If I lead, follow me.
If I hesitate, push me.
If they kill me, avenge me.
If I am a traitor, kill me!
—The Oath of the Nuestra Familia Prison Gang
Career criminals evolve in the most violent environments in America's prison yards. Some inmates thrive in this dangerous dog-eat-dog world where only the strong survive. But at the very top of this food chain are the most cunning and dangerous predators of all. These are the men who are members of the prison gangs.
To enter the exclusive club of prison gangs they must spill blood and swear allegiance to the gang forever or die. This is the "Blood in, Blood out" oath common to all prison gangs. But what happens when one of these prison gang members defects from his gang and decides to cooperate with law enforcement?
When a prison gang member disassociates himself from his prison gang brothers, prison investigators must consider each individual case carefully. The "dropout" is subjected to many long hours of debriefing, which may be recorded on audio or video tape.
The inmate must give detailed accounts of his own criminal history and involvement in the prison gang. He must provide lists of his fellow prison gang members and their enemies. Sometimes the debriefing may include a lie detector test to measure the inmate's veracity. In a process that may take several weeks, gang investigators must determine what has motivated a hardened convict to make the sometimes fatal decision to betray his own gang. All of this is designed to detect false defectors.
Imagine the consequences of allowing a false defector to be placed with genuine dropouts in a protective custody facility. This is not unheard of. False prison gang defectors who were actually "scouts," "sleepers," or "undercover" agents for the prison gangs have in the past successfully entered protected custody yards with specific orders to murder prison gang defectors. But this is not the only problem presented in dealing with prison gang dropouts.
Like man-eating tigers, once they have tasted human flesh they can rarely be trusted anywhere near human beings again. The tiger does not change his stripes just because he is caged. The prison gang defector, even after cooperating with law enforcement, is still a formidable and dangerous predator. His mental and criminal cunning, his tactical combat experience, and even his drug addiction remain dangerous to you. He is experienced at taking a human life in hand-to-hand combat, and you probably are not. Remember this when you deal with them as informants and witnesses.
Bouncer and Cyco
In the late 1990s, my LASD Prison Gang Unit was working with a Federal Gang Task Force in Los Angeles to target the Mexican Mafia (La eMe) prison gang. Two eMe associates were identified in state prison who wished to cooperate in setting up a sting operation against their eMe brothers. To our knowledge the two defectors had not been identified by the Mexican Mafia as defectors.
The prisoners were secretly moved out of prison and stashed in a remote L.A. County jail facility. They worked with the Task Force, calling various members and associates on the telephone in order to set up a Mexican Mafia sting. Bouncer was from San Fernando Valley and Cyco was from Compton. They were given certain privileges, including personal telephone calls, family visits, and some freedom of movement in the jail cells.
My spider senses began to warn me that something was wrong because Bouncer in particular was just too friendly. He talked to his task force babysitters constantly. Once he told me that his wrecking crew was made up of Armenians rather than Mexicans and that most of them lived in nearby Glendale. Despite all of the consensually recorded phone calls in which he seemed to be trying hard to put together a sting, he never was able to put it together.
One day, one of my more seasoned detectives, George Marin, became even more suspicious of the two informants because they were acting strange and somewhat nervous. Together with Det. Javier Clift, Marin sprang a surprise search of the defectors, their cells, and property. They seized two jail-made knives and other contraband. We were able to piece together that they had planned to attempt an escape from the lightly manned and remote jail facility. Bouncer's Armenian crew would storm the front while the two informants took hostages inside.
It turned out that Cyco had escaped like this before. His mother had smuggled a pistol into Eastlake Juvenile Hall when he was a minor, and he had escaped using probation officers as hostages. Only the sharp cop senses of experienced gang detectives prevented the escape attempt. This could only have ended badly in a blood bath that surely would have been the result of the desperate actions of these hardcore career criminals.
Peseta Prison Gang
The Peseta is the Mexican term for a 25 centavo coin. It is a term used much like we use the 10 cent coin, as in "dropping a dime." It has come to mean the cheap price paid to a betrayer or informant. It is also the name of a California prison gang. When a member of a prison gang defects or informs on his former gang he becomes a target of not only his former enemy gangs, but his own gang, as well. His life expectancy on a general yard is measured in minutes. He is therefore placed in protective custody or on a "sensitive needs" yard.
However, this often does not end the violence. Housed with former enemies, former members of their own gang they swore to kill, and child molesters, the prison gang predator remains a predator. If he is addicted to illicit drugs, he must continue to access the drug underground to supply his habit. He remains a dangerous criminal and must now try to adjust to being a good inmate.
In the 1980s many of these dropouts, especially from the Mexican Mafia, formed a defensive group of hardcore convicts that had become defectors and informants. This had happened in the past and groups of defectors had used names like "The Others" and the "UFOs," but this group had a written "constitution" and hardcore prison gang defectors as members.
Rather than identifying with the number 13 and the color blue like Sureños, or the number 14 and the color red like Norteños, Pesetas identify with the number 25. They provide physical protection for one another and continued to operate on the prison yard smuggling drugs, extorting weaker inmates, and procuring the creature comforts of clothing, cigarettes, and pruno (jail made wine). The Pesetas will accept dropouts of any prison gang. As the strength of this group grew they often began to victimize the prison gangs they once belonged to.
Peseta member Jamie Vega of the Hawaiian Gardens gang told me that many members of the 25 fly under the radar and pretend to still be loyal Sureños. They find out who the Mafia's shot callers and llaveros (key holders) are on the prison yard. When one of the 25 members is released, he will seek out the wife or girlfriend of the shot caller and tell her that the shot caller sent him. His prison demeanor and gang tattoos work in his favor. He then asks for drugs, guns, and money so he can put in a little work for the prison gang.
This usually works, and the shot caller's girlfriend is convinced that the Peseta member was really sent by her loyal Sureño man. Later she will find out that she and the Mexican Mafia have been robbed by the Pesetas. On the street, Peseta members also earn a living by robbing and jacking prison gang drug houses. They are dangerous predators who prey even on their own gangs.
Remember, even when they are cooperating with you or other law enforcement, watch out for dangerous defectors and the Pesetas prison gang.