Nearly two dozen members of a Hispanic gang were arrested in Kansas this week under a federal grand jury indictment accusing them of victimizing illegal immigrants who do their business in cash and are reluctant to go to law enforcement because of their immigration status.
Federal officials have long been keeping an eye on the Dodge City area, which has become a hub for drug trafficking in the Midwest because of its remote location and easy access to places like Denver, Kansas City and Oklahoma City. They say gangs have thrived in the area because police lacked resources, including Spanish-speaking officers, and gang members are able to easily blend into the growing Hispanic population.
U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said all but one of the 23 members of the Nortenos gang arrested are first- or second-generation U.S. citizens. He said they preyed on illegal immigrants who were vulnerable and unlikely to seek police protection, using violence and threats to create a climate of fear, defend the gang's reputation and territory and promote its drug trafficking activities.
"The indictment alleges members of the Nortenos preyed on Guatemalan immigrants who work in the beef packing plants in Dodge City," Grissom said. "It is well known among the Nortenos that many of the Guatemalan workers do not use banks and try to avoid contact with law enforcement officers. They are smaller in stature and they are unlikely to be armed."
The gang is charged under the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which allows prosecutors to charge individual members as part of a larger criminal organization. In recent years, the act has been used to prosecute human trafficking and gang cases, including charges in 2007 against 28 members of the Crips gang in Wichita _ which was the first time RICO was used against gangs in Kansas.
Grissom announced the indictment handed down "some time ago under seal" on Friday after it was unsealed the day before. It charges four of the men with murder in the June 2009 slaying of Israel Peralta and attempted murder of three others who were with Peralta when he was shot to death. Gang members also face other attempted murder, assault with a dangerous weapon and drug charges. They are accused of methamphetamine trafficking, identified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as the state's fastest growing drug threat.
The agency also has identified Mexican drug trafficking organizations as the biggest threat to Kansas, citing a lack of law enforcement resources and the ease with which gang members assimilate with growing Hispanic populations who come to work at meatpacking plants and feed yards in the southwest corner of the state.
Dodge City Police Chief Craig Mellecker estimated there are between 300 and 500 known gang members in Dodge City and acknowledged his department is woefully short in officers who are fluent in Spanish.
"We have a translator program in which translators are on call," he said. "We have five Spanish-speaking employees."
The Nortenos gang, however, originated in California prisons, not in Mexico.
"This is something that developed and was born in the States and migrated across the southwest as the Hispanic population has grown," Grissom said.
Among those arrested in sweeps this week is alleged gang leader Jason Najera, 28. Those charged with murder are Pedro Garcia, 25; Gonzalo Ramirez, 26; Russell Worthey, 23; and Anthony Wright, 26. All of those indicted live in Dodge City and range in age from 19 to 31 years old.
Grissom, who was in Dodge City to announce the charges, said the indictment is the result of a two-year investigation with the Dodge City Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and several other local and state agencies. He said it sends a message to gang members in Dodge City that local residents "shall not live in fear."
"Our streets are not a war zone," he said. "Gangs of armed men will not be permitted to prey on the weak or to exchange fire while the rest of us scramble for cover."
All but one of the men named in the indictment are being held in various jails around Wichita. One suspect is not yet in custody.
Jim Cross, a spokesman for Grissom, said none of the men have attorneys and probably won't until after they appear in federal court in Wichita, where the case will be tried.
Grissom said federal officers weren't concerned about the immigration status of the victims, who were a prime target for the Nortenos because they were afraid to report criminal acts to law enforcement.
"That's why I believe most of the gang activity here exists," Grissom said. "The gang had a ready-made group to prey upon."
A RICO conviction has a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison without parole and a $250,000 fine. The maximum sentence for a murder conviction is death.