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Gang leaders orchestrate crimes from prison using cell phones

on September 1, 2010

A coalition of law enforcement agencies has arrested four Nuestra Familia gang leaders and 30 gang members, California Attorney General Jerry Brown announced at a press conference in Oakland on Tuesday. Several of those caught were allegedly given orders to commit murder and other violent crimes by imprisoned gang leaders who sent them encrypted messages via cell phones.

Many of the crimes were allegedly ordered by “incarcerated inmates that are supposed to be serving their time and out of circulation,” said Brown, who served as Oakland’s mayor from 1998 to 2006. “But because of the introduction of cell phones these individuals in prison are maintaining their role, their hierarchical position in the gang.” Brown explained that the imprisoned leaders of Nuestra Familia are ordering the crimes from prison and the crimes are happening out on the streets.

Attorney General Jerry Brown announces the arrest of Nuestra Familia gang members at a press conference on Tuesday.

Cracking down on violent street gangs, like Nuestra Familia, is one of Brown’s priorities as he launches into the final few months of his run for California governor. He has supported creating gang-free zones in Los Angeles and backed the Oakland Police Department in the 2008 investigation of the Acorn Gang during which over 40 suspected gang members were arrested in West Oakland.

Nuestra Familia is one of the most powerful of the seven prison gangs in California. It got its start in Folsom Prison in 1968 and its members are mostly Mexican-American or Chicano. With tens of thousands of members throughout the state and hundreds of members inside state prisons, according to the attorney general’s office, Nuestra Familia operates with a strict chain of command and has allegedly been responsible for murders, drug trafficking and weapons charges.  The attorney general’s office said some of the members have ties to the Norteños gang, which is active in the Bay Area.

In operation “Street Sweeper,” during which these most recent arrests were made, 250 law enforcement agents, including several Bay Area agencies and the FBI, spread across several California counties looking to take down the leaders at the top of the Nuestra Familia gang. Dozens of people have been arrested, the majority from Visalia and Salinas. In the course of the operation, agents realized that many of the gang members were taking orders from their bosses who were serving time in Pelican Bay State prison, which is near the Oregon border.

“We are up against some very serious criminals, very sophisticated and with nothing else to do in prison than foment more crimes,” said Brown. “When they go to prison, they don’t miss a beat—they continue their associations, their communication and their criminal behavior.” Brown was not clear on how the inmates get the cell phones, but suggested they might be smuggled in by visitors or guards. “Prison is supposed to punish, it’s supposed to be a place where people put their lives back in order and when it becomes, literally, the college of crime, our system fails,” he said.

The attorney general’s office is looking at stopping this type of communication by building certain cell phone towers that would block messages going in and out of prisons. “I believe we can take serious steps to curb this cell phone abuse and the abuse of this technology to foster crime,” said Brown. He said his office is also exploring cell phone jamming technology, but that utilizing this method would be more difficult because the Federal Communications Commission does not allow prisons to jam communications and introducing cell phone jamming would require a change in federal law.

Although the majority of people caught in operation “Street Sweeper” were from central California, Brown warned that Nuestra Familia gang activity is widespread and could include the Bay Area. “I don’t think any place is safe from this type of criminal enterprise,” he said. “It’s only safe if the prisons get better control of the inmates and we engage in greater control of the streets.”

Lead image: Map from the attorney general’s office showing the California counties where the Nuestra Familia gang operates. 


  1. Ken on September 1, 2010 at 10:29 am

    Thanks Jerry for taking a hard look at the rebel army.

  2. […] People « Gang leaders orchestrate crimes from prison using cell phones […]

  3. Karen on September 1, 2010 at 8:11 pm

    It’s probably impossible to stop all illegal activity by these gang members while they are in prison. But it seems simple enough to make sure they don’t have cell phones and to device methods to make it more difficult for gang members in prison to direct crimes on the outside.

    I think part of the problem is many prisons don’t require inmates to stay busy. They really should be out on the highway’s cleaning the garbage along the roadside. Tired prisoners have less time to plot crimes.

  4. […] “Prison is supposed to punish,” Brown said. “It’s supposed to be a place where people put their lives back in order and when it becomes, literally, the college of crime, our system fails.” […]

  5. jla on September 9, 2010 at 10:29 am

    to me this is the most interesting story on the site right now

  6. Barbara on September 9, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    I have read an analysis on a past bill to make it a misdemeanor to smuggle in a cell phone. In the analysis, the legislators questioned and discussed how the cell phones got inside. THEY HAD TO ADMIT THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT THEY WERE BROUGHT IN BY FAMILY VISITORS. STAFF WAS THE CULPRIT!

    But Jerry Brown and others want to skirt around this, and point to the ‘families of felons’ as the bad guys, because of course, they don’t want it known that their very state employees are doing it. Guards and other staff people. Jerry Brown, you notice in this article, “suggested” it might be visitors or guards.

    If they want these prisoners to think about something other than crime, then get them to work so that when they get back to their cell they are dead tired and only want to eat and go to bed. We are not created to live isolated from other people. If we do, we will be left to our own devices and what do you expect? You might want to figure out how to get out of that place, or see someone, talk to someone…

    I do not have any respect for our leaders anymore. What are we going to be left with for governor, anyway you slice it.

  7. Jess on September 13, 2010 at 10:31 pm

    Brown says, “[They] have nothing else to do in prison than foment more crimes…Prisons is supposed to punish, it’s supposed to be a place where people put their lives back in order…”

    How can people put their lives back in order in a place that is meant to punish? How can it be a place to put their lives back in order if they have nothing else to do?

    The state government has drastically slashed educational, vocational, and psychological/medical services for people in prison in the last two years. And look at what is happening. Prisons are not, nor ever can be, completely disconnected from communities outside them. Since these ties remain, we have to treat people inside like they are returning to communities and cities and like they are humans. Because they are returning, connected by family, and are human. The more we invest in basic education, vocation, and medical services so that people in prison have the opportunities to re/learn how to function in society, the healthier communities they return to/are connected to will be.

    BUDGET CUTS and harsh punishment mentalities have only proven to further harm everybody, inside prisons and outside their walls and towers.

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