SLIDESHOW: Nuestra Familia

Read the series en español at La Jornada Sin Fronteras



A Long Road to Delano
Part 3 of 3

Julia Reynolds and George Sánchez
Center for Investigative Reporting / Centro de Periodismo de Investigación


Our Family

The Sons of Chávez

A Long Road to Delano

Read the FBI informant internal reports at muckraker.org




Then Cain was driven out for murder? … I can’t get over a feeling that Cain got the dirty end of the stick.”

— John Steinbeck, East of Eden


Cap's Saloon, old town Salinas
photo, Salinas Police

The gang murder at Cap’s Saloon took place on an evening that was unusually warm for late spring in the Salinas Valley. May is a month when the air is cool, suspended in a lull between the rainy and dry seasons, when if all has gone well, the early lettuce and strawberry crops are in and the valley’s migrant workers are once again employed.

Cap’s sits in Old Town, plunked between the great contrasts that are Salinas— on one side is the gleaming new Steinbeck Center and beyond it, the shabby ruin of old Chinatown, now the home of prostitutes and heroin dealers. To the south lies the one-story Salinas Police building, where gang unit officers feel they are soldiers in their town’s war on terror.

The saloon is a relic of the city’s roustabout past. Inside is a card room where older Asian, Black, Anglo and Latino men play California Lowball, Pan Poker or Texas Hold'em while younger patrons shoot pool in a dark barroom papered in red velvet. Because it was warm that night, the door was open to Gabilán Street. A bright-eyed teenager with an easy smile was drinking and hanging around the pool table. Around nine o’clock, he pulled out a gun and shot a man.

The death of Raymond Sánchez went mostly unnoticed, even in the local press. Like other Northern California farm towns where gang crime rates have risen sharply in the last ten years, Salinas has grown used to such occurrences. Sánchez became the city’s 15th gang homicide victim of the year, his murder a shameful episode in a major FBI racketeering case in San Francisco, and the fate of his teenaged killer just another example of a young life lost to gangs in this gentle valley that Steinbeck once compared to Eden.

“Lil Mando” was hanging out in Chinatown drinking most of the day, and in the late afternoon he and his crew crossed the railroad tracks to play pool at Cap’s.

People loved Lil Mando. Born Armando Tizok Frias nineteen years earlier, he had greenish eyes and a broad smile. At Cap’s Saloon, a woman in the bar who had beat him at pool took a liking to him and called him “Mijo.”

The woman in the bar gave “Mijo” a big hug, which was no surprise, since people often took to Armando. Except Ray Sánchez and his friend Joe Cantú, who thought he was a young punk.

Through the fog of several Kamikazes and two Budweisers, Mando spotted the guy he was supposed to kill. Sánchez sat on a barstool and didn’t even recognize him. At least, that’s how it seemed to Armando through his Kamikaze haze.

He drank, played pool and waited for instructions.

The tension between the gang and Sánchez had been building for weeks. It had turned to war a few days earlier, when Armando and his boss Roque pulled out a gun and tried to persuade Sánchez to share the wealth from his Chinatown heroin trade with Nuestra Familia.

It was not a suggestion anyone would take lightly. Nuestra Familia, or NF, is the strongest gang in Northern California, run from inside the Gulag-like Security Housing Unit in Pelican Bay State Prison. Its revenues come from robberies, gun and drug sales in agricultural towns like Stockton, Visalia and Salinas, where seedy districts like old Chinatown generate cash that flows from armies of teenaged gangbangers up to the illegal banks of NF’s leaders in “The Bay.”

Armando was one of those teenagers. He was raised in the gangs of Salinas. He learned about The Cause and about César Chávez, and also about the history of Northern Chicanos in prisons who were ridiculed as Farmeros and were abused and raped by the Mexican Mafia prison gang in the 1960s. He learned about Sureños — Chicano street gangs originally from Los Angeles whose ranks are now filled all over the state by fresh Mexican immigrants. He knew that Sureños were his enemies, and the Mexican Mafia often controlled them. He learned that Nuestra Familia in the prisons and their affiliate, the Norteño gangs on the streets, existed to protect him, his family, and his Raza from the Southern invaders. He learned to shoot when he was six and got stoned when he was nine. His dad had been a gangbanger and his uncle was a prominent member of NF. Aunts, cousins and uncles were in gangs. Armando could almost joke that California’s correctional facilities were kept in business by his family.

In April 2001, Armando reported for duty the same day he paroled from Youth Authority. He was assigned to Roque Martínez’s crew. Their NF boss was a high-level commander one of them called “the Big Homie,” a powerful man youngsters on the street never saw.

By May, the Salinas crew informed the Big Homie they were worried about Raymond Sánchez. He was cutting into NF’s drug territory. A witness said Sánchez showed up in Chinatown with “twenty of his nephews,” and declared war on the NF. According to Frias, a member of his gang called the Big Homie, who gave them a “green light” to kill Sánchez. Besides Frias, three other members of the Salinas gang later said that the Big Homie approved the hit.

And a few days later, on this May evening, there was Sánchez, sitting on a barstool, not even caring that Armando was playing pool a few feet behind him.

Roque drove up with the gun. Armando pulled on a black beanie, walked back inside and waited till Joe Cantú stepped away from the bar. Sánchez sat alone. Armando slipped behind the jukebox. Quickly, he pulled the 9mm from his pants, and leapt out like a nervous cat, rushing behind Sánchez and popping him once in the neck, near the base of the head. Armando swirled and ran to the door, crashing into Ray’s friend Joe, and he shot him, too. Outside, Roque picked him up and sped away.

It was over in a few seconds. Sánchez bled out on the sidewalk and died at the hospital within an hour. Joe Cantú lived to say he wished he had beaten the crap out of that punk youngster.

Paramedics attempt to save the life of Raymond Sánchez
photo, Salinas Police


It only took a few weeks for Armando to be betrayed by his homeboys, who all told the police he was the gunman. It didn’t help that the saloon’s surveillance camera caught the whole thing on video. Armando never thought to look up at the ceiling.

But the worst thing wasn’t getting caught – having grown up in and out of detention, he was used to doing time. The pain came from learning the hit he did for “The Cause” was actually for nothing at all. He had shot a man for an organization he believed in, but its oaths of loyalty were lies. There was only the sting of betrayal from comrades who fingered him.

That was his first shock. Awaiting trial in jail, he was stunned again. The news spread that while Armando was likely to spend his life in prison, the Big Homie who gave the “green light” for the murder would go free. The Big Homie, Armando learned, worked for the FBI. His name was Daniel Hernández.

Frias pled guilty to the murder and was sentenced in October 2003 for a term of 29 years to life. Hernández, on the other hand, is going to become the star witness in a federal racketeering trial now underway in San Francisco that was former US Attorney Robert Mueller’s last major case before leaving California to head the FBI in 2001.

Frías signs a plea agreement for the murder of Sánchez, accepting a sentence of 29 to life.
photo, Janjaap Dekker

Hernández, who was born in a working-class town near San Francisco, has a violent history that includes assaults with deadly weapons, taking part in murder plots and plotting with fellow gang members about killing two Santa Clara County district attorneys. In grand jury testimony in 2000, a former cellmate said Hernández ordered 17 gang-related stabbings while in prison. In one prison fight, he left his battered victim lying in a sea of blood.

The six-foot-tall Hernández is nicknamed Lizard, but in NF he is called by his Náhuatl name, Achillí. He has a bulky, muscled build, a clean-shaved head and a long handlebar mustache. On his forehead, there is a large lizard tattoo.

“The more tattoos and the bigger the moustache,” Armando says an aunt told him, “the more of a coward.”

FBI informant Daniel Hernandez, right, at a meeting where he sold a pound of marijuana without the FBI's knowledge.
photo, FBI

Hernandez loves the spotlight. In FBI undercover videos, he can be seen pontificating in hour-long lectures to his subordinates.

“Success and money, that’s all we’re looking for,” he told an NF gathering in a motel. “If you have concerns about your old lady, then you’re in the wrong business. You’re running with the wrong crowd. Women are expendable.”

In Dec. 2000, Hernández struck a deal with the FBI. Upon being paroled after serving more than six years for assault, he would become a paid informant and he would not be prosecuted for his role in the 1999 murder of Nuestra Familia dropout Robert Viramontes, according to his agreement with the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

For the FBI, Hernández was a huge catch. When he left prison, he became Nuestra Familia’s “Street Regiment Commander” in charge of all the gang’s operations outside prison.

Hernández would wear a recording device, tape telephone conversations with gang members and set up organizational meetings in Northern California that the FBI would secretly videotape.

“He was directed that any telephone calls he made, any meeting he had with various NF members or associates, he was to record the conversations,” FBI Special Agent Sean Ragan told a grand jury.

Hernández was paid $52,200 for seven months of FBI work. He agreed to abide by Justice Department guidelines that said he must not commit “unauthorized crimes.” The only crimes in which he could participate were those approved by his FBI handlers, such as planned drug and gun purchases.

At first, Hernández performed as expected, providing hours of incriminating tapes. But by April 2001, he failed to record phone calls with gang members and sometimes disappeared without telling his handlers.

Then in May, his Salinas street regiment shot and killed Raymond Sánchez. Gang member Martín Ramírez was arrested and told police that Hernández had given the order to hit Sánchez.

Hernández looked like the top suspect as the intellectual author of the crime. It was only later that Ramírez and the Salinas police learned that he worked for the FBI.

Ramírez also told police that Hernández had him pass on an order to a gang member in jail that led to an inmate’s face getting sliced to the bone, according to Salinas police documents.

By late June 2001, information from other informants began to emerge that Hernández had not been truthful with his FBI handlers. When confronted, Hernández admitted he had slipped away without permission on three occasions in April to play golf in Stockton.

He later admitted the “golf” trip actually was to deliver two pounds of methamphetamine to a cousin. He also admitted receiving about $7,000 in drug sale and other criminal proceeds from gang members, and to participating in other drug deals.

According to FBI reports, Hernández also told his FBI supervisors that his Salinas regiment commander, Armando Santa Cruz, was distributing more than a dozen guns to young gang members in town.

Armando Frias told La Jornada that in addition to himself, two other young men received the guns and within months used the weapons in a murder and an attempted murder, respectively. Salinas police sources say the FBI never notified them that the guns were being passed out in the streets of their city.

By late July, the Bureau stopped working with the problematic Hernández, and he was arrested on a parole violation. He is now in protective custody at an unknown location.

On Nov. 30, 2001, FBI agents overseeing Hernández wrote in one of their final reports: “Source (Hernández) participated in unauthorized criminal activity while under the direction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
In 2004, Hernández is scheduled to testify for the government in the 26-count RICO trials against the entire leadership of NF. The case is expected to become a test of the FBI’s informant program.

“I’m not saying I’m innocent,” says Armando Frias. “I’m not saying I’m this good person, that I never done nothing wrong. But at the same time Daniel Hernández should have been held accountable and the FBI should have been exposed for what they did.”

Armando speculates that the FBI simply let the murder happen so they could make a bigger bust.

Armando Frías leaving the courthouse in Salinas for the last time.
photo, Janjaap Dekker

Today, Armando is also disgusted with Nuestra Familia and its leaders. Top NF members, once sworn to loyalty, have begun to turn and some will testify against each other in the upcoming trial in San Francisco. Armando is now considered “no good” by the gang, which makes him subject to a potential hit at any time.

“I believed I was doing something right,” Armando says. “If it took me to go and do the rest of my life in prison for this guy, for doing something I believed in, oh well. Because that’s the sacrifice I was willing to take and that’s how much I believed in the cause.”

Lately he has begun to think that maybe this whole war has been misguided. “Sureños really ain’t no different from me,” he says. “A real Sureño is pretty much the same as me. They’re just from down south. I’m from up north. Their beliefs are different, that’s all. ”

Even though he’s condemned to prison, Armando says he feels free for the first time. He won’t have Nuestra Familia giving orders and controlling his life.

Soon he will be on a long bus ride southward, through the central artery of California’s agricultural empire, through dusty farm towns that are the frontlines of this civil war between the state’s young Latinos.

He will go to the state prison in Delano, the place where the farm workers’ movement began, where Chávez led the first grape boycott and where 50,000 people mourned at his funeral.

Delano is where Chávez spent his first jail term in 1945, after he refused to sit on the designated side for Mexicans and blacks in a movie theater. “I made my home in that jail,” Chávez said.

The war over La Raza rages on. The battered white prison bus leaves.

Over the roads and damp-black fields of this great valley of California, into its weary arms, one of the lost sons of Chávez is headed home.

Additional reporting for this series by Nada Behziz, Justin Kane, David Montero, Michael Chandler, Marlena Telvick, Mara Reynolds, Oriana Zill de Granados and students from Lowell Bergman’s investigative reporting seminar at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

© 2003 El Andar Magazine