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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Los Angeles Sues Imprisoned Street-Gang Leaders

LOS ANGELES -- Attorneys for the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit Monday seeking monetary penalties against nine imprisoned gang leaders, alleging that at least some of them continue to oversee their criminal enterprises from inside prison.

The defendants in the Los Angeles state court suit are reputed members of the Los Angeles-based 18th Street gang, which the suit calls "one of the largest and most violent criminal street gangs in the world" with an estimated 30,000-plus members in 15 states and five foreign countries.

In the past, prosecutors have filed criminal cases against imprisoned gang members for continuing to direct criminal operations from their prison cells. The Los Angeles City Attorney's office says it believes this is the first suit that seeks civil monetary penalties for alleged damages to the public caused by such criminal activity.

The city attorney's lawsuit aims to take away any financial benefits the imprisoned gang members are enjoying from their alleged illegal activities, said City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. "We're going to hit them where it hurts, in their wallet."

City officials said they plan to seek damages of more than $1 million. If successful, authorities would then attempt to seize cash, homes, cars and other property connected to the defendants. It remains to be seen how much wealth authorities would be able to find and recover.

The suit is the latest acknowledgment of a long-known problem: Gang leaders' criminal activities don't necessarily stop after they are put behind bars. City attorney officials say they are looking at the behavior of these defendants while they were out of prison and after they were incarcerated.

All nine have been in federal custody since at least September 2006, and two have been in prison since the 1990s with both now serving life terms, says Bruce Riordan, director of the city attorney's anti-gang division. The two serving life terms, Ruben Castro and Frank Martinez, also are alleged members of the Mexican Mafia, a violent prison-based gang that law-enforcement officials say has long been involved in criminal activities inside and outside of jail.

The suit alleges that 18th Street gang members are "vertically integrated" with the Mexican Mafia and funnel criminal proceeds to jailed Mexican Mafia members through various means, including deposits into bank accounts that the men maintain at the prison. Prisoners can have individual bank accounts to buy sundries.

In November, Mr. Castro was sentenced to an additional 327 months in prison as the result of a 2006 federal indictment charging that while incarcerated in a Colorado federal prison, he continued to run some of the criminal activities of the 18th Street gang. Mr. Castro has filed a notice of appeal.

Neither Mr. Castro nor Mr. Martinez could be reached for comment.

Monday's lawsuit is part of a broader attack in recent years by federal and state authorities against violent street gangs in Los Angeles, considered to be one of the nation's spawning grounds for such organizations. Federal prosecutors here have filed criminal charges against more than 1,000 alleged gang members over the past year.

Mr. Delgadillo's office has obtained more than three dozen civil injunctions against more than 60 gangs. The injunctions restrict the ability of gang members to associate with each other or to go into certain neighborhoods. City attorneys have also moved to close houses allegedly used for gang operations and jail gang members for violating the injunctions.

Write to John R. Emshwiller at john.emshwiller@wsj.com

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