGE: The organizational structure is set forth in their constitution. They have an Overall Governing Board (OGB) that acts as a check and balance for three generals, ten captains and a series of regimental commanders. Under them they have what I call a farm team, the Northern Structure (or Nuestra Raza). Under them they have thousands of street nortenos and norteno sympathizers. Their organization looks like a great pyramid from Egypt.
MARK: People find it hard to understand how gang leaders—locked up in isolation—can effectively run their organization throughout the state. Later in this interview, we explore in depth what OBW investigators found out about this communication network. Just give us a bird’s eye view of their communications network.
GEORGE: I found it incredible too, until a hit man for the NF mob, whom we’d recruited in Pelican Bay State Prison as a “source”, asked if any of us were Catholic. My partner, puzzled, said he was Catholic. The inmate, whom we’ll call Red Raider, said, simply, “Have you ever met the pope or any of his homeboys in the Vatican? Well, you still do what they say.” It’s all about education and training from the time a norteno gang member is recruited.
MARK: Before we begin learning about how OBW began, let’s jump forward and learn how it ended. Give us the figures of how successful OBW became and the time line this all fell into.
GEORGE: We convicted about 75 NF and NF affiliated gang members on various state and federal racketeering charges. We started a “three month” operation in September of 1997. We began indictments in 2001 In January of 2006, Governor Schwarzenegger commuted the sentences of several “lifers” from Pelican Bay State Prison so we could transfer them to Florence, Colorado’s SuperMax. It sorta went longer than we’d initially told our chief it would last.
MARK: Now, let’s go back in time to 1997. What were you and other gang investigators facing? What did you see on the street among the gangs that made you take a closer look?
GEORGE: There were several alarming trends we were seeing. More gangs, better organized. More violence. We even saw gangs killing some of their own, which was a real puzzle. We didn’t know at the time that political house cleaning was happening at our level. The numbers, though, were alarming. We began rough head counts and found we were staring at about 1400 Norteno gang members, many in their early teens, who were locked in a struggle with about half that many surenos. This was in a county, Sonoma, of less than a half a million. Those are big numbers when you think about the amount of actual and psychological damage they were beginning to do to our communities.
MARK: How did you try to tackle this problem on the local level?
GEORGE: Initially, we did what all jurisdictions start out doing-total suppression. We had countywide gang units. We’d fan out and kick in doors of probationers or chase youngsters off the corners. We weren’t getting anywhere other than to anger a lot of parents, civil libertarians (who have their place but who often like to sit on the sidelines and criticize) and politicians. Then we happened to get lucky and recruit an informant who’d been a pretty nasty character. He began telling us about his local boss who was organizing, holding meetings etc. His boss was a parolee fresh out of San Quentin prison.
MARK: What happened?
GEORGE: Our informant led us to believe that the parolee was a sort of linchpin in the local gang scene. So naturally, we went to that parolee’s parole officer and asked to complete a parole search to learn more. We hit the parolee’s apartment and found him to be in violation. He had some marijuana and beer in the house so he looked as though he would be headed back to state pen for a short stretch, thus disrupting any organizing he’d been doing. I was shocked when the parolee, whom I’ll refer to as “Aztec” told me he wanted to talk, rather than head back to jail. What Aztec told me in a five hour interview changed my world, and his. He didn’t go back to the pen. He began working as an informant.
MARK: So how did OBW task force come to be?
GEORGE: Aztec told me he was an acting administrator for the Nuestra Familia in the North Bay, which would be the five or so counties north of San Francisco in the Bay Area. While he was not yet a full fledged member of the NF, he’d been given the assignment to keep all the norteno “hoods” organized and make regular reports to his NF “channels” in not only San Francisco but also Monterey County, three hours south of Sonoma County.
He proved his story by calling together a “meeting of the hoods” at a local Round Table pizza joint. He rented a private room and brought in the 15 most influential gangsters in Sonoma County. He asked each to give a report on the neighborhood issues each was facing with respect to encroaching surenos. He also brought in a guest speaker from San Francisco who represented the NF leader in SF. The guest speaker, a guy called “Chino”, pumped up the group telling them they were all part of a larger organization and that they’d all be rewarded for their hard work if they ever ended up in prison. It was absolutely astounding to see street gangsters with this level of sophistication.
MARK: Tell us what you started to learn as this investigation evolved?
GEORGE: Through Aztec we learned that the NF had broken the state of California into about 9 regiments, from the lower Central Valley to the Oregon border. In each of those regiments, parolees were placed in charge and were expected to recruit new gang members as well as keep all the norteno gangs united in making money through criminal enterprise, and in warring with surenos. We learned that a portion of illegal gains were to be transferred to inmates in the CDC.
MARK: How important was it to work with other agencies throughout the state? How did this come to be? How effective were you in creating these working relationships? Who funded it? Who staffed it? What was the aim of the task force?
GEORGE: It quickly became apparent that Aztec was too much for our department to handle. As you remember, Mark, you’d developed a fantastic relationship with local FBI agents Greg Snider and Gary Joseph, in another case. Greg and Gary were consulted and agreed to help us run Aztec. The FBI became the driving force, both in bodies and funds for the next 8 years. The FBI became just one of about a dozen police agencies we worked with in this operation.
We were extremely fortunate in that most northern California police agencies were flailing about with the same surge of norteno/sureno gang violence and had gang officers who were more than eager to jump on board with us. The only things we required from someone joining our task force were a lack of ego, ability to share info, and a willingness to put in long hours on the hunt. Salinas PD and Modesto PD became our second homes. CDC was only too glad to help. They gave us the legendary Louie Holguin, a senior Special Services Agent to guide us through the labyrinth of the CDC system.
MARK: Give us some of the highlights of working with others in California:
GEORGE: I loved working with gang officers in Stockton, Modesto, San Jose, Salinas and many others there is not the space to mention here. We quickly became brothers and remain friends to this day. Each was responsible for the mess in his own jurisdiction and when we all put our heads together we found out we had common enemies, not only the NF but our own bureaucracies. I’ll say more about the latter later.
I mentioned Louie Holguin. It was a wonder to watch the doors open for him at CDC, such was his reputation. Warden Joe McGrath at Pelican Bay was gracious when Louie and I came calling. He introduced us to Mark Piland a sergeant who would become a long time member of the task force. Piland was an IGI, an institutional gang investigator. He became our eyes and ears inside America’s premier house for bad boys, the Pelican Bay SHU (security housing unit). It was through Mark Piland that we were eventually able to recruit some of the baddest of the bad to put on the team jersey.
MARK: One of the OBW cases involved the murder of ex-gang member ? Tell us what happened? How did these killers get to him?
GEORGE: Robert “Brown Bob” Viramontes, or BB as he was known to the gang leadership, had been an NF general. He’d paroled and discharged to San Jose. There he had a change of heart and became an anti-gang advocate for the City of San Jose. He even covered up his NF tattoo. The NF leadership in Pelican Bay took a vote and voted to have him whacked for violating a section of the NF constitution.
Our man Red Raider alerted us to the plot.
We sent David Byers of the Santa Clara DA’s office to BB to warn him. BB said he wasn’t worried. We could not convince him to get out of town. The order went out from “The Bay”. Torpedoes were dispatched and BB was assassinated in his driveway in broad daylight. With the help of Aztec we were able to pinpoint and catch the killers in San Francisco.
MARK: Another memorable operation was a trip to Salinas to thwart another hit team from killing others. Can you give us the details as to what happened?
GEORGE: As I said, we began working with the Salinas PD. Officers Mike Lazzarini and Russ Hauschild had developed “Aztec South” who was a member of the inner circle of the Salinas regiment. Through the Salinas informant, they learned the regiment was run by two cold blooded killers named Rico and Lobo. Rico and Lobo answered to an NF shot caller in PBSP named Tex Hernandez. Tex was locked in a dispute with fellow NF bigwig at PBSP, Gerald “Cuete” Rubalcaba, over control of Monterey County, where Salinas is located.
Rico and Lobo planned to make a five hit night out of a Sunday evening to wipe out Cuete’s loyalists. The Salinas informant let us in on the plot. We all gathered in Salinas to figure out what to do. The hit teams had been dispatched. To protect the victims, as well as the informant, Salinas PD came up with the idea of placing seemingly random patrol cars near or around the victims’ homes. The hit teams were frustrated, reporting back to Rico that the cops were all over the place and it was impossible to get to the targets. Unfortunately we did not know about a sixth victim, Shorty Garza. The hit teams all gathered in an alleyway for what we thought was a meeting. Instead, in a flash, they entered an apartment and shot Shorty dead. When the shooters emerged, two dozen cops were waiting outside. I don’t know who was more shocked, the cops or the crooks.
On May 17, George Collord will return to share with us the continuing saga of Operation Black Widow. Join us in two as we conclude this two-part interview.
MAY 10: New York Times bestselling author John Lescroart will discuss his latest novel, Treasure Hunt, and the art of writing. John’s twenty-one novels have been translated into sixteen languages in seventy-five countries at last count.
He will share the highs and lows of his struggle to publish and a life-changing experience the brought focus to his writing.
MAY 24: New York Times bestselling author Terri Blackstock will tell us about her latest novel, Predator, to be launched on May 24th. She is the award-winning author of Intervention and Double Minds, and has sold six million books worldwide. Among her other works are the following series—Cape Refuge, Newpointe 911, the SunCoast Chronicles, and the Restoration Series.
May 31 & June 14: Greg Snider, recently retired FBI agent, just returned from war-torn Iraqi where he was embedded with military units for the past year and half. His job--to assist military commanders in their investigations into the manufacture and detonation of Improvised Explosive Devices (IODs). Greg will share his experiences about how he and others searched to identify and arrest terrorists responsible for these acts.