Editor’s note: The FBI and federal prosecutors relied on “cooperators” to take down more than 120 members and associates of the notorious Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang, including more than a dozen who were convicted at trial or pleaded guilty to murder in aid of racketeering. This story is the first in a two-day series. It contains graphic content about violence, content that some may find offensive.
Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Their confessions of violence and depravity fueled the massive three-year federal investigation aimed at dismantling what had been New Mexico’s oldest and largest prison gang.
Their cooperation helped solve at least nine murders and convict more than 120 members or associates of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang – nearly 70 percent of whom were out on the streets when arrested, court records show.
They also helped foil an assassination plot and convict the SNM leaders who gave the orders to kill two top state Corrections officials in 2015.
Now, the 30 or so former Syndicato members who turned on their fellow “carnales” could be on their way to a new life in federal prison or a new identity in a federal witness security program. Nearly all those who opted to cooperate had been facing federal racketeering or other charges at the time.
Since helping the FBI-led investigation, called “Operation Atonement,” some SNM cooperators have lapsed back into drugs and crime. At least two were relocated to other states for their safety but have re-offended and landed back in custody.
Ultimately, whether in prison or not, they will always be looking over their shoulders.
“It’s an unforgiven sin,” testified former SNM leader-turned-cooperator Roy Paul “Shadow” Martinez. “If you snitch, you get killed.”
The federal investigation that relied heavily on “cooperators” produced dramatic results. Of the 120 or so prosecuted, nine SNM members or associates face life in prison after being convicted at trial this year of committing murder to further the violent SNM racketeering enterprise. At least eight cooperators have pleaded guilty to racketeering charges that carry life sentences in federal prison, court records show.
Now it is up to U.S. District Judge James O. Browning of Albuquerque to decide the fate of those convicted and those who helped convict them. Whether the public will know the final outcome isn’t clear.
A key cooperator and former SNM leader, Gerald “Styx” Archuleta, was the first to be sentenced by Browning last month.
But there was no prior public notice of the Aug. 17 sentencing in U.S. District Court, and the terms of his sentence are sealed.
His sentencing came to light only because his lawyer filed a motion to withdraw from the case.
FBI lead case agent Bryan Acee testified in July that Archuleta “opened the floodgates of cooperators.”
“If Gerald Archuleta could cooperate, any of them can. And I made that known to all of them,” Acee testified. “It also left a pretty remarkable legacy on the SNM that the famous Gerald Archuleta wore a wire against his own people.”
Archuleta, 51, turned informant weeks after his arrest in the initial FBI-led takedown of more than 40 SNM members indicted in December 2015 on federal racketeering and other charges, court records show. While detained in state prison, Archuleta secretly recorded fellow SNM members, many of whom still revered him as a leader.
“A lot of guys I talked to didn’t believe me,” Acee testified. “I had to actually play recordings of him (Archuleta) talking to me before they’d even believe he would talk to us.”
Archuleta testified earlier this year in U.S. District Court that he knows he is targeted for death.
“If the SNM is good at one thing, it’s killing SNM informers,”Archuleta said.
Defense attorneys have argued that cooperators are bound to get leniency from the federal judge because of their testimony, and the public could be at risk.
Take the case of former SNM member Mario Montoya, argued attorney Marcia Morrissey of Santa Monica, Calif. Morrissey was a court-appointed attorney for Anthony Cordova, who went to trial in July on charges of murder in aid of furthering SNM’s criminal enterprise.
As a witness in the case, Montoya testified that he drove the getaway car when Cordova fired the fatal shots at a rival gang member in the South Valley in 2005. But Montoya wasn’t prosecuted for the crime after he agreed to cooperate in the racketeering investigation and testify truthfully.
“Do you want him in your neighborhood?” Morrissey asked jurors, who ultimately convicted Cordova.
Federal prosecutors argued that the nature of SNM’s crimes meant the government couldn’t choose its witnesses.
They echoed the old adage: “When you cast a play in hell, you can’t expect the actors to be angels.”
The SNM gang, which formed after the deadly 1980 riots at the State Penitentiary in Santa Fe, thrived over the past three decades, perpetuating drug trafficking, assaults, extortion and murder inside and outside prison walls, federal prosecutors maintained. Over the years, the gang boasted as many as 500 members, who were expected to continue to work for SNM even after release from prison.
Syndicato wasn’t on law enforcement radar when SNM member Eric Duran turned over letters in March 2015 written by a top SNM leader who was recruiting gang brothers in Albuquerque to kill then-Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel and the top official in charge of the corrections gang unit.
That official has since quit the agency and left New Mexico.
In return for his work for law enforcement, Duran won early release from prison for saving the officials’ lives, court testimony showed. Before he left prison, FBI put $25,000 on Duran’s prison account, FBI agent Acee testified.
Discovery of the murder plot launched a wider investigation by the FBI-led team, which scrutinized SNM criminal activities dating back to the 1980s, including nearly three dozen suspected SNM homicides. Known SNM members and their associates on the streets were confronted and arrested after dozens of undercover drug and firearms buys.
“We were looking for their vulnerabilities,” Acee testified. “Every organization has them. It was just a matter of figuring out what they are and how we can best exploit those.”
The primary goal, he testified, was thwarting the murder plot. And investigators in September 2015 found their “hit” man after arresting SNM member Mario Montoya for selling heroin to an FBI informant.
Montoya decided to come clean on his SNM crimes, including the South Valley murder. He also pointed the finger at others, and worked undercover to subvert the Corrections murder plot. He wore a wire when he picked up a pistol from an SNM drug dealer for the Corrections “hit” and secretly recorded other SNM members.
SNM leader Anthony “Pup” Baca, already serving a life sentence, was waiting to hear the news of the officials’ murders in early December 2015. Instead, he and three others were indicted by a federal grand jury in the murder conspiracy, court records show.
With the murder plot foiled, the ongoing racketeering prosecution charging SNM as a violent criminal enterprise had just begun.
Two more waves of federal criminal indictments followed, along with state arrests. Because some violent SNM acts occurred as far back as 2001, there was often no DNA or other physical evidence. So the quest for informants and SNM members who would testify was paramount.
“I certainly made it known that the FBI was coming after the SNM,” Acee testified. “And then I would – if I believed they were an SNM member – I would let them know that they could be seeing us again and it could involve helicopters and tanks and indictments and stuff like that.”
“Your message was, either you become a witness or you become a defendant?” asked defense attorney Richard H. Sindel, of Missouri, in cross-examining Acee in April.
“I often said that,”Acee testified.
Over the past eight months, former SNM members who cooperated with the FBI testified in U.S. District Court about their roles in strangulations, beatings, waterboarding of rivals and sexually assaulting a “weak” inmate in southern New Mexico with a bottle of hot sauce.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office and FBI in New Mexico wouldn’t agree to be interviewed by the Journal about the SNM case or say how much has been paid to cooperators. But Acee testified that the tab was about $90,000, mostly monthly payments put on cooperators’ prison accounts for them to buy goods or make phone calls.
Acee testified that he couldn’t make promises to the cooperators about their fate: “I only promised that I would do my best to protect them and their family.”
In some cases, Acee had to convince gang members’ relatives that the “cooperators were truly cooperating, because their family didn’t believe it. They were gangsters, too,” he said.
In some cases, the U.S. Attorney’s office signed immunity-like agreements with cooperators, agreeing not to federally prosecute them for crimes they confessed as long as they didn’t lie on the witness stand.
“Some of the guys had identity crises that would last for months,”Acee added. “You know, one day they’re a cooperator, the next day they think they can go back to the gang. And I would argue with them that they were done, they’d already talked to us and there was no going back … snitches can’t be gang members.” After three jury trials involving murders dating back 17 years, three SNM members were acquitted.
As one of more than 45 court-appointed defense attorneys, Morrissey argued that cooperators were lying so they could benefit from the government’s “gravy train.”
Defense attorneys also reminded juries that former SNM members hadn’t given up their drug habits or criminal ways.
Many cooperators still incarcerated have been caught with drugs. Others have engaged in sex with a correctional officer or a spouse during prison visits, testimony showed. Some watched porn on government tablets provided to show discovery records in the federal racketeering case.
After becoming cooperators, Duran and Montoya served their sentences and were relocated out of state.
Testimony showed that Duran went to work as an informant while Montoya was moved with his family and received moving costs and about $3,100 in government-paid job training.
But both men picked up new criminal charges before they could even take the witness stand in the Syndicato trials.
Testimony showed Duran was a suspect in a series of crimes on the West Coast in 2017, including possession of heroin and felon in possession of a firearm involving a police chase.
Montoya, meanwhile, is back in custody awaiting possible prosecution in Colorado for leaving the scene of a burglary and theft of a truck.
The FBI subsequently severed ties with both men, Acee testified. But they were still expected to testify in court and both did.
“It was the best time of my life,” Montoya testified in July, referring to his 11 months of freedom. “I was clean that entire time. I was living my life. It’s a major accomplishment for me. I know it made me sound bad, but I can’t dwell on the past. All I can do is keep trying. I’m not the same person.”