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By the late 1990s, law enforcement started to see the true scale of the NF. George Collord, a police detective in Santa Rosa, was investigating unsolved gang murders when an informant linked the crimes to Pelican Bay. His investigation later triggered a major FBI task force. Collord was stunned to discover a sophisticated gang network throughout northern California - all controlled by NF leaders in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit.
"Generally people in this country think that when people go to prison, that they're losers," says Collord. "These guys were not losers."
Collord started calling the NF leaders, "puppet masters." He discovered the gang even produced low-budget films and rap CDs with chilling lyrics. One such song, "Target Practice," has a chorus of females repeating "Pinta bound, pinta bound," which means headed for prison. This song's message is that prison is inevitable - even desirable.
Nuestra Familia CD
Collord says the CDs flew off the shelves and triggered more violence.
"There's always been gangster rap around," says Collord, "but this was a little more direct in its approach. It had a selected audience which were the young northern Hispanics that the NF really wanted to recruit and tell them that, 'You're not alone. You've got a huge army, a huge movement that is with you.'"
That message inspired young street gang members like Willie Stokes. That's why he arrived to Pelican Bay filled with the anticipation of a college freshman.
"When I first went to Pelican Bay," says Stokes, "you're like so fascinated by, 'Oh here's all these guys you've always heard about, all these guys who run everything.' You're just fascinated with it all. And you hear the way they talk, Aztec language, just all this knowledge and philosophy from reading all this stuff. You just, you know, 'Oh I want to be like that, I want to be smart and educated like he sounds.'"
"I've sat in rooms with young kids, who say they can't wait to go to prison," says George Collord. "Because their uncles have gone, their cousins have gone, the people they respect most in this world have gone to prison. And you scratch your head, and you go, 'Wait a second, you want to give up your freedom out here?' I've even said, 'You want to give up girls for a while? Come on, you're a teenager!' 'Yes,' the answer's 'yes.'"
But before a young gang member gets to prison, he's expected to put in work on the streets. That might mean assaulting a rival, or murder. And that brings the story back to Armando Frias Jr.
On that warm May evening at Cap's Saloon, Frias was fresh out of juvenile lockup where he'd enlisted with a group run by the NF. Frias says some members had doubts about his loyalty because of relatives who'd dropped out of the gang.
"So I used to go out of my way to show that there was no reason for them to have doubts about me," says Frias. "And I don't like nobody to question me. And the way I did was by showing them through my actions."
At Cap's Saloon, a video surveillance camera recorded Frias proving his loyalty by shooting a man named Raymond Sanchez. Frias is now serving 25 years to life for the murder.
Frias was one of dozens of people prosecuted as part of the FBI-led crackdown on the Nuestra Familia. They include five NF leaders indicted while serving life terms at Pelican Bay Prison. Detective George Collord says the operation was a success and that the NF's leadership is disrupted, for now.
"But the years and years of training and the philosophies that have gone down," says Collord, "from the thousands that are below them, leaders will emerge. As long as you've got the recruitment pool out there, you're going to survive and new leaders will emerge."
There is an epilogue to this story. The five Nuestra Familia leaders prosecuted in federal court are apparently still in business. Intercepted communications revealed the NF leaders were issuing orders, even as they awaited probable life sentences from a federal judge. The men will serve their time far away from California, but now investigators believe the NF is plotting to expand to federal prison.
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