Several Ventura County communities long known for their pristine beaches and family festivals have, in the past decade, taken on a darker image: gang territory. But law enforcement and prosecutors from Ventura to Oxnard, along with authorities in inland communities such as Simi Valley, have made concerted efforts to turn things around.
If you ask residents, particularly those who recently moved to Ventura County from nearby gang-infested sections of Los Angeles County, those efforts appear to be working.
“I feel a lot safer here than I did for the 15 years I lived in the [San Fernando] Valley,” said Karen Brause, who moved into a Ventura beach cottage in November. “I don’t have to live behind a locked gate and nine-foot (high) walls anymore. It’s an entirely different life for me.”
Documented Oxnard gang member William Glass was arrested in July 2011 on felony charges of a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, possession of a controlled substance, and street gang terrorism
Prosecutors on gang cases can appreciate that. “If you are living in a gang-infected community, there is no escaping how a gang’s violence, drug trafficking and extortion schemes curtail the quality of life within the community on a daily basis,” said Kevin M. Lally, an assistant United States attorney in the Violent and Organized Crime Section, who has prosecuted numerous high-profile gang cases.
There are an estimated 1,300 gangs operating throughout Ventura, L.A. and San Bernardino counties, with a total membership exceeding 100,000.
California law defines a gang as any ongoing organization, association or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as one of its primary activities the commission of one or more of the enumerated criminal acts, having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity.
Martin “Evil” Madrigal, a Mexican Mafia member and “shot caller” in a drug-dealing conspiracy that involved 27 other people, is serving a life sentence in Mexican prison, but is expected to be extradited to face felony charges in Ventura County, according to prosecutors as of Feb. 13.
Active gang members often sell narcotics, commit crimes and generally create an atmosphere of intimidation while representing their gang. They become a menacing presence on the street, committing crimes “for the love of the neighborhood,” according to sworn testimony by gang expert Neail Holland in written documents in support of the Oxnard gang injunction and in testimony at Ventura County gang trials.
Fortunately for Brause, she was never directly exposed to such gang warfare — known today as “street terrorism” — that spread a decade ago from L.A. to Ventura County, where it gradually established a stronghold.
Particularly hard-hit has been Oxnard, which became recognized as having the most active gang members throughout Ventura County. In the 1970s, the city saw the genesis of what was to become the county’s most powerful and violent gangs, which still maintain their dominance.
Edwin “Sporty” Mora, a “lieutenant” under Martin “Evil” Madrigal, allegedly ordered two killings in Moorpark while he was in prison. He is one of the 27 others indicted on drug-dealing conspiracy charges in Ventura County in November via “Operation Wicked Hand.”
The Colonia Chiques emerged as the most active street gang in Oxnard, followed by their main rival, the Southside Chiques. As Holland recounted in his trial testimony that led to the gang injunction and in supporting documentation, 1976 was a pivotal year in the gangs’ development. That year, gun use became widespread, and the murder rate spiked to 15 per year from a decade-long average of 2.6. For the next 15 years, the annual homicide rate averaged 12.1, with the largest number (26) occurring in 1979. Holland recalled a gang member telling him that in 1976, he attended nine “homie” (gang member) funerals, one after another.
Most gangs sprang up in geographic areas where their founding members lived. Colonia (the section of Oxnard from which the Colonia Chiques drew its name) was a low-income neighborhood, and its residents viewed areas outside Colonia as more affluent. They referred to those areas as “Scalon” because they were considered “a step up” or, in Spanish, “escalón.” Eventually, a rival gang named Scalon Chiques (or “Scalon”) developed, as did numerous other gangs, some of which for a time rivaled the Colonia Chiques.
Oxnard Police Department Colonia Chiques Gang Injunction Safety Zone
One spring day in 1976, members of a gang known as the Eastside Classics initiated a melee with Scalon. During the fight, an Eastside Classics member killed someone who belonged to Scalon. About two weeks later, a member of the Eastside Classics was in turn killed, fueling the gang war. As time went on, most of the founders and original members of the Eastside Classics were incarcerated, and the core group developed a schism that led to its dissolution.
Later that decade, Scalon lost its moniker to two developing gangs on the south side of Oxnard, named Calle A (A Street) and Calle Paula (Paula Street). Gang members who lived west of Saviers Road became known as Scalon Chiques Calle A, with east of Saviers Road designated as Scalon Chiques Calle Paula.
The Loma Flats gang, as it was to become known, formed in 1977. A group of students at Haydock Elementary School banded together in search of protection from the Colonia Chiques and Paula Street gangs. The schoolboys began to engage in increasingly violent acts, achieving notoriety when one of its members accidentally shot a child. Scalon dubbed the group the “Hill Street Baby Killers.” In the early 1980s, its name became Loma Flats.
Lemonwood Chiques started in 1978. Public housing assistance had moved Colonia families to a small eastern community now known as Lemonwood. Initially, gang members continued to claim Colonia membership, referring to themselves as “Little Colonia.” In the early 1980s, they took on their own identity, becoming known as the Lemonwood Chiques, rivals to the Colonia Chiques. Meanwhile, the Colonia Chiques were rapidly growing in numbers and accumulating power.
Paula Street disbanded in 1987, which was reportedly a deliberate decision among its members. In 1988, all factions of what remained from Paula Street and the existing Scalon and Calle A became the Southside Chiques. In approximately 1992, they started wearing “White Sox” hats, referring to South Oxnard. In 2003, Southside Chiques started to use Oakland Raiders clothing to represent the gang.
As the gang problem became more prevalent, the city of Oxnard fought back by beefing up the number of “beat cops” on the street and forming a gang unit in 1997. More officers were assigned to patrol neighborhoods saturated with gang activity.
But only so much could be accomplished through law enforcement and the criminal courts. A large part of the solution lay in a creative move.
Oxnard Police Department Southside Chiques Gang Injunction Safety Zone
While continuing to criminally prosecute gang members, authorities decided to cross boundaries into the civil court system to curb gang violence before it could happen. In an effort that has gained hold throughout the state in recent years, prosecutors have followed Oxnard’s lead of obtaining a legal injunction, either temporary or permanent, against particular gangs for which they have sufficient evidence of danger to the community. Gang injunctions typically restrict known gang members from meeting and conducting other activities in geographic “safety zones” — defined areas known for high levels of criminal activity.
Injunctions were first issued in Oxnard in 2005 to target street crime by two local gangs — the Colonia Chiques (which has 1,000 or more members) and the Southside Chiques (500). Collectively, the two groups had reportedly been involved in more than 3,000 local crimes, ranging from disturbing the peace to murder.
The civil approach appears to have had an impact, with a 10 percent decrease in crime since Ventura County started filing injunctions. After the first action was filed against the Colonia Chiques, no gang violence was reported in Oxnard for two months. At the six-month mark, gang criminal activity was still down by 85 percent.
Being named in a gang injunction, however, is not always a permanent black mark. Last summer the Oxnard Police Department and the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office removed 81 names from the gang injunction list. That left approximately 276 gang members in the Colonia injunction and 66 in the Southside injunction.
While it is extremely difficult and dangerous to leave a gang or even attempt to separate oneself from the organization, some manage to do so. Many others, however, find themselves pulled back into the fold at one level or another.
In January, the Los Angeles legal community was stunned when federal criminal defense attorney Isaac Guillen was convicted of racketeering and money laundering offenses committed on behalf of the Mexican Mafia and the 18th Street gang — powerful organizations with strong ties to street gangs in Ventura County. Guillen was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.
His conviction was part of a 2009 federal racketeering indictment against 43 members and associates of the CLCS (Columbia Lil’ Cycos) that alleged acts of violence, narcotics distribution, money laundering and violent crimes in aid of racketeering. The case was investigated by the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department.
When others were convicted in the case last May, United States Attorney André Birotte Jr. said in a press release: “The members of the 18th Street Gang thought that they controlled neighborhoods and territory within this city. … Today’s verdicts prove otherwise.”
Guillen, who had been a member of a street gang as a teenager, left that life and graduated from the UCLA School of Law, eventually becoming a highly regarded, successful criminal defense attorney. While representing a major gang leader, Guillen became an associate of the CLCS of the 18th Street gang. He admitted at sentencing that he used attorney-client privilege to convey gang messages to and from convicted Mexican Mafia member Francisco “Puppet” Martinez, who was serving multiple life sentences at the federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colo.
With Guillen’s help, Martinez was reportedly able to continue to run the CLCS from the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility, considered the most secure prison in the country.
Guillen also laundered more than $1.3 million in drug and extortion proceeds on the organization’s behalf by creating three businesses and providing funds for the establishment of a methamphetamine laboratory.
Lally, the federal prosecutor who secured convictions against Guillen and others in the CLCS case, said the main challenge is that those who have information about a gang-related crime often won’t share it with the authorities. The biggest problem prosecutors face in gang prosecutions is obtaining witnesses cooperation, both in the community and within the gang. Lally recently tried a case in which there were witnesses to two separate murders. While prosecutors were able to find a few people who would testify about the events surrounding one murder, he said, no one would come forward about the other one because they still lived in the neighborhood and feared for their safety. And of course, gang members or associates, even if no longer involved with the gang, do not talk about gang activities — ever — to anyone outside the organization.
That means prosecutors have to use every edge they can find in the legal system.
“Ideally, by using broad-reaching statutes, such as RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), to attack a gang’s organizational structure, the government is able to attack gangs on both the macro and micro levels,” explained Lally. “This creates inroads to curbing their internal power structure and enforcement mechanisms, while also removing those members who are most disruptive to the community.”
Power in numbers helps. Recent large-scale gang takedowns have resulted from widespread joint efforts among local, state and federal authorities. Among them is “Operation Peaceworks,” a collaboration among the United States Department of Justice; the Oxnard Police Department; the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office; the California Governor’s Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention Office; and the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College in New York City.
Under the umbrella of the Peaceworks venture, “Operation Supernova,” a year-long investigation into the Colonia Chiques, led to dozens of arrests and convictions in 2011. The case emanated from an undercover operation in Camarillo in which authorities linked two Moorpark shootings to a drug distribution and firearms trafficking network run by Colonia Chiques.
Led by the FBI and the Oxnard Police Department, Operation Supernova involved a combined effort of FBI Field Offices in San Diego, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Phoenix; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department and the Ventura County Probation Agency; the police departments of Ventura, Simi Valley and Santa Barbara; the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, and California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Last November, “Operation Wicked Hand” resulted in the largest criminal indictment in the history of Ventura County, with more than two dozen alleged local gang members indicted. The seven- month operation began in April, when investigators linked two Moorpark shootings to a drug seizure involving local gang members.
But even as gangs are being incrementally dismantled, experts note that their members have what Lally called “an amazing tendency to fill voids.” Meanwhile, gang influence continues to expand into new areas. Gang members and their families have been moving from urban areas to neighboring communities and counties, bringing gang culture and activities in tow. So when a particular clique grows weak, rivals or new cliques emerge to fill the power vacuum.
Today, Oxnard has more than a dozen Latino gangs with more than 2,000 documented members. The gangs include El Rio, Lemonwood Chiques, Loma Flats (also known as “Westside Chiques”), Squires Drive; Surenos Town (known as “Sur Town”) and Vatos Locos. Oxnard also has several gangs comprising mainly other ethnic groups: Satanas, Black Mafia Gang (“BMG”), Westside Crips, in addition to motorcycle gangs and other organized crime.
While there isn’t an over-arching structure that unifies these gangs with their stronger counterparts in L.A., individual gangs sometimes do business with each other across county lines. That is often a function of their answering to the same Mexican Mafia (a powerful prison gang) member or building a mutual trust in prison that continues when they are released, according to Holland and other gang experts.
What’s the forecast for gang activity in and around Ventura and L.A. counties?
That’s anyone’s guess. Lally, however, noted that the government has developed sophisticated prosecution models that have been employed with great success, particularly in the past several years.
“Using these models, we will continue to pursue large-scale prosecutions as we, along with our state counterparts, seek to eradicate the most disruptive gangs impacting the Central District of California,” he said.
As Birotte stated in a press release after the Supernova bust, “Gang activity is not limited to major cities such as Los Angeles, and [this] crackdown on what is believed to be the largest street gang in Ventura County demonstrates that we will target gang members and associates wherever they conduct their criminal activities.”