[Noozhawk’s note: This is the third article in a three-part series that offers readers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of organized, calculated street-gang culture — and the killing of a member who dared cross the gang. Click here for the first article in the series. Click here for the second article.]
As a member of a criminal street gang, Anthony Ibarra no doubt was familiar with society’s laws and the repercussions of breaking them. He was no stranger to California’s criminal-justice system.
But Ibarra also was subject to “laws” of a different sort — those imposed and enforced by a gang hierarchy that starts at the local level and leads right into the state prison system.
Santa Barbara County prosecutors believe it was that phantom legal system that led to Ibarra, 28, being lured to a Santa Maria house, where he was tortured and killed by gang members for failing to pay “drug taxes.”
Ironically, a main reason for Ibarra to share a percentage of his drug sales profits with the gang was for protection.
This structure and motivation are discussed at length in the transcript of the criminal grand jury hearings that led to the indictments of 11 people in connection with Ibarra’s March 17, 2013, murder at a nondescript one-story house in the 1100 block of West Donovan Road.
The 932-page transcript of the proceedings, obtained by Noozhawk in partnership with KEYT News, includes testimony from Detective Michael Parker, lead investigator for the Santa Maria Police Department’s gang unit.
Although parts of the document were redacted to protect the safety of four civilian witnesses, Parker is able to paint a clear picture of why 11 individuals associated with the Surenos street gang — more specifically, Santa Maria’s North West street gang — would silence an associate for failing to follow rules that have governed gang members for decades.
The tale is one involving respect and reputation — two things that mean life or death in the organized, business world of criminal street gangs, Parker explained under questioning by Senior Deputy District Attorney Ann Bramsen.
Ibarra, unfortunately, was found lacking on both accounts.
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Gangs thrive because they make money and commit violent, criminal acts, perpetuating the fear that earns their members respect and upstanding reputations.
How the framework of today’s gang culture originated depends on whom you talk to.
The most widespread version of the story claims the criminal organization began as a startup in a California prison in the 1950s, when violent prisoners formed a group called the Mexican Mafia, according to Parker.
Gangs quickly expanded to the entire system, and those who adhered to the membership rules — instilling fear and refusing to cooperate with law enforcement as key cornerstones — were called Surenos, which is Spanish for southern.
All Hispanic gangs in Southern California, including the North West in Santa Maria (started in the 1970s) and others in Santa Barbara County, are bound by the rules of the Mexican Mafia, Parker explained.
Over time, prison rules spilled out onto the streets, with taxes imposed on criminal activities that occur within a gang’s territory among them.
“Taxing is money that was given to representatives of the gang for the honor of selling drugs,” Parker said. “So if you were a drug dealer and gang member, you are expected to give a part of your proceeds to the gang at large for the honor of dealing drugs, and for the protection for dealing drugs, and if you don’t give that, there are penalties and punishment for not providing that money.”
Whether gangs began on the streets or in prison reminds Santa Barbara police Sgt. Mike Lazarus of the which-came-first, “chicken and the egg” argument.
In either case, the strong connection between incarcerated and at-large gang members is well documented, said Lazarus, an SBPD gang unit detective.
In a line of work in which murder can be considered a mere cost of doing business, gang members bank on that guarantee of protection when they inevitably end up in prison for committing crimes that further solidifies their reputations.
“If you decide not to pay those taxes, you may get away for a while on the streets, but you are a criminal,” Parker explained to the grand jury. “You are going to end up in the state prison system, and it is the Mexican Mafia and their friends who control … how you are going to be received once you get there.
“If you have a reputation that you have broken all the rules, you haven’t paid your taxes, you have cooperated with law enforcement, or done other things to break the rules, they are going to punish you, and these punishments are often serious injury or death.”
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Investigators believe Ibarra owed at least $1,200 in back taxes to the Surenos gang in Santa Maria, including an incident in which he sold drugs from the gang without paying for them.
In the weeks prior to Ibarra’s death, Parker said, Ramon “Crazy Ray” Maldonado, the local Surenos tax collector, put a “flag out” on Ibarra — meaning he wasn’t supposed to buy or sell drugs in the county until his debt was paid.
But Parker said Ibarra continued to sell drugs, a move that could easily have been interpreted in the gang world as disrespect.
If left unchecked, the blatant disregard could also have damaged the reputation of Crazy Ray, who was supposed to give the drug money to another Surenos gang member in Santa Maria.
That gang member pays the tax collector for the county, who then gets the money to a Mexican Mafia member based in Riverside.
“Reputation is how that individual is viewed by members of his own gang, members of rival gangs, the police and the public,” Parker said. “Reputation is behind a lot of the violence involved in gangs, whether it is an insult to somebody’s reputation or protecting their own reputation.”
Prosecutors say Crazy Ray was the ringleader in Ibarra’s homicide. He is what Parker referred to as “shot caller,” a known gang member who commanded a higher level of respect because of his known willingness to commit violent crime.
Parker compared Ibarra’s actions to an ordinary citizen evading the Internal Revenue Serivice.
“We all pay our own taxes because we are afraid the IRS or some other government agency is going to come after us,” he said. “People who don’t pay taxes are not afraid of the IRS coming after them.
“Similar in the gang world, you pay your taxes because you are afraid that if you don’t pay your taxes, there is going to be a consequence. And if you are not paying your taxes, you are basically saying ‘I am not afraid of this individual’s response. I am not afraid of what they can do to me.’”
Ibarra’s death seems to have essentially been used as currency to square his debt and to continue cultivating the fear that keeps gangs in control.
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Reasons that could explain why 11 individuals, ranging in age from 14 to 55, would so willingly comply with such gruesome orders are likely as varied as the members themselves, Lazarus told Noozhawk, speaking in generalities about gang culture.
Loyalty, peer pressure, financial gain and fear are among common incentives for individuals who often use the gang as a substitute for family, he said.
Members constantly “put in work” — a term used to describe the criminal activities associates take part in — by doing something as small as leaving prominent graffiti on claimed territory to commanding respect or loitering in a public space to intimidate locals.
“It’s not a structure like a normal work environment,” said Lazarus, noting that members of the public help displace some gang activity when they use community spaces.
Participating in a murder that furthers the efforts of a gang would help solidify a member’s reputation, he said.
A calculated homicide could even earn gang members new status symbols — a new tattoo or the honor of running drugs or collecting taxes among them.
What the 11 people charged with Ibarra’s homicide will gain seems much more dubious.
One very real possibility is a prison term of life without parole.
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[Noozhawk’s note: The defendants in the Ibarra torture-murder are due back in Superior Court in Santa Maria on July 18.]
» Click here for KEYT News’ report on the investigation.
» Click here for a complete list of charges in the case.