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Unread post by mayugastank » January 30th, 2010, 2:56 am


Convicted killer Armando Tizok Frias is determined to undo his family's gang ties

Monterey County Herald | November 23, 2003 Sunday
Copyright 2003 Monterey County Herald. All Rights Reserved. Posted with permission.

Herald Staff Writer

Armando Tizok Frias was 4 days old, an infant in a crib at his grandparents' house, when a family party erupted into a shootout with police.

He remembers at age 3 visiting his father at the state prison in Soledad, where he was serving time for manslaughter.

From an early age, he was schooled in "the honor" of the notorious Nuestra Familia gang that sprang to life in the 1960s at Soledad, spreading its violence onto the streets of Salinas to this day.

As a teenager, he embraced what he believed was a way of life, a cause. He made his first trip to the California Youth Authority at 16 for his part in a robbery in which two people were killed.

Now, at 22, Frias has been sentenced to a prison term of 29 years to life for the gang-ordered execution of Raymond Sanchez at Cap's Saloon in downtown Salinas. He leaves behind a 3-year-old son of his own, but vows that the cycle of violence ends with him.

Frias says he realizes now that the gang "cause" was a fairy tale passed down by "hypocrites." He says he realizes that gang life leads to life behind bars, and that the purpose is much less about defending La Raza, the people, than about supporting old gangsters in prison.

"I thought I was fighting for something good, I was accomplishing something. But really, I realize I didn't accomplish nothing," he said in a jailhouse interview. "It didn't get me nowhere, and it didn't get them nowhere. Just a lot of broken hearts."

He says his turnabout is not an effort to solicit sympathy. He says he simply decided to take responsibility for his actions by pleading guilty, expressing remorse and accepting that he will spend the rest of his life in prison. He says he hopes that speaking out will influence other young Latinos to turn a deaf ear to used-up convicts.

Learning from a distant father|

Sitting unshackled in the Monterey County Jail, awaiting transfer to the California Department of Corrections, Frias talked about growing up in the gang and the days leading up to the murder of Raymond Sanchez.

The only color in the cold concrete interview room came from his bright orange jail-issue jumpsuit and his aqua eyes.

Frias was raised in Salinas by his extended family. His father had 13 brothers and sisters and his many cousins were like siblings to him. His mother was a Jehovah's Witness who took him, his brother and sister to the congregation on Sundays. He missed the birthdays and other celebrations that her religion prohibited, but he described himself as a quiet and respectful child who didn't complain much.

His grandfather was a hardworking and hard-drinking man. With 14 kids, he didn't provide much help to his family. At some point, Frias said, he remembers all his uncles and some of his aunts embracing the gang lifestyle. Some of his uncles, he said, are carnales, members of the Nuestra Familia, the top rung of the Norteño gang structure.
When he was 5 or 6, he said, he started to develop "anger problems." His aunts and uncles told him "You're starting to be just like your dad."

He didn't really understand where his dad was, but he would eventually learn.

"I started seeing pictures of my uncles coming home from prison, their shirts off, their pants creased up, Ray Bans on, tattoos, stuff like that. I started knowing. I wasn't a dumb kid. I started picking up on whatever had happened. They were locked up."

Encouraged to stay away|

Soon he was listening in on family conversations to learn about gang life. When his uncles returned from prison, he would see the respect they got when they showed up for basketball at Closter Park. He saw the gang as a way to get the attention he wasn't getting from his parents.

"The whole thing was not having that support there," said Frias, who played baseball, basketball and football as a boy and dreamed of going to college.

"When I hit a home run, nobody was there to cheer for me except my teammates. My dad was always working or locked up. My mom was always working. It made me look elsewhere for that attention I needed. I started seeing the attention my uncles got from females, from other people, and I liked it."

He started reaching out to gang members. When his father was home, he tried to discourage him with a belt, so the boy just stayed away from home.

"When I decided not to bang anymore, I didn't want him to bang either," his father, Armando Rico Frias recalled, using a slang term for being a gang member. "I tried to discourage him, but he would run away from home. Sometimes when he seen me coming, he would literally run."
After several minor scrapes with the law, young Frias and his friend, Roy Sanchez, came upon a group of farmworkers near Los Padres Apartments off John Street and decided to rob them. A gunfight broke out. Sanchez and one of the farmworkers were killed.

Frias said he didn't shoot anyone, but because he participated in the robbery he was convicted of two murders and sent to the California Youth Authority.

That's where he received his schooling on the history and the ways of the Norteño gangs.

'Beyond my reach'|

Young men who committed felonies while serving time in CYA facilities were sent to prison, where they would be schooled by members of the Nuestra Familia and its recruitment arm, Nuestra Raza. When the youngsters finished their prison sentences, they returned to the youth authority and passed on their lessons.

They taught Frias the "14 bonds," the rules of conduct for the Nuestra Raza, and they lectured him on Norteño history dating to the 1960s and about the gang's enemy, the Mexican Mafia, La Eme.

Though the Mexican Mafia had been founded to protect Mexicans from enemies in prison, they told him, it had become abusive to the farmeros, Latinos from Northern California farming towns.

They taught him that Norteños were being tortured and raped in prison. In 1967 or '68, the legend goes, a Norteño inmate received a pair of shoes from his family. Another inmate, a La Eme member, took the shoes. It was a small thing, but to the Norteños it was the final straw. What followed is the longest running war in California, the war between the Norteños and the Sureños, the Nuestra Familia in the north and La Eme in the south.

Sitting in CYA, Frias saw Nuestra Familia as a noble cause and a family rolled into one. He immersed himself in the gang.

"When he got out of CYA, I noticed a real big change in him," Frias' father said. "He was real hard core and the people he was hanging around with were serious Norteños."

The elder Frias tried to persuade his son to give up the life and go with him to Oklahoma City, where Frias' mother, a minister, now lives. His son refused.

"He was already gone," the elder Frias recalled. "He was beyond my reach."

A worthy cause?|

Two other events had major impacts on young Frias' life. One, the 1996 death of his friend Roy Sanchez, who died that day at Frias' feet after the botched robbery. The other, the murder of another gang friend, Vincent "Chente" Sanchez.

Chente Sanchez was like a big brother to Frias.

"He was the one who always took care of me when I was out there on the streets," said Frias. "He was older than me by about five years. I kind of looked up to him as a big homey."

In 1998 Chente Sanchez received an order to kill a Salinas drug dealer who had not been paying "rent" to the Nuestra Familia. The intended victim was Sanchez's main drug supplier, a friend.

Sanchez refused the order. As a result, he was found on Pacheco Pass with a bullet in his head.

Frias learned of the death through a newspaper clipping while he was locked up.

"It upset me a lot. I felt like I'd lost two brothers," Frias said.

Then he learned why Chente had been killed.

"He knew what he got himself into," Frias said. "He said goodbye to his family (the night of his murder) like it was the last time. He wasn't dumb. He was smart."

In a twisted way, Frias thought, his friend's death somehow legitimized the gangs: If Chente Sanchez had been willing to sacrifice himself, it must be a worthy cause.

Paroled from the youth authority, Frias and his girlfriend moved for a time to Oklahoma City, where his mother was living. He stayed out of trouble for a while. But soon, his girlfriend became pregnant with their son and they returned to Salinas. His son, Armando Tizok Frias Jr. was born in October 2000, but fatherhood did not alter the new father's course. He found trouble again and landed back in the youth authority on a probation violation.

He served his time and got out again in March 2001, determined to continue functioning as a Norteño soldier. But he found that his old homeboys were either locked up or settled down with families.

"The only ones out there still functioning were the NF members," he said.

No looking back|

For a time young Frias was a member of lesser Nuestra Raza, but he soon got more deeply involved in Nuestra Familia. He began selling drugs on the street, first heroin, then crank and weed. And he became more obligated to the gang and the orders smuggled out of Pelican Bay.
"When you make that step and you start functioning with them, there ain't no stepping back," said Frias. "I thought what I was doing was right."

But he soon began to question the gang's commitment to its own mission.

Death was inevitable|

"I started seeing abuses of authority, people wanting something done for their own personal gain, not for Norteños in general," he said.

He started seeing gang members using drugs, strictly against the gang's constitution. Members who had been tagged "no good" by the leadership, theoretically a permanent label, were able to buy their redemption by sending money to Pelican Bay.

Some members told him the cause had been corrupted by money, Frias said.

"One told me he regretted joining the NF, but it was too late," he said.
It was too late for Frias as well.

In the spring of 2001, Raymond Sanchez had been flirting with death by challenging the authority of the Nuestra Familia. A Nuestra Familia dropout, Sanchez was selling drugs in NF territory. He'd repeatedly snubbed warnings to get out of the area and had refused to share his proceeds with the gang. In May 2001, the street soldiers were told there was a "green light" on Sanchez: Any Norteño with the opportunity was to kill him.

On May 21, Frias was selling drugs in Cap's Saloon in Oldtown Salinas when Raymond Sanchez and his friend Joseph Cantu came in and sat at the bar. Frias figured the green light was his responsibility. If someone reported he was in the bar with Sanchez and didn't act, there would be serious consequences.

"If I decided to say no, the same thing that happened to my homeboy (Chente Sanchez) would have happened to me," said Frias.
Frias continued his game of pool and pretended not to notice Sanchez. He sent a message asking for a gun, quietly met with gang leaders outside the bar to confirm the green light and then walked back into the bar.

With a few beers under his belt, Frias was calm. He paused at the jukebox behind Sanchez until he saw no one was looking.

"Then I pulled out the gun and shot him in the back of the neck," Frias said without emotion. As he fled the bar, he encountered Cantu returning. He shot him, too. Cantu survived. Sanchez did not.
When asked if he'd ever shot anyone before, Frias declined to answer. Asked if his target had survived, he declined to answer again.
What Frias would say is that shooting Raymond Sanchez didn't faze him.

"The truth is, I really didn't feel nothing. The life I chose let me know those things are going to happen."

Frias' future was sealed the moment he pulled the trigger. Unbeknownst to him, he'd been snared in the web of Operation Black Widow, a three-year FBI sting operation that led to federal racketeering and murder indictments against 21 gang members. The operation was conducted with the help of a highly connected inside source -- Daniel Hernandez, the street general who had confirmed that the green light was still on.

Frias was not charged in the indictment, but he was arrested within weeks due to information the FBI passed to local authorities. After the shooting, he and his girlfriend had fled to Oklahoma City with their baby. His son was sleeping on the sofa in his grandmother's apartment when authorities armed with assault weapons surrounded the house.
Handcuffed in the back of the police car, Frias asked the officers to allow him one last contact with his son. They rolled down his window and let his girlfriend pass the baby through for a kiss.

"My son was just laughing, he was playing with my face," Frias remembered.

That was the last time they touched.

"Zoky" Frias Jr. is 3 now. He sees his father through a pane of glass at the Monterey County Jail and talks to him over the phone on the wall nearby. When he gets home, the boy picks up the phone and tries to talk to his dad again.

'Greed, drugs and money'|

Frias said it wasn't until he reached Monterey County Jail that he began to really think about his crime.

"I tried to feel what (Sanchez's) family was feeling," he said. "I put myself in their position. I can imagine what they're going through. If the same thing happened to my dad, he's my best friend, I'd go crazy. The same thing with my son.

"If I could go back and change it, I would. I wasted my life. I took a life and I've affected my son's life. And for what?

"I saw (the gang) as a movement, a cause, like Pancho Villa or Emilio Zapata or Cesar Chavez. I thought it was pure. But really, it's all corrupted by greed and drugs and money."

Frias said he hopes his epiphany will break the generational cycle and save his son from his mistakes. His father has left Salinas and shed the gang lifestyle. He says he's found God.

After a recent parole violation allegation that turned out to be false, the elder Frias briefly shared a cell with his son in the Monterey County Jail. They discussed their common mistakes and vowed they wouldn't let the same happen to little Armando.

"The things he couldn't teach me, he's teaching my son," Frias said of his father. "I want him to play sports, go off to college, like I wanted to."
Frias said his defection from the gang feels "a great weight lifted off my shoulders." Now he can be put in the general population when he goes off to prison, and can have contact visits with his son. He knows his disparaging comments about the gang could bring retribution, but he says he's not afraid.

He said he never expects to be paroled and wants to spend his prison time writing a book to discourage young Latinos from the gang lifestyle. Being proud of one's heritage does not require a life of crime, he said.

"Use me as an example," he said. "Look where it got me and look at my outlook now. Gang-banging ain't what everybody makes it out to be. Learn from my experiences. Take care of your family and leave everything else alone."

Virginia Hennessey can be reached at

Reproduction of any content without written permission is prohibited
Copyright © 2005-2008 Center for Investigative Reporting. All rights reserved.

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Unread post by mayugastank » February 16th, 2010, 4:57 pm

Federal indictments crack vast prison crime ring

13 named, death penalty sought against two

April 21, 2001


A federal grand jury has issued sweeping indictments that accuse the "Nuestra Familia" prison gang of orchestrating killings and street crime across Northern California from behind bars at Pelican Bay State Prison.

Authorities say Nuestra Familia killed Michael Castillo, Sonoma County's drug leader.

Indictment: Federal, state and local authorities will hold a news conference Monday.

Capital punishment: The Nuestra Familia case would be the first federal death penalty trial in Northern California since 1948.

Rising tensions: The increase in gang violence stems from a long-running feud between the northern-based Nuestra Familia and the southern-based Mexican Mafia. The recent influx of Mexican Mafia members into areas controlled by Nuestra Familia has added to the conflict.

Pelican Bay connection: Indictments against 13 Latino gang members

Wide Investigation: 30 agencies participated in Operation Black Widow

Web of gang terror: How convicted gangsters wield power from behind bars

The indictments cap a three-year, $5 million undercover investigation code-named "Operation Black Widow," which unfolded from information uncovered by Santa Rosa police gang investigators.

Five of the highest-ranking gang leaders jailed at Pelican Bay, California's highest-security prison, and eight other lieutenants and followers face charges that include murder, conspiracy, racketeering and drug dealing.

Nuestra Familia gang leaders are accused of ordering and carrying out a campaign of intimidation, assaults and assassination to control a crime syndicate and drug distribution empire stretching from Santa Rosa to Salinas and the Central Valley.

Federal prosecutors will seek the death penalty against two of those indicted, a gang "captain" from Sonoma County involved in drug running and his alleged accomplice in a 1998 prison-ordered "hit" against a Salinas rival.

"There's a war going on, and it threatens to engulf every community in the state," said Brian Parry, the state Department of Correction's chief deputy for law enforcement.

After hearing testimony for the past year, a federal grand jury in San Francisco returned sealed indictments Thursday. The indictments became public Friday when four of those accused were arrested and taken before federal magistrates in Sacramento and San Jose.

Local and federal authorities have scheduled a news conference Monday in Santa Rosa to lay out details of the case.

The investigation began with two Santa Rosa police detectives who drew key information in 1997 from a Pelican Bay parolee that helped explain several gang-related slayings in Sonoma County.

It expanded into a special crime task force, set up in a secret Santa Rosa basement headquarters and overseen by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in San Francisco and Washington. Informants helped the task force penetrate the upper echelons of the Nuestra Familia leadership at Pelican Bay, situated near Crescent City in Del Norte County.

Thousands of pages of intercepted communications and transcripts of taped conversations among gang leaders document a bloody battle for control of drug trafficking, money laundering and gun-running in poor Latino neighborhoods and their communities.

The imprisoned leadership even discourages use of the word gang, and in one internal communication described itself as a "crime family" and a "mob involved in both legal and illicit business."

Authorities said the criminal activities involved millions of dollars, but they cannot estimate the actual amount of money generated.

The cost for the community, however, is huge. At issue is a violent power struggle between the Nuestra Familia and the Southern California-based Mexican Mafia, the state's largest prison-controlled gang.

Federal prosecutors are invoking federal racketeering and conspiracy laws that once were used almost exclusively against organized crime figures operating on the East Coast and in Nevada.

Those laws also were applied in a 1997 Southern California case that resulted in a dozen Mexican Mafia leaders confined at Pelican Bay being convicted by a federal jury of running a drug and crime ring from their prison cells. Racketeering laws also were used as the basis for 11 federal indictments returned last year against Nuestra Familia gang members in the Salinas area.

Called "norteños," Nuestra Familia followers belong to the prison gang's so-called "northern structure," which is divided into street crews whose jobs are to help support members inside and out of prison through extortion, robberies and dealing of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and marijuana, according to prosecutors.

The gang originated in 1968 inside the state prison as a means of protection for Latino inmates from rural Northern California communities, and its imprisoned leaders are suspected of being responsible for at least 300 killings over three decades in state prisons and on the streets.

State prison officials say that the Nuestra Familia and Mexican Mafia have become the two most powerful prison gangs in the state prison system. Together, their combined memberships among the 300,000 inmates held in 33 state prisons surpass followers of Asian and black gangs, and the white-based Aryan Brotherhood and Nazi Low Riders.

Nuestra Familia has an estimated 200 top-ranking members who control thousands of "street soldiers" in Santa Rosa, Salinas, San Jose, Stockton and other cities near agricultural areas.

The federal indictments target four of the five highest-ranking leaders of the Nuestra Famila prison gang.

Prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty against Rico "Smiley" Garcia, a gang member who grew up in Windsor, and Ceasar "Lobo" Ramirez, his alleged accomplice, for a gangland-style assassination on Aug. 15, 1998. They are charged with the Salinas shooting of fellow gang leader Michael "Mikeo" Castillo, who once oversaw the gang's drug operations in Sonoma County.

At the time of the Salinas killing, Garcia and Ramirez were in charge of the Nuestra Familia's Sonoma County "regiment," according to authorities.

Authorities accuse Nuestra Familia leader "Tex" Hernandez of approving Castillo's killing by Garcia and Ramirez. Hernandez is identified as running the gang's "regimental security department" from behind bars at Pelican Bay.

James "Tibbs" Morado and Cornelio Tristan, two of the three imprisoned "generals" in the prison gang's high command, face federal charges of conspiracy to murder and racketeering for their alleged roles in a string of violent crimes and drug dealing in the North Bay, the Central Valley and the Central Coast.

A third general -- Joseph "Pinky" Hernandez -- was not indicted but could face prosecution in the future, according to authorities.


Thirty local, regional, state and federal agencies, led by the FBI and the Santa Rosa Police Department, particpated in the Operation Black Widow investigation resulting in indictments of prison gang leaders. The included:

Police departments in Santa Rosa, Salinas, San Francisco, San Jose, Visalia, Modesto, Tracy, Stockton and Watsonville

Sheriff's offices in Sonoma, Santa Cruz, Sacramento, Alameda and Monterey counties

District Attorney's offices in Sonoma, Tulare, Alameda, Santa Clara and Monterey counties

California Department of Corrections Special Services Unit

Sonoma County Multi-Agency, Tulare County and Alameda gang task forces

U.S. Attorney's Office

Department of Justice/Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement Violence Suppression Unit

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms

Drug Enforcement Agency

Secret Service

Tex Hernandez and Gerald "Cuete" Rubalcaba, who are next in command under the gang generals, also face federal conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. Sheldon "Skip" Villanueva, a lower-ranking commander in the Nuestra Familia, and Daniel "Stork" Perez, suspected of being involved as far back as 1982 in gang-related "hits," also face conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges.

In addition, David Rocha, a gangster rap musician from Tracy who is known as "Sir Dyno," and Vidal "Spider" Fabela of Sacramento were indicted for conspiring with Nuestra Familia leaders to sell drugs and use the profits to produce a controversial 1998 CD called "Generations of United Norteños."

Imprisoned gang leaders saw the recording as an opportunity to unite northern street gangs, and reap the profits. The lyrics, which advocate violence toward rival gang members known as "sureños," were so inflammatory that community outreach groups in Santa Rosa, Salinas, Stockton and other cities petitioned music stores to stop distribution of the CD.

In addition to seeking the death penalty against Garcia and Ramirez, federal agents and local gang investigators at Monday's news conference are expected to outline a litany of other crimes ranging from a gangland-style assassination of Robert "Brown Bob" Viramontes in San Jose to street killings, extortion, drug dealing, robberies and violent street assaults.

The names of some of the victims, including Santa Rosan Darren Hardin, who was gunned down in 1997 after being lured to a South Park home, turned up on one of 10 gang "hit" lists uncovered in the investigation.

Authorities said more gang indictments are planned at the federal level and in Sonoma County.

"The hit lists in and of themselves underscore the murderous intent of these gang leaders," said Santa Rosa Police Chief Michael Dunbaugh.

By seeking the death penalty, U.S. attorneys are marking a major shift in government policy toward prison gang leaders and their control over street gangs. The Nuestra Familia case would be the first federal death penalty trial in Northern California since 1948.

Although Congress revived the death penalty for some federal crimes in 1988, the scheduled execution next month of convicted Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh would be the first in 37 years.

"There isn't one single case that's going to shut the gang down. But this action will cause major disruptions to their activities, and hopefully provide law enforcement agencies and communities a chance to better coordinate efforts to curb gang violence," said Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins.

Beyond the message sent by a death penalty prosecution, authorities hope to remove high-ranking gang leaders from state prisons and place them in out-of-state federal prisons far from their home bases

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