Women caught up in gang life
Girlfriends, wives are an integral — and sometimes expendable — part of criminal organization
See also A Deadly Toll
By JULIA REYNOLDS, Herald Staff Writer
Sunday Oct. 30, 2011
Nearly seven years ago, three Central Coast women caught the attention of local detectives who noticed they were regularly driving north to a downtown Oakland jail.
The investigators discovered the three were visiting top Nuestra Familia generals — the gang’s highest-ranking leaders — who were awaiting sentencing in a federal racketeering case.
Although two of the women ended up marrying the men they visited, these romances do not have happy-ever-after endings.
One woman was murdered in a plot investigators say was orchestrated by the general she married. Another was arrested last spring and faces life in prison.
The third, who had been the target of police and FBI surveillance for years, was Watsonville resident Rosa Martinez.
A girlfriend and colleague of local Norteño and Nuestra Familia gang members, Martinez, 31, has been of keen interest to local police and FBI agents since a violent schism unfolded six years ago among her lovers, family, and the Nuestra Familia.
Her story exemplifies the critical — and often tragic — supporting role played by women in California’s current version of organized crime.
Under the radar
Like many women seriously involved with gangs, law enforcement always seemed to pass Martinez by whenever the big gang indictments came down.
“Women tend not to show up on the radar real quick, so they were being used extensively by the gang regiment,” said Marina police Chief Eddie Rodriguez, a former Watsonville officer and member of a task force that was tailing the women.
During the surveillance, he said, “we got a better perspective on how women were being used. These women started popping up all over the place as couriers for the gang.”
Martinez’ under-the radar days ended this month when she was arrested as part of Operation Garlic Press, a multi-agency investigation based in Gilroy that culminated in more than 100 arrests in five counties on Oct. 14.
Martinez, who has lived in Gilroy and Watsonville, now faces judges in two different courts.
In Santa Clara County, she’s in jail on felony charges of auto theft and receiving stolen property.
In federal court, she has been indicted on two counts of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine and possession of drugs for sale.
Like her two colleagues, Martinez was romantically involved with one of the gang’s top guns.
In the Norteño gang culture, Rodriguez said, girls and women aren’t “officially” allowed to become members — but because police have historically tended to overlook them, women have come to play increasingly important roles in helping the gang conduct its business, from relaying messages to delivering drugs.
When members of Rodriguez’s multi-county Central Coast gang task force took notice of her in 2004 and 2005, Martinez was the girlfriend of the officers’ top target, a Watsonville gang regiment leader named Oscar Cabrera, also known as Baby Joker or BJ.
Her cousin, Anthony Rubalcava, known on the streets as Tigre, was considered BJ’s right-hand man.
Martinez and two other women — Carol Huerta, of Castroville, who was close to the gang’s highest leaders, and Crystal Morado, a 19year-old from Salinas — became task force surveillance targets.
In 2004, the officers began watching Morado as she visited a general in the Oakland jail, James “Tibbs” Morado.
Within months, she married him. Although Tibbs was twice her age and doing life in prison, marrying him meant Morado would be taken care of financially by the gang. Some friends and relatives call her relationship with the gang’s No. 1 leader a case of “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
Whatever her motive, the marriage was doomed. In January 2005, months after her whirlwind visiting-room romance blossomed into marriage, Morado, then 20, was found shot to death in a parked car on Hecker Pass Road, just east of the line between Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.
The task force officers suspected that BJ and Tigre, as the local regiment brass, might have been involved.
California prison investigators later found a message smuggled between gang leaders indicating Crystal’s husband, the general called Tibbs, had sanctioned the hit. The note explained that she was killed because she was no longer “functioning” for the gang.
Friends put it more simply: she’d wanted to spend more time with her infant son and had tired of delivering messages and money for the general and his cohorts.
A few months later, Martinez had become Tibbs’ messenger, and she visited him at the Oakland jail.
In April, Huerta traveled with her and sat down with Nuestra Familia general Joseph “Pinky” Hernandez.
Their visits took place with glass between them. Police detectives who observed them noticed the generals took care to guard their language as they spoke. The officers were on the lookout for subtle or coded ways of communicating gang orders.
In June 2005, Watsonville police stopped Martinez on a traffic warrant. Officers found six blank money orders for $500 each, along with the prison mailing address of David Cervantes, the gang’s highest-ranking leader in Pelican Bay State Prison. A seventh money order was made out to Cervantes.
Her wallet also contained a handwritten note addressed to BJ, saying Tibbs believed BJ wasn’t paying enough attention to recent communications from the gang.
To the task force officers, the discovery meant Martinez had become a courier for the gang’s highest-level leaders, filtering messages to the streets while delivering “tax” money to generals’ prison trust accounts.
But the most intriguing find was a small digital camera among Martinez’s belongings. In it were images of someone holding a large handwritten note against a glass window. The face wasn’t visible, but the clothing looked like an Oakland jail uniform.
Officers decided the piece of paper contained a general’s message to gang members in the Central Coast.
Martinez was released and she soon dropped by the jail again.
This time the guards were ready. When their metal detector went off, Martinez as usual told the officers it must have been her underwire bra.
A more thorough search by female guards revealed that Martinez had tucked a new digital camera into her bra.
She was banned from visiting the jail.
Her travel companion, Huerta, meanwhile, had married the general “Pinky” Hernandez. Authorities never determined if the two were legally wed or had simply declared themselves husband and wife, but according to court testimony, the position gave Huerta authority among gang leaders in Salinas and Castroville.
Gang members said they rewarded her with free drugs and rent money as an honored general’s wife.
By fall, Martinez had become romantically involved with another man — Mark Escobedo, one of BJ’s underlings.
That sticky situation, combined with drug debts owed, made Escobedo believe he was in bad standing with the gang.
He was also a police informant.
On a September day in 2005, Escobedo told his law enforcement handlers that BJ had ordered him to collect drug money later that night with Tigre and another gang member.
Escobedo told the officers he was afraid the gang would kill him during the drive over Hecker Pass Road, but at midnight, he slid into a car seat in front of Tigre, seeming to accept his fate.
When they returned from Gilroy, the car pulled to a stop not far from the spot where Crystal Morado was killed.
According to court documents, Escobedo had tried asking for mercy, but Tigre was silent. Escobedo was ordered out of the car and moments later, Tigre told him, “You’re staying here.”
Escobedo saw the muzzle flash and heard the blast, but he never saw the gun. He was shot again in the back as he tried to run away.
Martinez learned early that morning that her new boyfriend was in a hospital clinging to life.
He had been shot by her cousin, in a hit arranged by her former lover.
For women involved in gangs, the lines between love, family and crime are often blurred.
Angela Wolf, a researcher focusing on girls’ and women’s issues at the nonprofit National Council on Crime and Delinquency, said relatives and boyfriends often draw girls into gangs.
“Typically, they have a family member or a boyfriend already involved,” she said.
Wolf is in the process of launching the nation’s largest study to date of girls involved in gangs, with grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.
She and fellow researchers plan to interview more than 100 girls in Salinas, Los Angeles, Oakland, Richmond, Sacramento and other California cities.
Violence in the home also appears to be a major risk factor, Wolf said, especially for girls, who may join seeking safety and protection — even from their own home.
“They’re looking for (something) to be enveloped by,” she said. “And the gang is there.”
One young woman from Monterey County, who asked not to be named in this story, agreed that gang involvement often starts with romance.
“Like in any relationship, you’re going to show you’re loyal to your guy,” she said.
She was initiated into an allgirl Sureño gang in her teens. “Once a guy picks his true ‘ride or die,’ that girl is solid. Once a girl gets that title and gets introduced that way, she’s up higher now than a girl that’s just a party girl.”
She said the reasons young women get into gangs are as varied as the girls themselves.
Her own case was “generational,” with gang members in her immediate family.
Some girls get into the drugs, she said. Others crave respect. Some may even come from strict, well-off households but seek the excitement and danger of being around gangsters, she said.
“A lot of these guys put you on a pedestal. You get respect. But every group of (gang members), they also have their own group of girls who are disposable.”
She left her gang around 2000, she said, at a time when it was easier for a woman to walk away. These days, she said, she sees a lot of girls “15, 16 years old. They all date older guys who are in prison, guys in their 20s. They don’t even know what they’re getting into.”
Wolf said she hasn’t researched changes in gang policies, but agreed that it does seem harder for girls and women to get out of gangs than it used to be, and her study will look at successful “exit strategies.”
“One way out is that girls are able to leverage their caretaking roles,” she said. “They do seem to have an easier time (leaving) if they are mothers.”
Most men and women, she points out, simply outgrow their gangs when family and responsibilities take precedence, although there’s always a small group of what she calls “legacy gang members,” those who stay involved even as they age into their 20s, 30s and beyond.
She said most girls do not understand what they’re getting involved in when they join gangs.
“They feel like they’re valued and it turns out they’re really not valued at all . . . Kids find out they’re expendable.”
Headed for court
Eddie Rodriguez says law enforcement is now taking a closer look at women, as gang men increasingly target and court females they think will be useful.
“If anything, the gangs are using them more,” he said. “The wives and girlfriends are doing the gang’s work. In the past, guys may have said, ‘Carry my gun.’ Nowadays it’s a bit more covert — the women have good jobs and you wouldn’t think they’re gang-related.”
As for Rosa Martinez, loyalty to the gang lifestyle apparently won out over love.
Six years after the regiment’s attempt to kill her boyfriend Escobedo, police said she was still in the mix.
Several weeks ago, arrest warrants were issued for her on drug and auto theft charges under Operation Garlic Press. She was picked up earlier this month and remains in Santa Clara County jail in lieu of $25,000 bail.
The Central Coast task force that investigated Martinez, Huerta, Tigre and BJ was shut down in 2006 as the FBI took over the cases.
Escobedo survived his injuries and eventually testified against Tigre, who last year was sentenced to 55 years to life in prison.
In March 2006, BJ disappeared the day after a Watsonville homicide in which he was the suspect, and he remains on Santa Cruz County’s most wanted list. Police learned he was later hiding in Mexico with Robert “Bubba” Hanrahan, a Nuestra Familia crew leader from Salinas who is now serving a 13-year prison term and was indicted this year on federal drug charges.
After Escobedo was shot, police learned that Carol Huerta had married her general, “Pinky” Hernandez, and later visited him in a Florence, Colo. supermax prison where the gang’s brass are now housed.
Last spring, Huerta was indicted on drug conspiracy charges. She faces life in federal prison.
A deadly toll
Women have been regular targets of gang violence in Monterey County, but few cases have been solved.
Jan. 31, 2005: Crystal Morado, 20, of Salinas, was found shot dead in a car parked on Hecker Pass Road.
May 20, 2006: Tina Marie Peña, 23, of King City, was found shot multiple times on Wildhorse Road off of Highway 101.
Oct. 23, 2007: Two women, ages 21 and 25, were shot in the head in a Motel 6 room in Salinas. Amazingly, both survived their injuries. Sureño gang member Heriberto Ceja, 21, was named as a suspect and remains at large.
Dec. 5, 2009: Yliza Martinez and Veronica Gallegos, both 30, were found shot to death in a room at the Pueblo Inn in Greenfield. A 15-year-old boy was charged in the double homicide and police are still seeking Francisco Alejandro Tamayo, 18, as the alleged shooter.
Mar. 3, 2011: Greenfield resident Yessenia Ponce Chaidez, 25, was found shot and stabbed to death near a burning car in an industrial section of Salinas.
Mar. 7, 2011: Laurencia Martinez Hiracheta, 57, was fatally shot from behind while warming up her car in Soledad.
Sources: Salinas, Soledad and Greenfield police departments and the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office