To most of us, getting a University of New Mexico Lobo paw print tattoo just shows lots of school spirit.
But to members of the growing and dangerous Burqueños prison gang, a Lobo paw print tattoo sends a very different signal.
“They have to earn those paws” through gang activities like assaults on other inmates, said Dwayne Santistevan, the state Corrections Department’s administrator for security threat intelligence.
The gang identifies itself with tattoos of the Albuquerque Duke, the snarling UNM Lobo, the Downtown skyline, and “1706,” the year of the city’s founding. Its members are dangerous and becoming more numerous, Santistevan said.
Of the 500 or so inmates in New Mexico’s prison gangs, almost half now belong to the Burqueños, Santistevan said.
As of February last year, there were 170 Burqueños, according to data provided by the Corrections Department. This year, there are 240, an increase of about 40 percent.
If its numbers keep rising so quickly behind bars, the gang could find its way onto the streets, Santistevan said.
The department is taking pains to inform local law enforcement when members are released, as well as training in how to identify the Burqueños, he said.
Don’t worry too much, though, if you or someone you love has a similar tattoo, Santistevan said. Local law enforcement agencies know the other tattoos and signifiers to look for; a Lobo tattoo alone doesn’t mark someone out for a Burqueños member.
Officials have also found and separated the gang’s leadership from its other members in prison, Santistevan said, as well as broken up group activity in areas like the exercise yard.
“When they start exercising in groups like that, we think, ‘Well, they’re exercising for a reason,’ ” he said.
The Burqueños, most of whom are felons convicted of serious crimes, began years ago as a group of street gang members in Albuquerque and surrounding areas seeking protection from other prison gangs.
But starting in early 2010, the Burqueños began adopting images like the Dukes — but apparently not the Isotopes — and the Lobos in their tattoos and stepping up assaults on other inmates.
The Burqueños gang is behind an increasing amount of prison violence, Santistevan said, though he did not have the exact figures on hand.
The total gang population, made up of inmates who were gang members when incarcerated, in New Mexico’s public and private prisons has also grown. Of the 6,580 inmates total, 2,700 were or are gang members, up from 2,400 last February. That number includes inmates who are also members of active prison gangs.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal