SACRAMENTO (AP) – A gang leader who helped organize a massive hunger strike in California state prisons has been named as an unindicted co-conspirator in federal indictments aiming to disrupt the Mexican Mafia prison gang and a Mexican drug cartel.
The documents unsealed this week call Arturo Castellanos a Mexican Mafia member and the undisputed leader of the Florencia 13 criminal street gang in south Los Angeles County.
Castellanos is accused of running the gang from inside his high-security cell at Pelican Bay State Prison.
Castellanos and three other gang leaders in the isolation unit organized the hunger strike that at one point last month included more than 30,000 of the prison system’s 133,000 inmates.
More than 340 inmates were still not eating to protest prison conditions as of Wednesday, and 200 inmates have been on strike continuously since July 8. Prison officials declined, as a matter of policy, to say if Castellanos is still observing the hunger strike.
The indictment supports prison officials’ argument that the strike is really about gang leaders’ power.
Castellanos is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole and has been housed in the notorious Security Housing Unit since 1990.
But he still controls the street gang, the indictment contends. He issued written “reglas,” or rules for gang members, from his prison cell in 2004, and decided which senior gang members would become gang leaders on the streets, the indictment alleges.
The so-called “shot callers” designated by Castellanos then coordinated illegal drug distributions, collected extortion money, oversaw gang members’ activities and resolved disputes with rival gangs, the indictment says.
The allegations came as authorities arrested nearly two dozen people named in the two federal grand jury indictments.
One indictment alleges the Mexican Mafia used the Florencia 13 street gang to make money through drug- and gun-running, illegal gambling, extortion and fraud. Federal prosecutors called the gang “one of the largest, most powerful and oldest street gangs in Southern California,” with several members rising to become leaders of the Mexican Mafia.
The other indictment claims the Mexican Mafia allied with La Familia Michoacana. Investigators say the Michoacan-based cartel was allowed to sell methamphetamine and marijuana in Southern California while the Mexican Mafia protected imprisoned members in exchange for drugs and money. Street gangs also protected La Familia drug shipments and collected drug debts, according to the indictment.
Jeffrey Beard, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, claimed in an interview with The Associated Press this week that the hunger strike is couched as a human rights protest but is really an attempt by gang leaders including Castellanos to gain more control.
“We believe that these four gang leaders are driving this hunger strike, that many inmates who are participating are participating out of fear,” he said. “We believe that the real purpose behind this hunger strike is for these gang leaders to get themselves out into the general population where they have more access to running their gang business, both in the prison and in our communities.”
The state already had announced policy changes that make it harder to send inmates to the isolation units and easier for them to work themselves out of the units. Beard said that agreeing to additional concessions would serve no purpose because hunger strikers will not be satisfied until the Security Housing Units are dismantled and the gang leaders rejoin other inmates.
Isaac Ontiveros, a spokesman for the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, said Beard was trying to divert attention from prison conditions so poor that federal judges have consistently demanded changes. Castellanos and other inmates have filed a federal lawsuit protesting being held in the isolation units.
“Being locked in solitary confinement for decades, by international standards, is torture,” Ontiveros said, calling Beard’s comments offensive and dangerous.
“What that does is forecloses on any hope of these conditions getting better by dismissing every participant in the hunger strike as being part of a vast conspiracy,” he said. “It seems that they’re committed to not changing anything. … That’s going to lead to more suffering.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.