Justin Berton, East Bay Express (Emeryville, CA), Oct. 20
Daniel “Lizard” Hernandez was awakened by an FBI agent at 4 a.m. a few weeks ago.
Time to go, the agent said. We’re moving your ass.
“I was all ready to go,” Lizard recalled later. “I wanted to get out of there, to come to California and do what I needed to do.”
Lizard had been hiding out along the East Coast, a snitch buried deep inside federal protective custody. He was a long way from his former East Bay stomping grounds, and hadn’t dared visit his wife and children, who still lived locally. When his handlers shook him from his slumber, Lizard felt relieved, not irritated. Finally, he was going to San Francisco to testify.
In December of 2001, Daniel Hernandez became the highest-ranking member of the Nuestra Familia prison gang to cooperate with federal investigators. From inside Pelican Bay State Prison, Lizard had served as the brutally violent gang’s principal secretary, helping inmates in solitary confinement set up bank accounts in Idaho, direct drug sales across Northern California, and even order murders. All of these directives were channeled through him.
Once paroled, Lizard then served as Nuestra Familia’s highest-ranking member outside prison. He oversaw battalions across the greater Bay Area, and relayed their progress to his bosses back inside. He was a loyal and merciless soldier until a foolish parole violation threatened to send him back to prison, where his own safety was in question. So Lizard flipped. For seven months, he secretly recorded meetings with his gang’s underbosses, allowing federal agents to listen in as his carnals planned drug deals, bought firearms, and talked openly about killing people, including two deputy district attorneys from Santa Clara County.
In the months since federal officials brought indictments based on the evidence he helped them gather, Lizard told his tale from within the confines of protective custody via letters and telephone interviews. It’s the life story of a petty hood who reached his full criminal potential only afterentering the California prison system. Like all Latino males incarcerated in California for the past three decades, Lizard was forced to choose a gang allegiance once inside prison. Once he made that choice, his own cunning and aptitude for violence catapulted him up the ranks of one of California’s most murderous gangs. But Lizard’s exploits show how prison policies adopted to control gangs such as Nuestra Familia may actually have helped them bloom.
Lizard’s government handlers ultimately boasted that their prized informant delivered “unprecedented effectiveness as a cooperating witness.” According to a memo by prosecutors in the US Attorney’s Office, his unshakable undercover effort “will forever leave its mark in the history of law enforcement.” Based on Lizard’s grand jury testimony alone, the US Attorney’s office estimates that twenty Nuestra Familia members pleaded guilty, and five others were convicted in courts across Northern California.
But even after Lizard shed his prison skin and sided with the government, his behavior was hardly that of a reformed citizen. FBI reports show that while on the federal payroll, Lizard performed unauthorized drug deals. And one critic of his tenure as an informant even charges that the FBI’s leash on Lizard was so loose that the government turned a blind eye to the killing of a Salinas drug dealer. Lizard and the government deny this accusation.
Still, the gang has been dealt a serious wound with Lizard’s help. And in response, FBI documents indicate that street soldiers in Nuestra Familia have ordered a two-year moratorium on murders while they wait for recent publicity to fade.
Of course, once the hit list is reactivated, Lizard knows that his name will sit at the very top.
Gang affiliation in California is often a matter of geography, but for Daniel Hernandez it wasn’t that simple. He was born in Pittsburg, which made him a Norteño by birth. But one year later, his family moved to Long Beach, the heart of Sureño country.
Hernandez never belonged to either group until he ended up in prison. His middle-class Long Beach upbringing was spent golfing, surfing, and skateboarding. His father sold vacuum cleaners; his mother was a housewife. Both were steeped in the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith. “As a kid I didn’t know anything but religion,” he said.
Then at fourteen, Hernandez began to glimpse a different world. He smoked pot and tasted alcohol. His teen angst surfaced one day when he threatened to kill his vice principal. After he was expelled, his parents sent him back north to live with an aunt in Pittsburg, where he continued to carouse. He said that was where he picked up the nickname “Lizard,” from friends who admired his “clandestine nature.”
Lizard first went to prison when he was nineteen. While awaiting sentencing for armed robbery, he said, he knifed a member of the Aryan Brotherhood in self-defense. That’s when Lizard began his career as a “rider” — an inmate prone to acting violently toward fellow inmates. Transferred to Chino State Prison, he celled with two Texas gang members who’d been banished for terrorizing their own prison system. They taught him to grind down plastic shampoo bottles into shanks for knifing an attacker, and to roll up the pages of National Geographic as makeshift spear handles. In November 1986, Lizard tried out these new skills on another inmate and was transferred to San Quentin.
Up to that point, Lizard had identified himself as a Sureño, but only when pressed. But one day on the yard, he was approached by Juan “Nato” Gurule, a long-lost cousin from the East Bay. Nato had worked his way up in the ranks from Norteño street thug to membership in the Nuestra Familia prison gang. Lizard recalls Nato asking him why he claimed Sureño, and if he’d heard the history of the gang conflict. Lizard hadn’t, so Nato schooled him on the long-standing war.
Since at least the 1920s, many California Latinos have thought of themselves in the same way that other residents of the state divide themselves: as Northern Californians, or Norteños; and Southern Californians, or Sureños. But such divisions run deeper among Mexican Americans than among other Californians. Sureños tended to be more-recent immigrants who often disparaged Norteños as second-generation Latinos who groveled for agricultural jobs and neglected their mother tongue, according to Joseph Hernandez, a criminal justice professor at Sacramento State University and expert in Latino gangs.
These divisions weren’t just cultural. They also hardened into gang boundaries on the streets. The largest and most feared Latino prison gang was the Sureño-based Mexican Mafia, or La Eme. By 1965, Sureños outnumbered Norteños by roughly seven to one inside the prison system. Bakersfield was the traditional dividing point, but with the crush of immigration, the numerically superior Sureños pushed the demarcation line further north, first to Fresno and then to Modesto. In 1968, in response to La Eme’s overwhelming power, a group of Norteños bonded together in the exercise yard of what was then named Soledad State Prison. They formed their own gang: Nuestra Familia — our family.
Though vastly outnumbered, Nuestra Familia distinguished itself by organizing its troops along strict paramilitary lines. New soldiers became captains and generals by stabbing or killing people. Its founding fathers adopted the phrase “Blood in, blood out,” and wrote a fifty-page constitution setting out the organization’s bylaws. Any Nuestra Familia member who betrayed his fellow carnals was subject to article two, section five of the group’s constitution: “AN AUTOMATIC DEATH SENTENCE WILL BE PUT ON FAMILIANO THAT TURNS TRAITOR, COWARD, OR DESSERTER” [sic].
“They were much smaller than the Mexican Mafia, so they used it to their advantage,” gang expert Jared Lewis said. “They let in only the guys who followed the rules to the T, and bought into the cause. They’re dwarfed by La Eme, but decided to become highly organized.”
In the early 1970s, gang fights — which were called race riots then — became more common inside the prisons. Hoping to curtail the violence, wardens stopped putting Anglos, blacks, and Latinos in cells with one another. In hindsight, the move only solidified the stature of race-based gangs, said Daniel Vasquez, a former San Quentin prison warden and gang investigator. No one who entered the system could safely walk alone. Whites joined the Aryan Brotherhood or Nazi Low Riders for protection. Blacks sided with the Black Guerrilla Family or the Five Percenters. Latinos, although initially thrown together, had to choose Norteño or Sureño.
As gang-on-gang violence grew in the late 1970s, prison administrators also began housing Norteños and Sureños in separate cells. The policy eventually trickled down to county and city jails and even the California Youth Authority. “The theory went, if we separated the two gangs, we’d have less problems,” Vasquez said. “You wouldn’t isolate an inmate and make him a target for the other side.”
But some criminologists now acknowledge that this practice strengthened the gangs. “From the prisons to the jails, all over California, you have to claim a side,” Vasquez said. “You don’t have a choice. If you say, ‘Nothing,’ you’re not gonna make it. If you say, ‘I don’t know,’ they say . . . ‘Where are you from?’ When you tell them, they direct you to that side of the prison. That’s it. Now you’re in the gang.”
Lizard still recalls what Nato told him on that day back in San Quentin: “Primo, if the North and South go to war, I can’t protect you just because you’re my blood. . . If you wish to change your alliance, you will still have to prove to Norteños you are worthy, and the Sureños will want to kill you for switching sides.”
Almost two decades later, Lizard still recalls the clarity of that moment. The thought of slashing his cousin made no sense. Lizard claimed Norteño.
For the next three months, he “made his bones” among Norteños by slashing Sureño inmates, brothers he’d once shouldered with. Like a religious convert eager to please his superiors, Lizard’s first efforts impressed his would-be peers. Not only was there one less Sureño, but Lizard also showed a knack for attacking without detection. He could “shank ‘n’ roll,” as the prisoners say.
“I didn’t have a choice,” he recalled. “The system certainly creates you, makes you decide. But once you’re in the gang, you have a choice as to how high you want to go. It gives you a sense of purpose. It gives you something to do. And I wanted to go high.”
Lizard and Nato were both soon paroled. They moved together into a Pittsburg apartment, and Nato continued his cousin’s indoctrination in Nuestra Familia. Even outside prison, members were expected to remain loyal to the gang. Together, Nato and Lizard robbed drug dealers, committed petty crimes, and raised funds for their carnals back inside. But within a few months, Nato got pinched for robbery, and with his long rap sheet, he got 39 years.
Nato’s harsh sentence made Lizard rethink his life’s path. He and his wife moved to Boise, Idaho, where he hoped the slow pace would help him start over. He took a job at a golf course and used his access to the links to reclaim his swing, sometimes playing 36 holes a day. “I was getting my game back,” Lizard said. “The guys I played with didn’t care Norteño, Sureño, or what side you were on. They didn’t care about agendas like that.”
But Lizard hadn’t exactly gone straight. He was still using meth and heroin, on-again off-again pleasures he’d picked up back in Pittsburg. Eventually, he returned there, unable to cope with life in the slow lane. Looking to score one night in early 1994, Lizard headed to an intersection known for the sale of chiva. He argued with a dealer and ended up firing three bullets at the man as he ran away. Nearby cops heard the shots and pulled in quickly. Lizard was charged with attempted murder, and sent back to jail.
He faced 25 years to life. But witnesses corralled by police later refused to work with the district attorney. Lizard still takes pride in that: “What the law didn’t know was that Lizard had an escape plan and a handcuff key, but more importantly, he had influence on the streets,” he recalled in a letter. Lizard said he wrote to a member of the Black Guerrillas whom he’d met in San Quentin. After the gang member sent word to his people on the street, the witnesses to Lizard’s crime were “persuaded” not to show up for trial.
The DA was forced to offer Lizard a six-year deal, which he happily accepted. He returned to San Quentin in June of 1994 to begin his sentence. Eager to shore up his status in Nuestra Familia, Lizard said, he soon stabbed Sureño Rudolpho Castillo in the throat, nearly killing him.
Lizard also followed protocol and reported his arrival to the prison’s ranking gang member, Daniel “Wino” Perez. Norteños who enter a new prison are required to reveal their status to their superiors, either verbally or in writing. But Wino rejected Lizard. He told the young man that if he wanted to be recognized by Nuestra Familia, he could appeal to the generals.
Then Lizard got lucky. A general named Art “Big Smiley” Ramirez was transferred from Pelican Bay to the cell directly below his own. Lizard wrote Big Smiley a wila, or small letter the size of a gum wrapper. He folded up the missive, stuck it to a piece of gum, and dangled it into Smiley’s cell using a thread of elastic he’d plucked from his waistband. Then he waited.
Days later, Big Smiley sent Lizard his own wilas, as well as books on Chicano history. Weeks later, the general was attacked by Sureños and landed in solitary confinement. Lizard said that during that time, he heard two Norteños disrespecting Smiley’s name and took the initiative to stab them both. Lizard got away with it, and when Big Smiley emerged, he personally sponsored Lizard into Nuestra Familia.
Lizard was then ordered to make a move on Jeremiah Ruiz, a Nuestra Familia dropout. Lizard said he beat Ruiz to a pulp with his fists, bringing his victim close to death. For this outburst, prison administrators shipped Lizard off to Pelican Bay State Prison — the last stop for riders.
California’s most fearsome prison is located near the Oregon border, a windswept fortress surrounded by three walls and two barbed-wire fences. When the state-of-the-art super-max penitentiary opened in 1989, built exclusively for the state’s 2,800 most violent inmates, Governor George Deukmejian hailed it “a model for the rest of the nation.” Instead, it has become a model gang incubator. In its fifteen years of operation, at least a dozen inmates have been strangled to death inside its walls, according to lawsuits and published reports.
Not at all coincidentally, Pelican Bay also has become the headquarters of Nuestra Familia. At any one time, an estimated two to three hundred members are incarcerated there, including the gang’s top three generals. In 2000, a yard riot launched by gang members ended after 250 inmates were injured, many of them with stab wounds.
When Lizard arrived in January of 1995, he checked in with the ranking gang member. To test his allegiance, he was ordered to move on his cellmate, Johnny “Huero-T” Fernandez. Lizard said he attacked Huero-T as he slept, pummeling him into a bloody mess until guards pulled him off.
Lizard is unapologetic about his behavior, even today. “I didn’t care,” he said later. “I did it because I was ordered to do it. I was a soldier, and a good one.”
He was sentenced to six months in the prison’s infamous Secured Housing Unit, where more than a thousand inmates spend 23 hours a day triple-locked inside individual cells, with only a small food slot as a window. The cells are bone-white and feature little more than a chrome toilet and cement platform with thin mattress and pillow. Prisoners are permitted reading materials, including legal documents in manila folders, which are hands-off to the guards who routinely search the cells. The unit requires pin-drop silence from its inmates.
Nuestra Familia members in the Secured Housing Unit kept to a punishing daily regimen of crunches and push-ups, followed by makeshift weightlifting with a barbell fashioned from pillow cases filled with books and magazines. They were expected to smuggle in a copy of the Nuestra Familia constitution inside their legal folders and commit the document and its philosophy to memory. Finally, brothers were required to learn sign language so they could make the most of the one hour outside their cells. Lizard said that whenever brothers were allowed into the law library, they used sign language to swap information, trade intelligence reports, and even assign homework. Each day, the ranking member might assign a topic to his subordinates; by day’s end, a 1,500-word written essay was due. “This was our college,” Lizard said. “This was the place where we took all of our training to the next level. . . Every day we prepared for war.”
Lizard speaks about his gang membership with such conviction and authority that one law enforcement official jokingly compared his oratory skills to those of Fidel Castro. “I wanted to be that NF member who the people could count on,” Lizard recalled. “And in every fashion when necessity called for it, I wanted the NF hierarchy to recognize my loyalty and dedication to NF. I wanted my brothers to eventually put me in a position that would enable me to push the Familia into the future, on a profound level.”
Released from the Secured Housing Unit in August 1995, Lizard was chiseled and fit as a warrior in heart and mind. “I was ready to go,” he recalled. Big Smiley immediately ordered his soldier to enforce gang law back in C-Facility. Lizard swung his weight around hard. At night, he ordered rows of Nuestra Familia inmates to recite aloud Aztec war chants to rattle guards and enemies.
That autumn, according to testimony from a fellow gang member, Lizard ordered seventeen stabbings.
Lizard has a thick handlebar mustache, broad shoulders, and is engraved with prison tattoos in Old English script. Down one tricep it reads “East” and down the other, “Bay.” On the side of his shaved head he has a dragon next to the words “Convicted by Insanity.”
He’d proved he had the muscle to ascend within Nuestra Familia. Now he had to prove he had a mind to match. Back among the general prison population, Lizard reported to his ranking captain, Gerald “Cuete” Rubalcaba, one of the gang’s most revered members. Cuete arranged for the new hotshot to move into his cell. According to prison officials, gang leaders could arrange such deals by offering to keep the peace.
“Cuete took a shine to Lizard because Lizard was a stickler for detail,” one police investigator said last year. “Lizard was the kind of guy who took ‘the NF way’ very seriously. He always offered to learn more and do more to serve the organization. He was as bright and loyal as they came, so Cuete could trust him.”
In his role as head of security, Cuete was responsible for stashing the group’s original constitution among his legal papers, and “keistering” the gang’s master hit list in his rectum, according to FBI documents. He also was responsible for ensuring the battalions on the streets were holding fast against Sureños and sending drug profits to help pay the legal bills of their incarcerated generals.
Lizard said Cuete asked him to establish a line of communication that couldn’t be detected by guards. Lizard already knew all the old tricks. There were three-way calls, where inmates from two different prisons called a gang member known as a gente on the outside, who held the phones together so they could talk. And there was “ghosting” a letter: using a Q-Tip to swab milk or urine to write out orders on a piece of paper. Once that dried, the correspondent would write another letter in ink on the page, but the recipient knew to hold it up to the light to read the real message.
But since prison officials scanned all mail that wasn’t “legal mail,” Lizard’s challenge was to create an even more surefire way to communicate. Since prisoners can’t mail one another, Lizard began writing Kayln Santiago, a friend from Boise. She was nicknamed “Crazy Girl” and had the moniker tattooed over her right kneecap, according to FBI documents. Lizard hinted in his early letters that he’d be sending more important documents for his “legal case.” In actuality, he sent a list of code names using Aztec and Spanish words.
Lizard also sent Crazy Girl a decoding list, known in FBI documents as “The Salutation Code.” In each letter he wrote, the greeting unlocked a key to the rest of the letter. For instance, if Lizard wrote “Hey Love,” that meant that every third word was part of the real message. If he wrote “Dear Love,” every sixth word mattered. If it read “Hello Love!,” it was every eighth word.
Crazy Girl translated the letters and passed them along to gang members on the outside. To avoid raising suspicion as a frequent mailer, she set up post-office boxes and had inmates write to other Norteños, who forwarded the correspondence to her. She disguised her own missives as legal mail from a fictitious San Francisco attorney and sent them directly back into the Secured Housing Unit, where all three gang generals were locked up. They, in turn, approved hits and issued directives, while prison censors were prevented from reading the supposedly “legal” correspondence.
At Lizard’s behest, Crazy Girl opened two bank accounts and made deposits from gang soldiers who were required to remit 25 percent of their profits. According to Lizard and FBI informants, the accounts held up to $25,000.
Over the next four years, Lizard and Cuete masterminded and penned more than three thousand letters, according to an FBI report. Orders from the generals were arriving on the streets within weeks, if not days. The immediate and constant communication strengthened the gang.
“They were operating a sophisticated shop,” gang expert Lewis said. “They were getting orders in and out of that prison in no time. With most prison gangs who try and use the mail, there’s a big lag time — things get lost, hits get reversed — so there’s a lot of miscommunication. Not with NF.”
Cuete and Lizard proved just how far their reach extended in early 1999. One of the gang’s living legends had recently been paroled. Robert “Brown Bob” Viramontes was 44 and had shared cells with Nuestra Familia’s founding fathers in Soledad. Outside for the first time in decades, he was fashioning a new life in suburban Campbell with his wife and two sons.
Following instructions from the generals, Cuete put out a hit on Brown Bob. Lizard said Bob was marked because he’d stuck his nose into matters that didn’t concern him. But government agents said that Brown Bob actually had pulled away from the gang. As evidence, family members said, he had a large Aztec goddess tattooed atop the Nuestra Familia logo on his back.
According to grand jury testimony, Lizard sent a coded letter that eventually reached Antonio “Chuco” Guillen just before he was paroled from San Quentin. Around 6:30 p.m. on April 19, 1999, Brown Bob was watering his roses. According to grand jury testimony from family members, Bob’s wife was just about to call him in for dinner when a Ford Explorer pulled up to the curb. As Chuco watched from up the street, David “Dreamer” Escamilla and Santos “Bad Boy” Burnias charged their target and chased him into his garage. The shooters blasted Brown Bob with seven shots to his arms, chest, back, and legs. He crawled into his living room before dying in his family’s arms.
Lizard recalled feeling nothing in the aftermath of the hit. Even now, he talks about the incident with the distance that soldiers put between themselves and their wartime deeds. “You gotta understand, all these guys made their own choices,” he said. “No one who got whacked was an innocent man. They made their beds, and so did Bob. Brown Bob brought it on himself.”
It was just like the Nuestra Familia constitution said: “Blood In, Blood Out.”
By the time Lizard exited Pelican Bay, prison guards had nicknamed Nuestra Familia “The Blooming Flower” for its astonishing growth. According to Lewis, the gang grew from about a thousand members in the late ‘80s to more than two thousand just six years later. Its rise even exceeded the mushrooming growth of the greater California prison population. “With the prison population growing so fast, they had their pick,” Lewis said. “They pulled in young guys by the bushel.”
And what had germinated inside the prisons was now blooming all across California. Outside prison walls, the reach and violence of Nuestra Familia had only grown. According to Lewis, gang members have been linked to an estimated three hundred homicides across Northern California.
Lizard was paroled to the outside world on May 18, 2000. Even though he’d participated in many stabbings and beatings in prison, he’d avoided detection for most of his crimes. “True to my nickname,” he said, “I’m chameleon-like, and can blend in.” He would be the highest-ranking brother on the streets, responsible for overseeing the gangs’ battalions and communicating back to the generals.
One month later, he was visited by Louie Holguin, a special agent with the Department of Corrections who monitored parolees and prison gangs. Holguin was well known to Nuestra Familia members — he’d interviewed hundreds of them during his three decades in the system. He and his team of agents tore through Lizard’s hotel room, looking for evidence to send him back to the clink — a bag of pot, a letter to a carnal, a bag of speed.
Holguin also was searching for evidence that connected Lizard to a larger operation. Years earlier, a young Norteño paroled from Pelican Bay had given a Santa Rosa detective a lead into the prison gang. Since then, district attorneys from five NorCal counties had teamed up to share unsolved homicide files on dead Norteños. The strings of evidence crossed, and the investigation grew, joined by the FBI and dubbed Operation Black Widow. In the weeks leading up to Lizard’s arrest, Kayln Santiago’s apartment had been stormed by FBI agents. Lizard’s letters were sent to code breakers at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. A grand jury indictment was in the works.
Holguin and his team came up empty that night. But on his way out the door, the veteran agent made Lizard an offer. “I told him, ‘I know exactly who you are,’“ Holguin recalled. “And then I told him, ‘You know who I am. If you ever want to talk, call me. Here’s my card.’“
Lizard brushed aside Holguin’s offer. Then, several weeks later, a Pelican Bay investigator intercepted a letter penned by Lizard to one of his superiors. That was enough to send Holguin back to Lizard’s hotel room to make an arrest.
“Danny was telling me, ‘But I’m not a gang member,’“ Holguin said. “I told him, ‘Listen. If you ever want to help yourself, you can. You’re a lot smarter than those guys doing life in prison. If you continue to listen to them, then you’ll be in there for life, too.’“
Inside Corcoran State Prison, Lizard reported to the ranking commander and heard some troubling news. Cuete had gone power mad. He’d loaded up the hit list and was feuding with two of the generals while angling for a promotion.
According to Lizard, the commander had one more piece of information: Cuete says you’re a no-good.
The words didn’t sound right to Lizard. He’d been Cuete’s right hand for four years. So far as you can trust anyone in a gang, he’d trusted Cuete. “In NF, they don’t want you to be friends in case you have to do something down the road,” Lizard wrote. “They don’t want guys to get close; it blurs the lines. But I knew more about Cuete and his family, and he did about mine. We shared a common goal, and that goal was to be the very NF members who put the organization back on track.”
Lizard sent word to Big Smiley to corroborate this story. Smiley replied that it was true, but not to worry — no one was moving on it.
Or were they? The risks had Lizard thinking. If he stayed in Corcoran, he’d have to watch his back for young Norteños. The young guys trying to make their name were always the craziest, just as Lizard once had been. If he went back to Pelican Bay, his elders would be upset to see him. Not only had he given up his post on the street, but now they’d be suspicious that he was a narc. Any brother who steps outside and then returns is automatically put on probation. How could he go back in with Cuete wanting him dead?
In the meantime, Holguin had talked to Lizard’s sister and made a plea: Tell Danny to change his life. He’s got a future.
Three days before Christmas, Lizard called Holguin. That night, Holguin led a three-car caravan of police investigators, federal agents, and prison investigators to meet Lizard. They spent the next two days debriefing their new informant.
“You could see he was nervous,” Holguin said. “He was very concerned about his family’s safety, his safety. He wanted to know what assurances could be made for him. . . But he was undergoing a lot. He was betraying these people he’d come up with, people he’d been close to. When you turn your back on all of that. . . It’s not easy.”
He told them about the codes, the phony law firm, the bank accounts. He told them about killing Brown Bob. He told them he could go undercover for them.
“They were drooling,” Lizard later wrote. “I was giving them a taste of something they wanted for a long time. I was showing them everything.”
Today, Lizard said he flipped because he was tired of people pushing their own agendas. “They weren’t following what NF was about,” he said. “They were caught up in power grabs and backstabbing. They had all their dirty laundry to air out and they were allowing those agendas to decide how they acted, what they wanted the gang to do, how they were conducting affairs within the gang. That wasn’t what I signed up for.”
Lizard returned to the Bay Area and worked closely with FBI Agent Sean Ragan. The rules were simple: Lizard had to record all his phone conversations with gang members and wear a wire when he held stings set up by the FBI. Anytime he drove out of the area, he had to call Ragan or his partner. Otherwise, he was free to go about his business. The handlers didn’t want to blow his cover.
On January 24, 2001, at the FBI’s prodding, Lizard hosted a junta for local underbosses at a Motel 6 in Tracy. In the next room, Ragan and a team of detectives from the Santa Rosa Police Department listened to the meeting and watched it on a hidden camera. One by one, the street commanders paid their respects.
According to transcripts, two carnals, Israel “Silent” Mendoza and Anthony Morales, brought Lizard sixty grams of negra, black-tar heroin to sell, use, or barter. Silent also provided Lizard with a stolen Dodge Durango to test-drive. If Lizard wanted to buy it, Silent would ask only $15,000 cash.
Ramiro “Goose” Garcia from Stockton complained that the gang wasn’t sufficiently exploiting the Central Valley drug market. He suggested that gang members “cook our own shit” to gain control, saying he could make twenty pounds of raw meth in one batch. To the FBI’s delight, he also boasted about his existing Ecstasy ring, which was clearing a few thousand dollars a week. And he had better news: Nuestra Familia pot and speed were piping through Modesto, Stockton, and Sacramento. If Nuestra Familia invested in meth labs, a network was already in place. When Lizard asked Goose about protection for the rings, the underling said, “I’ll produce the manpower . . . [and] the weapons to facilitate our needs and firepower to lay the motherfuckers down.”
Henry “Happy” Cervantes spoke to Lizard alone. Happy was hardcore, with a permanent smile beneath his Fu Manchu mustache. He told his commander that he’d received an order from Cuete to kill two deputy district attorneys, a husband and wife team in San Jose named Kitty and Charles Constantinides. A few years earlier, the two attorneys had nailed former general Pinky Hernandez for ordering a murder, and Cuete wanted to offer their coffins as a “gift” to Pinky. Cervantes added that he’d already followed the couple to the courthouse. “I can get a gun and go down and do it,” he boasted.
But Lizard played it cool. His FBI handlers had been clear: Talk down violence at all costs. “We ain’t gonna whack no prosecuting attorney,” Lizard said. “Or better yet, two prosecuting attorneys.”
Cervantes persisted. “What if you get away with it? . . . All you have to do is find out where the motherfucker is, pull up on the side of them.”
Lizard ended the conversation. “We are not going to whack no DAs!”
Cervantes dropped the issue.
Two months later, the leaders met again at the Los Robles Lodge in Santa Rosa. This time, Goose brought bar charts to show drug production and expected net profits. He complained again that his overhead was too high; he had to charge $3,200 per pound of meth, while his competitors were selling it at $2,600 to $2,800. He wanted gang members to start cooking the drug themselves.
Lizard reminded his brothers about the warriors in Pelican Bay. “They need their cut,” he said.
Salinas underboss Alberto Larez estimated that over the last ten years he’d sent Cuete and the generals “40, 45 thousand dollars.”
Lizard’s initial work was flawless. He said he felt no jitters, nor did he question his loyalties to the brothers he was betraying. “I don’t rattle,” he said. “You won’t catch me slipping.” Investigators ended Operation Black Widow in June of 2001. A federal grand jury in San Francisco handed down 21 indictments against gang members, including the three generals and captain Gerald “Cuete” Rubalcaba. Using racketeering statutes to bust the organized crime ring, the indictment carried six charges of murder or attempted murder, as well as charges of assault, conspiracy, drug trafficking, and arms dealing. At the time, the $5 million price tag and networking of thirty different law enforcement agencies made it the most expensive and largest investigation into a California prison gang.
And most of it hung on Lizard. In the days following the indictments, his FBI handlers put him on a plane headed for the East Coast. But while prosecutors were assembling their final case against the gang, Lizard was drug-tested as part of the terms of his release. He tested positive, violating a federal policy that informants remain drug-free while working for the government. Lizard says the drug was merely Vicodin, a pain reliever he took after strenuous workouts at the gym. But as his FBI handlers dug further into Lizard’s tenure as their employee, they unraveled other disturbing facts that threatened to compromise the credibility of their star witness.
Four months into his service as a snitch, FBI agents concluded that he had lied to one of his handlers when he said he was headed to Stockton for a round of golf. Instead, phone records and a confidential FBI source revealed that he’d driven to a house in East San Jose, where he’d bought two pounds of methamphetamine. Lizard then drove to a house in Stockton, where he tested the powder and sold it to another Norteño. The FBI believes the exchange earned Lizard a quick $3,600.
Lizard had made other deals, too. He’d picked up an ounce of weed at Rohnert Park and smoked a few joints with his buddy Israel “Silent” Mendoza. And in another case, according to his handlers, Lizard drove to Lodi with “Happy” Cervantes for a weekend getaway, where he left his wire behind and failed to stay in touch with the FBI.
In sealed court documents, Lizard’s primary FBI handler claimed that he was duped by his informant. “After the informant completed his undercover work, I discovered that the informant had engaged in unauthorized drug deals,” Agent Ragan wrote. “While working as an informant, he tested positive for drug use. This was reported to the informant’s state parole officer. I also learned the informant was ‘skimming’ money from the Nuestra Familia street leaders and not reporting this to me.”
Meanwhile, Lizard received government paychecks totaling more than $52,000 for his seven months of work, according to FBI reports.
Lizard said he was forced into performing the unauthorized drug deals after an investigator from Santa Clara County nearly blew his cover. He said that after he drove away from a successful arms sale in the South Bay, at which he wore a wire, one of his underbosses called to warn him he was being tailed by a suspicious car, which Lizard knew was the investigator. You’re hot, the underboss said. Lizard said he shook the tail, but later needed to prove he was clean. If the underbosses suspected that he was the target of an investigation, they might shun him — or worse.
“After that,” he said, “I didn’t want any speculation coming my way because we still had meetings to take care of.” Lizard said he compensated by assisting in unauthorized drug and arms deals. “Had they not almost burned my identity, I wouldn’t have had to be doing any of that,” he said. “That was their fuck-up. I was doing it as a smokescreen. I had to.”
But compared to allegations lobbed by San Francisco attorney Marc Zilversmit, the drug and money violations turned out to be the least of the government’s worries. Zilversmit represents Armando “Suave” Heredia, a gang member arrested for ordering a successful hit on Salinas heroin dealer Ray Sanchez. The history of that hit calls into question the government’s handling of Lizard.
In May of 2001, Lizard met with Martin Ramirez, a gang member from Salinas. According to transcripts and court documents, Ramirez brought up the touchy subject of Ray Sanchez, a competing heroin dealer who was boasting of taking over the drug game. Ramirez bragged to Lizard that he’d already chased Sanchez out of Salinas’ Chinatown at least once, and had warned him that he needed to pay taxes if he wanted to deal in Salinas. Sanchez was laying low, but Ramirez expected him to pop up again.
Ramirez confided to Lizard that his own boss, Heredia, who would later be Zilversmit’s client, wanted “to go to war.” What to do?
Lizard initially followed his script and pushed for peace, according to the transcripts. He told Ramirez there should be “no bloodshed.” But then he added: “If something comes at us, you can’t help it. . . Just don’t go out looking for it and doing anything.”
Ramirez replied, “It’s in motion. We’re going to take care of it tonight.”
Lizard said, “Yeah.”
But then he talked about “looking the other way.” He told his carnal, “We got more on the table than just a fight for powder. You can’t smoke everybody that sells dope.”
The following day, Ray Sanchez walked into Cap’s Saloon, unaware that he’d been the discussion of a hit. Nineteen-year-old Armando Frias was shooting pool when he recognized the wanted man. Frias used a pay phone to call another gang member, Roque “Boxer” Martinez, who said he would bring a .22 and meet Frias in the parking lot.
While Sanchez sipped beer, Frias met Martinez at his car. Frias returned to the bar, gun tucked in his waistband, walked behind Sanchez, and fired a bullet into the base of his skull, killing him.
Even though they’d heard about the hit in advance, FBI agents never told Sanchez he was marked for violence. In an interview last year, Zilversmit said Lizard and his FBI handlers were culpable in the death of Sanchez. “There’s blood on the government’s hands here,” he said. “They sat by and watched these guys pick each other off one by one.” According to motions filed by Zilversmit, at least two other alleged Nuestra Familia members were attacked while the feds were listening in. Zilversmit said the feds were preoccupied with preserving their investigation instead of saving lives.
Assistant US Attorney Steven Gruel responded in court papers that federal agents couldn’t be blamed for failing to notify the victim, since “Sanchez already knew that he had serious problems with Heredia’s gang (in fact, he had been hiding).” Gruel also offered four instances in which Lizard’s testimony did lead FBI agents to inform Norteños they were marked for death. Violence was averted in those cases, Gruel said. FBI agents did not respond to interview requests.
Lizard himself adamantly denied Zilversmit’s claims, insisting that he pressed for peace in the case of Sanchez. He reiterated that he told Martinez clearly: “no bloodshed.”
“How could I order the hit?” he asked. “I’m wearing a wire. . . There’s no reason I’d want him to go down.”
Still, the accusations put Lizard’s conduct under scrutiny. If he was going to hold the case together, he’d need to account for his own alleged crimes as a snitch.
Ultimately, Judge Charles Breyer denied Zilversmit’s motion. Shortly thereafter, his client pleaded guilty for a chance at parole, but remained adamant that Lizard had given him the green light. Lizard prepared to take the stand against Nuestra Familia.
But the trial never came.
In September, the final eight defendants pleaded guilty, following the first thirteen members indicted. Cuete was among the final holdouts. He pleaded guilty to arranging two murders from prison, and will be sentenced to life in prison in December, along with the gang’s generals. He did not return letters seeking comment for this article.
According to an FBI report, Cuete and his cohorts have continued to manage the gang while awaiting transfer to federal prisons from Alameda County’s Santa Rita Jail. That report, based on information from another snitch, revealed that Cuete was demoted by the generals to the lowest rank for skimming funds and gossiping. For penance, Cuete was allegedly ordered to write an essay on the consequences of being a gossip.
In total, aside from the five convictions and twenty guilty pleas credited to Lizard’s grand jury testimony and undercover work, federal officials said Operation Black Widow led to a total of 75 Nuestra Familia convictions. The cases were spread across Northern California.
Prosecutors remained high on their star witness, notwithstanding Agent Ragan’s conclusion: “Mr. Hernandez has conducted himself as a cooperating witness with great dignity and character,” a memo from the US Attorney’s office stated. “He is the most significant witness and cooperators in this prison gang/organized crime family in history. . . These defendants wisely elected to plead guilty rather than face the prospect of Mr. Hernandez’ appearance as a trial witness against them.”
For now, at least, the final guilty pleas appeared to have pruned back the Blooming Flower. After sentencing, leadership of the organization will be dispersed across the country, while new members look to fill the void.
“We cut off the head of the snake, but it will grow back,” said Special Agent Holguin. “It always does.”
Even Judge Charles Breyer seemed to question the value of Operation Black Widow. “It remains to be seen ultimately whether this prosecution was warranted,” he said in accepting the guilty pleas. “It is my hope the federal prison system is better equipped to derail the violence.”
After three decades, Nuestra Familia is now an institution on Northern California streets and is spreading rapidly through the suburbs of the Central Valley, gang investigator Lewis said. Nuestra Familia prestige is now generational, passed from father to son, uncle to nephew. And with an ever-increasing prison population that only assures the continued growth of it and other gangs, the very segregation that bolstered the gangs’ strength appears irrevocable.
“It’s not a good thing,” said former San Quentin warden Vasquez. “And I was part of that policy. When you look back, it didn’t help us like we thought it would. It probably aggravated the situation, and forced people to align, pick a side. But at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. . . I’m not sure you can undo it.”
The California Supreme Court is now reviewing a case that questions whether inmates can be segregated for their first sixty days at “reception prisons” such as San Quentin. The justices will decide whether prisoners are denied their constitutional rights when forced to cell with another inmate based on race; a ruling could force administrators to consider full integration. But the state prison guards’ union and correctional officials have argued that to mix inmates now would only bring more violence. After all, race-based prison gang violence “dominates California’s prison system,” according to a 2002 report from the California State Department of Justice. The report counted nearly seven thousand cases of inmate assault in the state’s 32 institutions, along with nine murders that year, a steady increase over the past decade.
“It’s not realistic to integrate them now,” said Holguin, now retired from the Department of Corrections. “That’s not going to happen. . . But if we want to prepare these people for integration to society, maybe we need to integrate them in the prison first, get them used to living with different peoples.”
In June, one California prison experimented with another solution to the Norteño-Sureño war. After a Nuestra Familia-led intifada left Folsom State Prison wet with blood, officials transferred most if not all of that facility’s Norteños to other state institutions. The eradication was criticized by some prison gang experts, citing that Eme members now filled a “power vacuum,” and that future Norteños, outnumbered and alone, would only serve as bait.
Meanwhile, Daniel “Lizard” Hernandez is just one step away from his own day of reckoning, and from possibly reentering the outside world. A judge will decide in December whether his cooperation as an informant outweighs his considerable criminal past.
Lizard is disappointed that he never got his moment on the witness stand. “I wanted to go face to face with all those attorneys,” he said. “All those guys didn’t want to see me up there. They knew I had them.”
He still hasn’t been reunited with his family. His wife had declined to enter witness protection until the trial arrived. One day two months ago, federal agents arrived at her home, and she was swept into the program. But recently, Lizard spoke on the phone with her, discussing their new lives. “It’s different for her,” he said. “She’s not liking it too much. It’s not like her life used to be.”
As he awaits his new sentence, Lizard also awaits his new identity. He said he knows they may try to find him, but that he will not hide. If they come for him, he said, he worries only for them, his enemies. His words are those of a man still prepared for war.
“I fear no man,” he said. “I fear no organization. I am just as dangerous as they are.”