By Joseph J. Kolb
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Reuters) - Twenty-five members of New Mexico's largest and most violent prison gang have been indicted on federal racketeering charges that allege some committed crimes including murder, attempted murder and assault, U.S. prosecutors said on Friday.
The indictments accuse the 25 men aged 31 to 61 with violating federal law as members of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico (SNM) prison gang and were unsealed on Thursday, according to a statement by U.S. Attorney Damon P. Martinez.
In the statement, an FBI agent said SNM has used murder, kidnapping and assault to intimidate other inmates as well as communities outside the prison walls for more than 30 years.
The gang was formed at the Penitentiary of New Mexico following a deadly prison riot there in February 1980, then spread through the state's prison system, prosecutors say.
The indictments allege that among its "significant goals" are controlling drug trafficking within and outside the penal system, intimidating other gangs, and engaging in violence to assert its identity and protect territory.
Gang members are allegedly expected to remain loyal to SNM and work to further its objectives after leaving prison, and those who do not are allegedly subject to violent discipline.
Among the serious crimes alleged in the indictments are four murders, and conspiracy to commit several more murders.
More than 500 federal, state and local law enforcement and corrections officers were involved in an operation on Thursday in which 23 defendants were arrested, including one in Tennessee.
Two of the 25 indicted men remain at large and are considered fugitives, prosecutors said in their statement. If convicted, the defendants face sentences ranging from years behind bars to statutory life in prison or even execution.
Martinez said New Mexico's violent crime rates are among the highest in the country, and these cases are being prosecuted as part of a federal anti-violence initiative that targets "the worst of the worst" offenders for federal prosecution.
(Reporting by Joseph J. Kolb; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Tom Brown)