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Notorious prison gang targets New Mexico corrections officials

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the man who was the poster boy for a tougher three-strikes law. It has been changed below.

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

The reigning leader of the prison gang Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico is serving a life sentence for killing another inmate in a dispute over a bottle of vitamins.

Court records show “hits” on fellow inmates are nothing new for the home-grown SNM, but Anthony “Pup” Ray Baca and two other convicted murderers in the gang hierarchy decided to up the ante beginning in 2013, a federal indictment alleges.a00_jd_21feb_snmguys

They are accused of hatching a plot to kill New Mexico Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel and a top corrections department intelligence chief.

The alleged conspiracy turned deadly serious last March when the FBI got word that the two officials’ lives were in danger.

To carry out the hit, the SNM trio of inmates allegedly planned to rely on a fellow gang member who was back on the streets after serving federal prison time on a firearms charge, according to records obtained by the Journal.

Neither Marcantel nor Dwayne Santiestevan, who oversees corrections’ Security Threat Intelligence Unit, would comment about the alleged plot, referring questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque. A spokeswoman there declined to answer questions about the alleged plot.

Baca, 52, Roy Paul Martinez, 43, Robert Martinez, 51, and Christopher Garcia – all indicted on charges of conspiring to murder Marcantel – have pleaded not guilty to the charges. Garcia, 40, isn’t charged in the conspiracy to kill Santiestevan.

Defense attorneys say they plan to “vigorously litigate” the case, but complain that the government hasn’t yet produced much pretrial discovery.

Documents obtained by the Journal show that the information received last year by the FBI spurred a multiagency criminal investigation that has upended the notorious gang that formed in the aftermath of the deadly New Mexico state penitentiary riot in 1980.

Some 25 people alleged to be SNM gang members were indicted on federal racketeering charges last December, accused of committing violent acts to achieve the objectives of their enterprise. Of those, 19 are charged with death penalty-eligible offenses.

Another 10 people, including suspected SNM associates and allies, have been indicted on federal narcotics and weapons charges after undercover investigators made an estimated 50 drug buys and firearms purchases, also intercepting wire communications, according to a 41-page FBI search warrant affidavit.

The investigation also turned up new SNM gang links to more than 20 homicides in New Mexico. Some are cold cases that have gone unsolved for years and are now under renewed investigation.

Never before has there been such a sweeping, concerted federally led effort to disrupt what’s been described as New Mexico’s largest and most violent prison gang, say law enforcement officials.

“Although the SNM Gang has historically been on law enforcement radar, the current investigation began in early 2015 when leaders of the SNM Gang called for the murder of two-high ranking administrators,” states the FBI affidavit.

SNM was described in the affidavit as a violent gang “with a history of murderous activities,” assaults on police officers, reprisals against rivals, countersurveillance against law enforcement, and ongoing and repeated criminal activity and firearms possession.

SNM members committed such acts “for the purpose of gaining entrance to and maintaining and increasing position” in the gang, the indictment alleges.

In an email response to Journal questions, Corrections Secretary Marcantel said the federal attention “in this case sets an important foundation for inmate accountability within our prisons.”

Inmates in the New Mexico prison system are photographed during processing, sometimes displaying tattoos like this, which note their affiliation with the violent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico gang. (Courtesy of NM Department of Corrections)

Inmates in the New Mexico prison system are photographed during processing, sometimes displaying tattoos like this, which note their affiliation with the violent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico gang. (Courtesy of NM Department of Corrections)

“Given our recidivism and the reality that almost everyone sentenced to prison will eventually return to our neighborhoods, what happens in prison matters to our neighborhoods. That is exactly why the value of our collaboration with the FBI and (the U.S. Attorney’s Office) in this case can’t be underestimated.”

Who runs the prisons?

SNM in recent years has been featured in two hard-hitting reality television shows in which gang members have boasted that they run the state’s prisons – rather than the corrections officers or administrators.

“Hey, when I get out, I’m joining ISIS. I’m representing ISIS in here,” inmate Jerry Montoya laughingly told a television crew filming the A&E TV series “Behind Bars: Rookie Year,” which aired last fall about rookie New Mexico correction officers’ first year on the job.

With a prior murder conviction, Montoya told the film crew he was being housed in a high-security area “strictly with my gang. We’re all here for each other.”

Montoya’s defense attorney last year sought to keep his televised remarks from a jury that was to decide whether he was guilty in another murder: the killing of SNM gang member Javier Molina in March 2014. The defense argued his statements were edited and taken out of context.

Molina and co-defendant Jerry Armenta were charged with stabbing Molina more than 40 times around his heart at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility outside Las Cruces.

A week before trial last November, the state charges were dismissed in anticipation of Montoya and Armenta being indicted in the federal racketeering case. They – and five additional alleged SNM gang members – are now facing federal conspiracy and murder charges related to Molina’s death.

The A&E show quoted one rookie corrections officer as saying, “The No. 1 most important part about prison gangs is ‘mess with them and God only knows what will happen.’ ”

He added that he hoped someday to get promoted to the prison intelligence unit run by Santiestevan, where the work might not be so dangerous.

“I know a lot of these guys, they have the ability to reach out and touch somebody,” he told the television crew. “They have the ability to go after my family when I’m not there.”

Scrutiny not effective

The FBI says SNM has had as many as 500 members since the early 1980s. Currently, about 109, excluding the federal defendants, are among the 7,300 incarcerated in New Mexico prisons.

But SNM’s grip extends beyond prison walls. Continued allegiance and contact with the gang is required even after SNM members are released from prison, according to a 2011 FBI report.

As evidence: Nearly half of the people the FBI sought to search for evidence last December were out on the streets, some on parole or probation. Four were out on bond facing other criminal charges.

One familiar SNM face who was indicted – three-time convicted killer Gerald “Stix” Archuleta – is now grayer than when he made headlines in 2009 after allegedly offering $20,000 to anyone who would kill then-Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White.

White had used Archuleta as a poster boy to push for a tougher three-strikes law in New Mexico.

Archuleta was not charged in that alleged threat. But years after leaving New Mexico in 2011 and resettling in Tennessee, where he served a one-year parole, Archuleta’s alleged ties to SNM have resurfaced.

The federal racketeering indictment alleges that Archuleta was among three SNM members who conspired to severely beat 56-year-old inmate Julian Romero last year at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility.

Romero was attacked within five hours of SNM gang members being let out of a 16-month prison lockdown instituted after Molina’s murder.

The federal charge against Archuleta, once the ranking leader of SNM, contends the conspiracy to harm Romero was 12 years in the making. Also charged in the conspiracy is Baca, aka “Pup,” who back in 1989 claimed self-defense in the fatal stabbing of inmate Luis Valasquez days after he took Valasquez’s vitamins, court records state.

According to the FBI affidavit, the recent investigation “has yielded evidence of SNM gang members participating in more than two dozen homicides, numerous attempted murders and aggravated assaults, as well as armed robbery, drug trafficking and other felony crimes that are being investigated … .”

For instance, the affidavit revealed that law enforcement officials now believe they have solved the 15-year-old murder of two Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility inmates who were strangled within hours of each other. Their deaths in 2001 were investigated by State Police, but no charges were ever filed. Another SNM gang member is now a suspect in a 2012 homicide in Socorro County in which the victim was shot multiple times and placed inside a vehicle that was then set on fire, the affidavit stated.

“Despite being imprisoned and closely scrutinized by prison officials, SMN gang leaders still manage to convey their orders to gang members and associates throughout the prison system and outside the prison system through a variety of means, including contraband cell phones, secret notes called ‘kites’ or ‘welas,’ coded letters and messages conveyed by complicit visitors,” states the search warrant affidavit.

The affidavit sought, in part, a federal magistrate’s permission to take photos of suspects’ bodies for evidence of tattoos that would establish membership in the SNM gang.

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