A man the FBI describes as part of a notorious prison gang and a “shot-caller on the street in Santa Fe” apparently was not home when armed federal agents paid an early morning visit last month.
Agents raided the apartment of Victor “Evil” Villalobos at a stuccoed two-story complex near South St. Francis Drive at about 5 a.m. Sept. 19, looking for firearms, drugs and evidence of his membership with the “ultra-violent” Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico, search warrants show.
Although Villalobos, 46, was not arrested and no property was seized, around the same time agents arrested two other Santa Fe residents — Frank “Stranger” Carabajal and Frankie “Joker” Herrera — at their homes on Harrison Road and Vista del Prado Court, the warrants say, and both the men and the premises were photographed.
The actions, part of FBI- and DEA-led raids Sept. 19 and 20, came during yearslong investigations into drug running and efforts by Syndicato to kill federal law enforcement personnel, judges, prison officials and government informants, documents show.
Federal agents were said to have uncovered evidence the gang was reorganizing and engaging in an extensive drug trafficking operation between Albuquerque and Las Vegas, N.M. Although the raids focused on those two cities, they also targeted suspected members in Santa Fe and Española.
The extent of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico’s influence on crime in the Sanat Fe area remains uncertain, but authorities suspect the gang’s size is substantial.
The Syndicato has at least 250 active members, most of whom are behind bars and known variously as “hermanos,” “big homies” or “Zia manos,” according to descriptions by New Mexico prison officials contained in an FBI search warrant unsealed after the September raids.
The gang, believed to be the largest in the state, “has historically controlled the majority of New Mexico’s prison and Hispanic street gangs,” the warrant says.
The 183-page document details the group’s efforts to control street drug dealing and other crime.
“You know there’s a higher power back there doing stuff,” Española police spokesman Sgt. Jeremy Apodaca told The New Mexican in a recent interview.
Police are aware that imprisoned “shot-callers” direct lower-ranking members on the streets, possibly “contracting out” crimes, including burglaries, Apodaca said.
“I wouldn’t say that we recognize them as the sole responsible party for it,” he said of the crimes, “but given their history, I’m sure that there is strong ties to it.”
In Santa Fe, police department Deputy Chief Ben Valdez said, “We know that they do influence street gangs, not only in Santa Fe but throughout the state. Some of these gangs, their leadership has to get the approval from the hierarchy within the prisons. Some, even to operate or have a recognized gang out on the street, they have to get the approval or pay tribute.”
The DEA in 2017 began an investigation focused on an alleged drug trafficking operation between Las Vegas and Albuquerque that agents say was led by 42-year-old Robert “Fat Head” Padilla.
A dozen defendants, including Padilla, now face federal trafficking and firearms charges related to dealing cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque said announcing their arrests.
The FBI warrant said Padilla has an “association” to the Syndicato, whose members “served as muscle” to intimidate rivals and injure or kill those who failed to pay drug debts.
Four other suspected Syndicato members, prospective members or associates also face various charges, the federal prosecutor’s office says.
Warrants describe not only the breadth of drug trafficking in the region, but also its association with the violent gang that authorities say formed after the deadly 1980 Santa Fe prison riot in which 33 inmates were killed.
While the documents focus on violence that left some dead and others wounded in multiple shootings in Las Vegas last year and this summer, they also reveal that suspected gang members live in Santa Fe, Española and other Northern New Mexico communities.
Among the FBI targets in Santa Fe last month, Villalobos, Carabajal and Herrera were all described as “validated” Syndicato members and “career offenders.”
The FBI affidavit said Villalobos was on supervised release after a conviction for being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had at least 13 prior arrests, including felony convictions for assault with a deadly weapon, auto theft, negligent use of a firearm, armed robbery, evidence tampering, escape, forgery and being a felon in possession of firearms.
The document said Carabajal was on parole for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, with at least 24 prior arrests in New Mexico. He was said to have prior felony convictions for child abuse, drug possession, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, aggravated battery against a household member and possession of a firearm by a felon.
Herrera was on parole for second-degree murder and had at least 13 prior arrests in New Mexico, the affidavit said, including additional felony convictions for conspiracy to commit murder, robbery, evidence tampering and burglary.
Online federal court records do not list pending charges for any of the three Santa Fe men.
Rufino Jody Martinez, 40, of Santa Fe County, made an initial appearance in federal court Sept. 19 on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition. He had already been jailed in Santa Fe County on similar charges, as well as aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for allegedly shooting a man in the groin in Cuartales in October 2018, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Martinez is considered a “validated” Syndicato member who went by the name “Mono,” the FBI affidavit said. Gang leaders, in a 2015 letter intercepted by the FBI, chose Martinez to carry out a scheme to murder the Cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department. The gang leaders were convicted of a murder conspiracy.
Jose Lovato, 31, also of Santa Fe, was described in the FBI warrant as another target of the investigation. He remains in the Santa Fe County jail after his Aug. 28 arrest on a warrant containing several charges connected to a domestic violence incident. In that case, Lovato was accused of beating his estranged wife with a handgun and threatening to shoot her.
Lovato, also described as a “validated” Syndicato member, has at least two dozen prior arrests in New Mexico and felony convictions for drug possession, escape from community custody, burglary, evidence tampering, false imprisonment, bringing contraband into jail and drug trafficking, the warrant said.
The DEA and FBI investigations — which the warrants say ran independently until earlier in September — relied on wiretaps, including inside the maximum-security prison south of Santa Fe, as well as undercover drug buys, confidential sources within the gang and physical surveillance operations.
The FBI investigation into Syndicato, dubbed “Operation Atonement,” began in 2015 and has since netted arrests of more than 120 members, according to the search warrant affidavit.
The affidavit was written by Special Agent Bryan Acee, lead investigator into the Syndicato, which since its formation has expanded throughout the state’s penal system. Authorities say members have been responsible for the murders of four New Mexico police officers, and gang leaders have urged the killing of prison officials and their families, and threatened investigators, prosecutors and judges.
The four New Mexico law enforcement officers killed were 54-year-old Mesilla Marshal’s Office Sgt. Thomas Richmond, who was fatally shot in 1988 after pulling over a speeding vehicle occupied by two suspects in a Las Cruces armed robbery; 38-year-old Albuquerque police Sgt. Cheryl Tiller, who was shot by a parolee she had befriended in 1998; 38-year-old Bernalillo County Deputy James McGrane, who was shot during a traffic stop on N.M. 337 in 2006; and 49-year-old Rio Rancho police Officer Nigel Benner, who was shot during a traffic stop in that city in 2015.
“I believe the [Syndicato] has been reorganizing the gang for several months, as much of the [Syndicato] criminal enterprise was disrupted with the large-scale prosecution [in 2015 and 2016] of the gang,” Acee wrote. “Probably the most disruptive feature of the prosecution, in gang terms, was the fact so many of the [Syndicato’s] membership cooperated with the government.”
The latest part of the investigation “became a significant priority in late July 2019,” Acee said, when the FBI learned that a government witness was killed by the gang in Las Vegas and that the gang intended to kill other witnesses.
Acee said he filed the affidavit for 20 search warrants to prevent “several imminent death threats” by Syndicato members or associates against government witnesses, law enforcement and prosecutors. Other targets were already in custody.
Acee’s affidavit said the searches had been coordinated for several weeks and that early morning raids from Belen to Wagon Mound expected to involve between 700 and 800 officers.
Federal law enforcement officials — apart from the recent indictments made public in news releases — have not said publicly whether they believe the threats have been deterred. An FBI spokesman would not comment beyond the court filings in ongoing criminal cases.
“The Syndicato has long sought to bring all of the New Mexico-based, Hispanic street gangs under their control,” similar to what the Mexican Mafia prison gang has done with the California Sureños street gangs, Acee said. Syndicato’s “unification of the street gangs is needed” to enhance its strength in the prison and counter rival prison gangs, he said.
The affidavit noted six separate Syndicato drug trafficking schemes operating in New Mexico, including the one in Las Vegas allegedly run by Padilla, but also another relating to “a band of Syndicato members in Española and Santa Fe who distribute heroin and Suboxone” both on the street and within the prison and jail south of Santa Fe.