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Latino inmates operate an extensive hidden illicit economy in Nevada’s prison system, and they’re looking for new recruits

Members of prison gangs make more money inside prison walls than they would practicing the same illegal activities outside prison. Outside, a gram of meth is $50. Inside, it’s $200.

Members of prison gangs make more money inside prison walls than they would practicing the same illegal activities outside prison. Outside, a gram of meth is $50. Inside, it’s $200.

Tax dodgers might as well have been murderers for the three weeks new convicts spent in the “fish tank.” A felon was a felon. The prison subjected each fish to medical, dental and psychological examinations before designating his institution. Some would be transferred to maximum security—Ely or High Desert. Others would get medium; some would join the general population here at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center.

“My dad had been there before,” Isidrio says. “He had told me a little about it.”

Isidrio P. was 18 when he was incarcerated for drug trafficking—first offense, 12 to 36 months—and sent to the fish tank, the reception unit for all new inmates in Northern Nevada. He was released on parole in October. Now 21 and readjusting to public life, he’s preceded by the scent of myrtle, and a gold crucifix hangs outside his sweater.

“In the fish tank,” he says, “you don’t see daylight, except out your window. For those three weeks before you’re classified, the only way you connect with people on the outside is through porters. They take messages everywhere.”

Two porters swept and mopped the fish tank and delivered and picked up food trays three times daily for new inmates. Next door to the fish tank was the hole, where a Latino convict inside instructed the Latino porter to find out how many new “paisas” had arrived.

The convict in the hole squinted through his narrow window as the porter asked Isidrio in cell No. 12: “Paisa o qué?”

“Paisa” or “paisano” means “countryman” in Spanish. To call another paisa implies loyalty and trust. But the word also has a second, upper-case connotation: It refers to the most lucrative organized-crime syndicate in Nevada, one rooted in the state’s prison system. The organization now operates both inside and outside the clink, but prison administrators, after a decade, scarcely acknowledge its existence.

Isidrio is Chicano—American-born Latino—but has aligned himself with a gang comprised largely of Mexican nationals. During his time in prison, on behalf of the Paisas, he would expand his index of felonies to larceny, assault and battery.

When you run with the Paisas, not only do you join a statewide organization with chapters in most of the system’s 10 prisons and eight work camps; you also join a family. If you’re young, Latino and headed for the pen, you may, like Isidrio and many of Nevada’s 1,500 Latino inmates, deem membership the expedient choice.

The Paisas won’t harass you if you don’t join them, Isidrio says, “but in the long run, if you get into some type of trouble—look at someone bad—no one will help you out. If you run solo, people want to pick on you.”

Isidrio never faced that dilemma. “The Paisas—whatever you need, they’ll hook you up.”

Thriving market
Prisons and gangs are inextricably linked. Each tries to control the other. In this state, the prisons think they’re winning because the Nevada Department of Corrections adequately deals with the kind of feral, ink-marked gang-bangers featured on television. A Security Threat Group unit exists for that purpose.

The Corrections Department, however, is not ready for the Paisas. Tattoos do not betray their alignment; their intention is not to mark turf; their politics don’t involve fighting rivals. Paisas want money. Within the prison system’s walls, they have established a hidden economy. Some members net more per month than many readers of this newspaper make per year.

Two-thirds of the Paisas are not included in the department’s estimate of 650 Latino prison gang members statewide. Although Latino prison gangs are swelling—now at 65 percent of the total Latino inmate population—inmates by and large stay pacified. Whites, blacks, Indians and Latinos barter stamps, coffee or cigarettes, or pay from their bank accounts for drugs, alcohol and sex.

In a way, Isidrio says, the gangs need each other.

“But Paisas are most powerful,” he adds. Because of strong connections with Mexico, they control the sack—the drugs, the most profitable racket. The economy they have established supercedes the larger U.S. economy for many, once released from prison. Given the choice between washing cars in the George Bush world and owning a BMW in the Paisa world—flip a two-headed quarter.

Entrepreneurial spirit
A black plastic bag blended with the night as it cleared the razor ribbon crowning the fence; it thudded on the ground beside a Dumpster in the Indian Springs Conservation Camp. The bag contained bleach jugs filled with whiskey and vodka, cartons of cigarettes, heroin, crank, weed. At 5 a.m., a cook retrieved the bag and smuggled the goods from the minimum-security camp to the medium-security Southern Desert Correctional Center. Then, via money order, Isidrio got paid four times what he’d get on the outside.

“Out here a gram of meth is about $50,” he says. “In there it’s $200.”

He threw the bag from the back of a passing pickup truck on Cold Creek Road. Isidrio trafficked to Nevada camps and prisons since age 15.

“If he was someone like me,” says Roberto Nerey, director of Unlimited Intervention, a Reno nonprofit group devoted to educating the public about gangs and providing alternatives to gang life, “an immigrant who felt that he had no opportunity in this country—then I could understand. But this guy is American-born; how did he fall through the cracks?”

Incarcerated at Ely State Prison, maximum security, in the early 1990s for participating in Reno’s first documented drive-by shooting, Nerey has an intimate bond with the system. He is not a gang member, but he has ties with Paisas and Sureños, another Latino gang. For nearly a decade, the gangs were suspicious of Nerey. Now most former adversaries have been persuaded that he seeks to improve social conditions for the next generation of Latinos.

“You have kids aligning with the Paisas in anticipation of going to prison one day,” Nerey says. “That’s the sort of future they see for themselves.”

Beginning at age 8 or 9, Isidrio would steal stereos at night with the street gang Echo Park (EXP). Even though he did not join EXP, he learned the particulars of drug trafficking from the gang. It was his introduction to the Paisas.

The Paisas recruit young Latinos like Isidrio in prison and train them in covert communication, weapons manufacturing, knife fighting and other defense techniques. They return to the streets more effective criminals who remain loyal to the gang and bolster their enterprise.

Classified misinformation
During the late-1970s, Aryan Warriors and Black Warriors vied for domination of Nevada State Prison, then Nevada’s maximum-security institution. The volume of inmate murders and attacks against correctional officers compelled the governor to hire former San Quentin warden George Sumner to reform the facility.

After identifying the gang leaders, Sumner threw some in the cooler—for years—in disconnected units to hinder communication; he sent others out of state. It worked. To this day, white and black prison gangs have not viably reorganized.

Tattoos were the giveaway. Now as then, gang badges remain the major criterion in member identification. “We don’t classify someone as a gang member just because they say they’re a gang member,” says Jeff Swan, supervisor of the Security Threat Group unit. “They have to have indicators.”

By the Corrections Department’s assessment, Isidrio—who wears no tattoos, who stole from and attacked other inmates on behalf of the Paisas, who exited prison more violent than when he entered, who remains loyal to the Paisas outside of prison—is not a gang member. He is not a “security threat.”

“You’re going into an area that can get you into a lot of trouble. They’ll sue you,” says Swan of classifying an ethnic group as a gang. A 20-year employee of the Corrections Department, Swan says he lectures on prison gangs throughout the United States and has served as an expert witness in court.

Correctional officers hear “Paisa” every day in a number of contexts, upper case and lower, Isidrio says. “That’s one of the reasons they don’t think it’s a gang. It’s not a bad word.”

“Gangs have learned from the past,” Nerey says. “People don’t walk around wearing bulls-eyes like they used to. The gangs don’t want to be as visible as before, but the prison administration doesn’t get it. They’re ignorant in regard to the growth and organization of the groups inside their walls.

“Latinos now are running things inside—this much they know, but they are clueless as to how deep it goes. Power is power, with or without tattoos. And by continuing to send Latinos to prison, they’re only making us stronger. And maybe it’s time that they look into some alternatives, because sooner or later this travesty is going to blow up.”

The few, the proud…
· Buy an extra toothbrush from the commissary. With a lighter, melt the end and stretch it to a sharp point. If no lighter is available, scrape the plastic on the concrete floor.

· Pour sugar smuggled from the kitchen into a pan. Melt until viscous. Pour into a newspaper that has been rolled into a cone. The dried product is a dagger as hard as glass.

· Triple up three socks and drop a three-pound padlock inside. Or throw a weight from the gym or a can of soda into a pillow case.

· Fabricate nails from the metal shop and distribute them on the futbol field during a game, being careful not to let the guards notice.

When you become a soldado for the Paisas, this is a portion of the arsenal available to you. As an active member, you’ll enjoy a sense of security and camaraderie and other perks—gifts like a button-up shirt and pair of khakis to wear when your girlfriend visits to smuggle meth; a chance to earn respect, climb the ranks and walk any yard in Nevada, fearless.

But beware: You must not disrespect another Paisa, or they give you una calentisa—a warm-up. That is, they beat you.

Tradition of excellence
The Paisas are founded on a half-century of organized crime. Surrounding states, especially California, have set the precedent for Nevada. Paisa organization is derived from California’s Mexican Mafia, or La Eme, progenitor of all Sureño gangs.

La Eme’s identifying tattoos: an eagle grasping a snake in its beak and talon, taken from the Mexican flag; the numeral 13, often written “XIII” or “X3,” which represents M, the 13th letter of the alphabet; the words “Southern United Raza” or “SUR Trece.”

These signatures have made it simple for prison authorities to identify and sequester the Mexican Mafia. Many leaders are locked down in San Quentin. Yet their power has not diminished.

Los Angeles, September 1993: Amid internecine strife, La Eme leaders ordered Sureño street gangs to stop killing bystanders and each other lest they suffer consequences upon entering prison. Latino gang killings immediately dropped 15 percent.

At the same time, the power of Nevada’s first Latino prison gang, Los Águilas, or Mi Raza Unida (MRU, My United Race), had peaked. A decade after white and black gangs had been suppressed, gang activity made a comeback. Latino clout had emerged.

“The Águilas built strength and loyalty among Hispanic prisoners in Nevada,” Swan says. “Prisons never started to have problems with any Hispanics until then.”

Nerey says they hit him up to be a founding member.

Roberto Nerey, who has had extensive dealings with prison gangs, says he works to improve social conditions for the next generation of Latinos.

He declined, and the Águilas antagonized him not only for the duration of his prison term but also for several years after his release. He says he feels lucky to be alive because the Águilas were cold and ruthless. “They weren’t considerate and respectful to their own people, and in return they received no respect.”

Sureños and Paisas have demonstrated Nerey’s sentiment. For several years in the mid-1990s, after he had been released, both gangs warred against the Águilas.

Swan contends the attacks were due to an affront: The upstart Águilas were inking La Eme’s eagle tattoo on their skin without La Eme’s permission.

This explanation reduces history to folklore and the gang members to stereotypes, Nerey says. “Worse, it makes light of the situation.”

In a tacit partnership, a crew of Sureños and incipient Paisas suppressed the Águilas, Isidrio says, because “everyone feared them"—white, black and Latino; because “they were sticking [stabbing] their own people"; because “they would charge rent to their own race [newcomers—fish—were required to pay for protection].”

Prison became a battleground, as when the whites and blacks had ruled the yards. To stem the violence, the Department of Corrections locked down insurgents; Sureños, Paisas and Águilas were faced off in the same cell blocks.

“The first thing [the Paisas] would do [in the showers] is stick [the Águilas],” Isidrio says. The Corrections Department would remove the wounded from their peers and place them into protective custody. In this manner, the Paisas diluted the Águilas’ strength and increased their own, Isidrio says.

“COs were staging the confrontations, I believe, on purpose,” he says, referring to corrections officers. The system blamed the Águilas for recent mayhem, he says, as they had a monopoly on illicit activities in all the yards in Nevada—extortion, gambling, loan sharking, prostitution—and they sought their goals cruelly, imprudently.

“It was good politics for the prisons,” Nerey says, “because it brought everything back to normal. Then the Paisas were punished—you couldn’t put it on the COs or say that it was allowed to happen. Some vatos locos doing two- or three-year sentences are now facing life because of that. But they’re respected by everybody. Now they’re on top.”

Swan says most of the Águilas are still locked down at Ely but denies that officers staged any confrontations between them and other Latinos. Whether the Corrections Department arranged it or not, suppression of the Águilas resulted in less hostile behavior throughout the system. Corporal punishment, however, remains a useful tool.

Work-related dangers
A lieutenant got sent to the hole.

A rat had squeaked.

A kite arrived from Ely stating the snitch’s identity. It was a new Paisa. “We told him, ‘You have until 7 o’clock. We don’t want to see you no more,’ “ Isidrio says. The snitch was supposed to request protective custody. Deadline passed; the snitch remained. “So the next morning they sent a few guys.”

All inmates know not to talk. Many have witnessed the consequences firsthand: broken limbs and open wounds and a snitch jacket—a file, accessible by clerks, that makes it unsafe for the traitor to walk any prison yard in Nevada.

“The guy stayed a week in a coma,” Isidrio says. Then, protective custody.

It didn’t end there for Isidrio.

He had been the rear eyes. As the others pocketed their weapons and fled, Isidrio lingered to ensure that the trail was clear. An officer saw him; he was transferred to High Desert for a week while under investigation.

Some Paisas would have had to prove they had kept quiet when the heat was on. Not Isidrio. His sponsor vouched for him. As a fresh Paisa, a sponsor will guide your development. Isidrio’s sponsor was in his mid-20s and already second in command—a lieutenant, the same one who got sent to the hole. He had been in prison for several years.

“You grow up fast in there,” Nerey says.

Another lieutenant, a veterano released in the 1990s, says he is doing all he can to ensure that the next generation of Latinos don’t have lives like Isidrio’s. His name is Javier C., and he has never met Isidrio. Mid-40s. Plain-looking. Before you would guess he was a shot caller in organized crime, you might guess another fact about him: He’s a father.

Javier has no contact with his teenage son, he says. He’s decided the best way to protect his son is to provide for him financially but remain an unseen force in his life.

"[Paisas] want our children to live their lives in a different way,” he says in staccato, turbid English. “We want our lives to be a lesson to our children. That’s how I want to make a difference.” He contributes to the community, he says, by anonymously paying legal fees for Latino youth. “We are what we are, you know, but we do have a heart.”

At first he avoids eye contact.

“He’s out of his realm,” Nerey says. “The fact that he’s willing to have this conversation shows a lot.”

Javier becomes more comfortable after 30 minutes and parts by shaking hands.

“Crimes and gangs,” he says, “that ain’t going to stop. But if you can make a difference to even one kid or family, that’s still a difference, you know. The only way to help them is to teach them, open doors for them, offer them something . . .”

“Which is hope,” Nerey says.

Limited liability
Corrections Department Inspector General Pat Conmay disagrees with the notion that the system does a poor job of detecting and controlling illegal activities: “As you would expect, I’ll tell you that we do a good job.”

Besides failing to recognize two-thirds of Paisas, whose outlawed activities are clear, the Corrections Department itself perpetrates similar acts. For more than a decade, corrections officers on gang payrolls, in well-publicized debacles, often have been caught trafficking drugs and contraband. The majority have suffered no punishment other than loss of employment.

In more extreme cases, officers, nurses and teachers have had long-term sexual relationships with inmates. Several have abandoned their partners to bed with inmates; at least two have married inmates. Several years ago, Northern Nevada Correctional Center Warden Brenda Burns married convict Eugene Pizzetto. The prison soon hired a new warden.

Even though officers lose only their jobs, young Latinos are slapped with prison terms for first-offense trafficking.

Conmay rejects the premise that a young Latino who was not formerly in a gang and has been consigned to prison for a first-offense, nonviolent crime has no choice but to join a gang: “The Department of Corrections offers a variety of options. Education programs, job programs.”

Conmay has refused to clarify how such programs could mitigate the need for protection against hostile inmates and the desire for status within the prison and the security that group membership provides.

Swan also puzzles over the gang quandary: “California was reactive for a long time—then they built Pelican Bay, which is a total-lockdown facility. It’s effectively proactive.” For Swan, it is a feasible way of reducing violence. “Nevada doesn’t have a facility like Pelican Bay, but Nevada’s inmate population is growing.”

What Swan doesn’t address is a crucial point—that while lockdown is for unruly inmates, gangs needn’t be unruly to be successful. As the Paisas have demonstrated, they are most effective when they give hell sparingly.

While a lockdown facility might be a quick fix, Swan acknowledges the real cure lies in educating the barrios, Latino ghettos. Street gangs manipulate boys before they are 10 years old. The boys commit crimes as hobbies, then go to prison, where crime becomes an inescapable way of life.

In addition to education, Nerey says, the system needs an efficient way to sever communication between shot callers—by sending them out of state, for instance, as Sumner did.

“The Paisas have only been organized 10 years,” he says. “Think what it will be in another 10. The prison system will try to say they didn’t see it coming. But it’s all right there in front of them.”

Extended contract
The gang lieutenant who sponsored Isidrio was released in August.

“The other day he drove up in a Hummer,” Nerey says, adding that the lieutenant made $40,000 in October. “Paisa strength has been consolidated. They’re as powerful outside as inside.”

He says Isidrio couldn’t get out of the Paisas even if he wanted to. Paisas are everywhere, keeping each other in check.

But Isidrio doesn’t want out of the gang. Any skill he learned in prison would contribute to the Paisa world, not to the George Bush world. The system did him no favors. He was not infused with a higher moral purpose. His sentence made trafficking no less advantageous. And now that he’s been inside, he’s not afraid to return.

Men who run with the Paisas can’t stop. They begin by making the best of their circumstances, carving an identity in a realm where only strong egos survive. They believe they are doing what they have to do to survive. A man may have a baby to feed, and in one or two years he’ll get to see him. Like Isidrio, and most other Paisas, the fathers hope the sons will have a better life.

Isidrio says prison rendered him superficially more circumspect but anger overwhelmed any benefit—anger that the Corrections Department would imprison him for first-offense trafficking.

“Sometimes I think that as soon as I’m off parole, I’m gonna go back and get double the money I lost,” he says.

He says prison redefined his persona.

“I’m Paisa."