Monday, May 17, 2010

Operation Black Widow

Part II--Operation Black Widow
Gang Expert: George Collord
Santa Rosa Police Department Detective (retired)
Gang instructor, FBI's national in-service training for field agents

Ever wanted to know what goes on behind the headlines of the major crime stories of today? Here is an opportunity to take that journey, to put faces and emotions to those who combat gang violence. This is the second part of the Operation Black Widow interview with gang expert George Collord.

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 level of violence 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 in California. It began small and slowly spread until local state and federal investigators collaboratively took down one of the most powerful prison gangs to ever emerge from the large penal system in the nation. These gangsters called themselves Nuesta 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.

It is my pleasure to introduce my friend and former partner, George Collord, currently a gang instructor at the FBI’s Quantico training facility and 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: Give us some understanding of the breadth and width of this investigation. Ultimately, how many agencies and how many investigators became involved in this effort?

GEORGE: Including federal state and local, there were at least thirty agencies that had parts, some more integral than others. The main local agencies were Santa Rosa PD, Salinas PD, Modesto PD, Stockton PD, and San Jose PD. The Sheriff’s offices were Sonoma and Monterey. The DA’s offices were Sonoma, Santa Clara and Monterey Counties. The state agencies were California Department of Corrections, California Highway Patrol and to a lesser extent the California Department of Justice. Federally, and without them we’d have been nowhere, was the FBI.  The main core of investigators numbered about ten with a dozen or so others in support positions.

MARK: Can you share with us some of the statistics of this operation?

GEORGE: Are we talking about how much overtime I made or how much weight I gained eating fast food in darkened parking lots? Didn’t think so. We arrested and convicted in the neighborhood of about seventy-five gangsters in both federal and state court. Of course that doesn’t tell the whole story since there were, and continue to be, spin-off cases that have nabbed dozens of others throughout California.

MARK:  Many of our readers are mystery writers and readers. Can you paint a picture of a gangster that would be true and authentic? If you were to create a fictional character—a gang leader—on paper, what are some of the attributes and characteristics you might choose to create this character? 

GEORGE: My training/speaking partner with whom I travel the country lecturing is Daniel “Lizard” Hernandez, a veteran of savage battles both in and out of the pen. He was and is definitely gang “shot caller” material. Over the nine years that I’ve been around him I’ve come to appreciate his specific characteristics that made him a feared leader. So, I’ll use him as an example. First, he is highly intelligent and reasonably educated, even though he never made it past 8th grade. Instead, he educated himself in prison libraries. I remember when he told me how important it was for his gang writings to contain proper syntax, Hey, I thought syntax was something the IRS collected in Vegas.

Next, he is fearless. He proved this through years of gunfights, knife fights and takeover robberies in which the next second could be your last. “Manipulative” is how I’d describe another constant characteristic in those of his ilk. He could, through writings and verbal messages, make someone a thousand miles away do his bidding—and basically thank him for the opportunity to serve the organization. Charisma drips from gang leaders.

Lizard speaks and law enforcement officers crowd around to listen, whether it’s during a lecture, or later around a beer. Gang leaders must be extremely charismatic because of the constant need to either recruit or convince others of your point of view in a world so brutal it would turn most men to pudding. Being decisive is a necessity for survival in the gang world. He who hesitates gets his wind taken by a sharpened turkey bone. And you cannot underestimate a good old sense of smell. Gang leaders can smell a set-up for miles (unless it’s a sneaky spider web being spun!). It’s the only way they have survived to get to the top. I was lucky enough to surreptitiously observe these guys in their natural habitats and would say they are as driven and competent as some of our better known CEOs in this country. It’s just that in their world, a hostile takeover is a little more serious.

MARK:  Tell us about the GUNS CD and the story behind this part of the investigation

GEORGE: Generations of United Nortenos was a music disc and brainchild of three Nuestra Familia members in The Bay. They were Gerald “Cuete” Rubalcaba, my pal Lizard Hernandez, and Robert “Huero” Gratton. The idea was to create a music CD that would appeal to young Latinos and help recruit them into the ranks of the Nortenos, the breeding ground for hate toward the soldados of the Mexican Mafia.  Gratton got out of the pen and hooked up with a rapper in Tracy, California known as Sir Dyno. They put together an illegal record label and produced the CD with 13 songs.

The lyrics were all about killing as many “scraps” (derogatory term for Surenos) as one could in a statewide war. If you were to join this war with the southerners, you’d be part of a huge army that would have your back on the streets and in the joint. It was very appealing to a lot of dysfunctional kids out there looking for a cause and a family to accept them and their violenct tendencies. Ultimately, we recruited both Lizard and Gratton as witnesses.

MARK: As you described in the first interview, these gang leaders are able to run their criminal organization while in almost virtual isolation. Tell us a little about how they use codes, letters and mail drops to get their orders out on the street or elsewhere in the prison system?

GEORGE: They all come up with their own special codes that can be sent via mini writing or in normal letters. We had code breakers at the FBI’s Quantico labs try to break some of the codes. While we were successful in some, others were impossible because they were codes that used a book known only to those on the writing and receiving ends. You had to have the book out of their library to figure them out. Then they constantly changed it up when they got paranoid about snoopers.

A message written with urine is not uncommon. When it dries it does not show up. When the recipient gets it, he heats it and reads it up against a light. Mail drops or “three-ways” are very common. A con sends a coded letter to a civilian on the outside who repackages it and sends it to a con in another pen or even another part of the same prison.  The “Three-Ways” out on the street are usually females who are not on probation or parole but are basically prison groupies or relatives of prisoners.

Another way we set up a sting communication network was to form a false law firm. CDC personnel do not read legal mail, so our operatives would solicit damning communication from our targets via the “law firm’s” legal mail. Very effective. 

Another way to communicate is through personal visits by females in the employ of the gang. We had a group of young ladies from Salinas go into Pelican Bay to meet with five different gang shot callers. They all had the same message from a leader on the outside. Only the message was not given verbally. It was written and attached to top of each female’s bra. The message was in the form of a question about the go ahead on a hit on two guys on the street. We called it “The Bra Conspiracy”.

MARK: What makes it so difficult to intercept these communications?

GEORGE: Manpower, prisoner’s rights. Take for example Pelican Bay. Three thousand inmates sending and receiving mail each day. There might be only four investigators to sift the mail after the initial run through by staff looking for contraband. The staff does not read the mail. The investigators do if they can articulate a reason for suspecting criminal activity in the mail. That means they constantly risk having lawyers come down on their heads for violating prisoners’ rights. Sometimes it may be easier not to get hassled, just let the mail go.

MARK: Share with us some of the other ways these gang leaders meet one another, or run their organizations.

GEORGE: I already talked about the visitor’s center with the Bra Conspiracy. In that case, the five shot callers waiting for a visit have to sit in waiting cages. They can talk to each other then. They come prepared to share information, no b.s. because they know their time is limited. They can also meet in a library, although that has been cracked down on lately. They may also pass one another during medical visits or when going out to court. They communicate verbally and by passing mini writing (“kites”) to one another.

MARK:  Can you share any interesting stories during this investigation that occurred during this investigation? Interesting characters or situations that may have surprised you?

GEORGE: If you want interesting stories, you’ll have to buy my book.  Just kidding. Every day of this operation was fertile ground for new stand-up material. I already mentioned the semi-debacle in Salinas. But that paled in comparison to almost burning down the city of Santa Rosa in a mini-operation to grab some out of town parolees. Our original source Aztec, had a bright idea (see how I say it was his idea) to hold a rap party in a bar in Santa Rosa and invite gang leaders from around the Bay Area to attend. The thought was that we’d have parole and probation officers on hand who would be able to violate a bunch of these guys. We thought we’d get maybe twenty or thirty to show up.

To make a long sad story short, several hundred hard core gangsters traveled to Santa Rosa to party and get wild and it turned into a riot.  Another time, Lizard, after we’d recruited him as source, held a gathering of gang leaders in a motel room in Santa Rosa. He knew several female agents were monitoring the meeting from the next room. As the boss, he had all the gangsters strip naked and check each other for wires. He added to the frivolity by doing a little Chippendale striptease in front of the camera lens. Then there was the gangster who preferred to meet with me at the gravesite of Danielle Steele’s son, in Colma, California. He’d go to the cemetery to get away from it all and ponder his life. We’d stroll through the cemetery, my security team following at a discreet distance, trying to find the gravesites of famous people, like Wyatt Earp.

MARK:  What has law enforcement learned from this investigation that might make their efforts in the future more productive in combating the rise of gangs?

GEORGE: LE has learned that you have to be up on top of the problem, keep your foot on the neck of the gangster when you have him down, don’t let up. Otherwise he thrives. And for petes sake stop the denial. Upper management teams in police departments are notorious for sticking their collective head in the sand, hoping the problems will solve themselves and go away. Not a chance. Most importantly, though, is that the police have learned that gangs do not operate in a vacuum. They are often highly organized and driven to succeed. As long as there is money to be made, for example in the dope biz or in identity theft, they will have incentive to coagulate and move forward. You ignore them at your peril.

MARK:  What are some of the mistakes law enforcement has made that should be corrected in order to be successful?

 GEORGE: Lack of communication and lack of investigator stability. First, police departments do not speak to sheriff’s departments who don’t talk to the CDC, who don’t converse with the feds. Gangsters hop from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, making it imperative to travel along with them. That’s why we spun a statewide spider web, to mirror the web of the NF’s criminal activity. Next, many LE organizations insist on rotating officers out of assignments, even though they have developed an expertise second to none. It is incredibly dumb. You end up re-inventing the wheel every time. Who benefits? Well, it’s certainly not the community. If a cop is doing a bang up job, you leave him there. Private industry does this to keep its bottom line looking good, why not government? Very frustrating.

MARK:  What is it going to take to successfully attack these gangs in the future?

GEORGE: Since flamethrowers have been outlawed in California, I’d say the solution is somewhere in my last two answers! In short, you gotta have continuity of competent and motivated investigators. Oh yeah, and lots of money for sources and informants. But you know what is really lacking—funds for witness relocation. The federal WitSec program is okay for some federal witnesses, but the state of local witness protection and or relocation is one of dilapidation! I testified in front of a senate committee as to the lack of witness protection coordination and funding. I was disgusted by the blow off we got from the bloated politicians in Sacramento.

MARK: What sources of information would you suggested to our readers for those who want to learn more about this problem?

GEORGE: One more time, Mark, they need to read my book, if I can ever get it published! Seriously, the Internet is filled with interesting sites. Also, local cops who are fighting the problem where your readers live are the best source for what’s happening on the ground outside their homes. Believe it not, an old book made into a terrible movie, The Gangs of New York, is a fascinating read to get an idea of how gangs have been here all the time. Only the names and ethnicities have changed.

MARK:  What was the cost to you—and those who worked with you—to make Operation Black Widow a success?

GEORGE: Cost? Do you know how many times I didn’t get reimbursed for my Golden Gate Bridge toll? In all seriousness, I enjoyed every second (except pleading for my job after the Santa Rosa riot) of the undercover life. I made sure I spent all my off time with my family. I’ve actually benefited from the operation in later years since it’s given me a chance to scoot around the nation and flap my gums for a bit of scratch. But during the operation, I had to constantly keep myself focused and ready to go at a moments notice. I always laugh at your old saying, “Pack your bags, Yer goin’ to Bogotá.” Well, my bags were always packed and ready to go.

MARK: You’ve visited and lectured to law enforcement personnel from coast to coast. What do you see as some of the challenges and trends in the coming years in trying to handle gang violence? What are some of the concerns these gang investigators share with you about the war their waging today?

GEORGE: It’s funny. I’ve gotten to know gang cops from California to Alabama to Boston and the problems are consistent no matter where it is. The cops all fight their own bureaucracies in street wars that are only intensifying. Money is always an issue. Bean counters can ruin an operation faster than dropping your badge on a barroom floor. One scary stat is that I can’t remember visiting a state where the cops have come up to me and told me that gang violence is down and likely to soon disappear. I was just in Rock Springs, Wyoming—antelope country—and the cops there are trying to figure out what hit their beautiful state. If gang investigations were sold as a stock, I’d buy as many shares as I could. It’s going to be a bull market for as far as I can see into the future.

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 and 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).  In a two-part interview, Greg will share his experiences about how he and others searched to identify and arrest terrorists responsible for these acts.

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