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California Prison Gang Linked to Guards and Mexican Drug Cartel

A barber shop in National City, California was allegedly the war room" connecting the statewide Mexican Mafia gang (Eme) to the underworld Arellano Felix drug cartel in nearby Mexico, according to investigators from the California Department of Corrections (CDC). The war room was reportedly headed by barber Roberto Ramiro Marin, who is now one of 35 defendants indicted for robbing and beating imprisoned drug dealers who didn't pay taxes" (protection money) to Eme. (See: PLN, Feb. 2005, California Prisoner Trust Accounts Used To Launder Gang Drug Money.) The 52-count indictment not only involves the notorious Mexican cartel, it is also linked through Marin to CDC Sergeant Michael S. Erickson, who was accused of taking $500,000 from the cartel to help Eme associate Carlos Sarmiento escape in 2001 from the R.J. Donovan State Prison (RJD) in nearby San Diego.

The escape plot was foiled when fellow guards ratted Erickson off. Erickson was fired in 2002 after disciplinary proceedings. Although CDC forwarded its investigative results to the San Diego District Attorney's office, the evidence wasn't handled properly," according to prosecutors, leaving them purportedly without enough to get a criminal conviction. That evidence included testimony at Erickson's termination hearing that linked him both to Eme and to the cartel. Erickson has since moved to Douglas, Arizona, where he reportedly said, I was railroaded," claiming he didn't commit any misconduct and wants to sue to get his job back. But he did acknowledge getting his hair cut at Marin's barber shop, along with 50 other RJD staff. And when Erickson moved to Chula Vista, he continued to use another barber shop operated by Marin.

The Arellano Felix cartel and Eme were linked to a 1993 Mexican murder of a bishop in Guadalajara. Another hit squad in 1997 killed a Tijuana newspaper editor who criticized the cartel. And in January, 2005, six prison workers were shot dead outside a lockup at Matamoros, Mexico. This was believed to be in revenge for a recent crackdown at La Palma federal prison in Mexico City, where the army and federal police broke up an alliance between rival gang lords Osiel Cardenas and Benjamin Arellano Felix, transferring some prisoners to Matamoros. In 2003, National City police were alerted from a cartel wiretap to the pending murder of one of its officers, which was subsequently thwarted. Southern California police suspect that up to 100 unsolved murders in the past 15 years might be tied to Eme-Arellano Felix violence. Twenty such homicides were noted in a 2003 San Diego federal drug-trafficking indictment. The magnitude of the drugs involved include tons of cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana" brought into the U.S. (On January 27, 2005, federal and state authorities arrested 22 more alleged Eme members for drug, extortion and other organized crime activities. The same sweep picked up former prison guard Jessica Chavez, 38, who is charged with unspecified illegal activity with gang members at RJD.)

The lead defendant in the pending drug case is Jose Albert Marquez, 44, who was allegedly the Eme-cartel link. When he paroled from supermax Pelican Bay State Prison (PBSP) in 1997, he moved to a ranch in Mexico provided him by the cartel, from which he operated as an enforcer in nearby Tijuana. Devan Dawkes, PBSP coordinator, reported that Marquez became a contact for Mexican Mafia members and associates paroling to ... Southern California." Marquez was since arrested in 2003 for the 1997 murder of the Tijuana editor, when his phone conversations were tapped revealing incriminating messages relayed to Marin.
Marin's lawyer, W. Allen Williams, said his client is not guilty and is a sick, old man," not a godfather." The barbershop war room story is merely an urban legend," he added. But RJD guards and prisoners both testified at Erickson's Personnel Board hearing about the barbershop, how Marin ran it and Erickson's involvement. Guard Sean Beever testified that Erickson offered him $100,000 for an old CDC ID card, saying he needed it for an escape try. Beever went on to reveal that Erickson told him of meeting relatives of Sarmiento who arranged (for $500,000) for Erickson to spring" Sarmiento by providing him with a guard's jumpsuit and the phony ID so he could walk out of the prison." Erickson would then drive Sarmiento to Mexico. The money was there," Beever reported. When Beever confided his knowledge to another guard, the other guard reported the ignoble affair to CDC internal investigators. Sarmiento was instantly moved to another prison and Erickson's investigation was commenced.
Erickson told CDC investigators he didn't know Marin was a gang leader, All he did was cut my hair, and my kid's hair." Maybe not. On February 12, 2005, PBSP went into emergency lockdown and search mode after a sophisticated plot" to kill three PBSP guards on one yard was purportedly uncovered. PBSP spokesman Lt. Perez said Eme was behind the plot. However, as with many claims advanced by police, prosecutors and prison officials, hard proof of the claims is hard to come by.

Sources: Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times.

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