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California Prisoner Trust Accounts Allegedly Used To Launder Gang Drug Taxes

California Prisoner Trust Accounts Allegedly Used
To Launder Gang Drug Taxes

A phantom "Banco de Pelican Bay" has sprung up at California's supermax Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP), wherein 14 Mexican Mafia (nicknamed "Eme") prisoners had their prison trust accounts frozen in October, 2004 because of suspected laundering of Eme drug money. Some accounts carry balances of over $20,000, the source of which is alleged to be street drug dealers in Los Angeles who pre-pay a "tax" for protection if and when they come to prison.

PBSP spokesman Lt. Steve Perez said "[t]he evidence indicates that the money is definitely coming from a tainted source." The FBI visited PBSP in mid October, 2004, investigating possible federal money laundering crimes. PBSP gang investigator Robert Marquez stated "We had one member tell us that he made $60,000 a year sitting in his cell and that he paid for his kid's college education with it. The laundering process is completed when the funds deposited in the Eme trust accounts are sent back out to friends and relatives in amounts ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars giving the money legitimacy."

Eme is considered to be the oldest, largest and most feared prison gang in California prisons and possibly the largest crime organization in the state. A major trend in the last decade has been to extort "rent" or "taxes" for Eme prison lords from gang members 800 miles away in Los Angeles.

Charles Carbone, a San Francisco attorney who has represented some alleged Eme members as plaintiffs in lawsuits against PBSP, claims that prison authorities are overstating Eme's threat, calling the Department of Corrections "hypersensitive and somewhat paranoid" over the money transfer issue. Carbone said the gang's leadership has undergone a schism in recent years and "is not the threat it once was."

Law enforcement proponents who have made a cottage industry out of aggrandizing street and prison gangs sharply disagree. Scott Decker, criminology professor at the University of Missouri, St. Louis a leading gang expert warns that Eme's organizational structure has resulted in increasingly sophisticated and lucrative criminal operations throughout Southern California. Los Angeles based U.S. Attorney Bruce Riordan said "[r]ent payments start on the street corner and are paid pretty much every week. A percentage is taken by the street gang members and a percentage is forwarded to the [Eme] brothers. Then it's laundered not in the Swiss bank sense of the word, but it passes from hand to hand, and then it is put on the prisoner's books."

In one 2002 prosecution of the "Columbia L'il Cycos" branch of Los Angeles' notorious 18th Street Gang, Riordan found they were netting $250,000 per month from just one tiny neighborhood in the MacArthur Park area. One Eme member's wife had $400,000 on her when arrested by the FBI. The convicted gang member, Francisco Ruiz "Puppet" Martinez, was being paid $40,000 per month during the 90s, including the three years he spent in PBSP's vaunted Security Housing Unit. Recent expansion to the Sacramento area has been noted, where the tax goes to "Sureño" gang members.

Over the last nine years, federal racketeering (RICO) prosecutions have netted more than 20 Eme members, including some who were already in prison when prosecuted. But incarceration doesn't stop the problem. Prison investigators estimate that 100-150 of the hardest core members on the streets and in state and federal prisons are very much in control of street activities. An estimated 30,000 loyal Sureños exist in California prisons, with another 100,000 more on the streets, controlling "staggering" amounts of money. One Eme gang sector in Orange County was "selling $1 million a week in drugs," said Al Valdez of the Orange County District Attorney's Office. However, prosecutors are either exaggerating, lying or are incompetent given that they have yet to seize or forfeit "staggering" amounts of money from Eme members.

One former Eme "soldier" reported that over his years on one California prison yard, he collected from $500 to $2,000 per week. The 14 frozen accounts at PBSP each continue to have money flowing in at rates up to $500 per week. With news of the freezing of the accounts, money is being redirected elsewhere.

Source: Sacramento Bee.

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