In Pueblo, a spike in arrests and fewer homicides as police, feds crack down on gangs
September 15, 2016
Feds help Pueblo target gang violence and repeat offenders
Pueblo Chief of Police, Luis Levez is pictured in this March 2016 file photo. Since the beginning of the year, a combination of police and federal agents have cracked down on the gangs that caused Pueblo to be the most homicide-ridden city in Colorado.
Less than a year ago, Pueblo was seized by a surge in violent crime fueled by gangs and heroin that was claiming innocent bystanders.
But now, there’s a decrease in homicides and an increase in arrests that officials say have targeted the city’s most dangerous offenders. What’s more, investigators are hearing a message of fear from the criminals they capture: The feds are in town.
The success comes from a bolstered partnership between local officers and federal law enforcement, authorities say, that has led to a major crackdown on gang violence. The efforts are leaving their mark through both statistical accomplishments and a general feeling among the public that the tide is shifting.
“I think we’re making headway to make this a safer community,” Det. Chad Jeffries, a Pueblo police officer dedicated to tackling gang crime, said this week.
With the help of Colorado’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, police have been tracking down and targeting priority offenders and pushing them through prosecution in federal courts. So far, more than a dozen people have been accused of firearms, drugs and robbery charges, and some have been sentenced to decades-long stints in federal prison.
“We’re getting the right people in jail,” Jeffries said.
The result, investigators say, is a break in the retaliatory drumbeat of shootings that have left Pueblo with the state’s highest homicide rate per capita. It’s a welcome helping hand for city authorities, whose efforts have been hampered by understaffing and a major increase in the opiate trade.
“When you pull that one person off the street, you are stopping that continuation of that retaliation cycle,” said Bob Troyer, the acting U.S. Attorney in Colorado. “The law enforcement who have contact with these guys are already hearing from the folks they contact in the gangs that the federal government is here now. That’s probably the best indicator that it’s making an impact.”
Troyer says the tactics are a return to the efforts used in Denver in the spring and early summer of 2015 that helped end a string of gang-linked slayings through the arrest and prosecution of several offenders.
“It’s exactly the same, and it’s starting to have the same impact down in southern Colorado,” Troyer said. “It’s transporting that model down there. … The thing that makes all of this work is they reached out to us. They recognized that we could be helpful. We don’t ever sit up in our office in Denver and say, ‘We’ve decided we could help you with a problem.’ ”
The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Drug Enforcement Administration have brought their deep resources to the city, Troyer said, including the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, to track guns and those firing them. Also, an FBI Safe Streets Task Force formed in the city has brought together a number of police agencies to capture serious offenders.
“What’s working is we are getting better at identifying the repeat trigger pullers,” he explained.
This month, Leilani Marie Martinez, one of those targeted by the efforts, was sentenced in federal court to 20 years in prison for drug dealing and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Sentencing documents show officers found hundreds of grams of both methamphetamine and heroin in her home in June 2014,as well as several firearms.
“Pueblo has the highest crime per capita in the State of Colorado,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing statement for Martinez. “Ms. Martinez is a large part of that problem.”
In another case, authorities tracked down and won a guilty plea from a man for his role in the theft of 12 guns from a Pueblo firearm store in September 2015. Court documents show police made the initial arrest of the suspect, Benjamin Miguel Acosta, before the case was handed over to federal prosecutors. He is scheduled to be sentenced in November.On Sept. 9, a gang-targeted roundup by federal agents and local and state officers led to the arrest of 38 people and the seizure of firearms and narcotics.
“I think the U.S. Attorney’s Office has been instrumental as a catalyst,” said Pueblo County District Attorney Jeff Chostner.“I think people still have concerns over safety, but I do think the public sees us coming together.”
Pueblo Police Chief Luis Velez says the successes have altered some of the negative perceptions of the city. He called the level of federal aid that has come to Pueblo “an unprecedented move” that’s had a dramatic effect.
He pointed to about a 30 percent increase in gang arrests by his department in 2016 over the same period in 2015. Homicides are down to five from seven during that same span, and several of those this year are not believed to be gang-linked.
Also, a program to arrest the most sought-after gang members through a weekly wanted poster program has netted 28 arrests.
“The situation still exists, and these gangs are still at each other’s throats,” Velez said, “but I do think that some of the players are not on the street.”
Officials were worried the summer months could bring an increase in deadly violence, but they ended up being relatively uneventful. On Thursday, an early-morning shooting left one man dead and another wounded on Pueblo’s south side. Investigators are looking into whether it was gang-related.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Special Agent Jim Moore, who heads up the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force in Pueblo. “Traditionally, you’ve got some gang families in Pueblo, so it’s kind of hard to break that yoke of gang violence when it’s intergenerational. If your father and grandfather were gang members, and they are proud of you being a gang member, it’s kind of hard to overcome that.”
But the strengthened federal presence in Pueblo has been reassuring to residents, Moore said, and has helped officers win public support.
“We’ve also got buy-in from a lot of citizens who have had enough with the problems,” he said. “It’s really a sustained effort from a number of different agencies and a number of different people.”
Pueblo officials are also applying for police grants and looking at bringing in the ShotSpotter detection service. A half-cent sales tax on the ballot in November could boost the police force by two dozen officers.
“We are making a point and sending a message,” said Sam Azad, Pueblo’s city manager. “It’s a long term (issue). You can’t deal with the street criminals overnight. You have to stick with it continuously.”
In the short term, the influx of officers and federal agents are reassuring the public, he said.
“People are feeling safer about their neighborhoods,” Azad said.
Mark Salazar, founder of the Hard Knox Gang Prevention and Intervention Program, agrees that while gang violence has slowed down, there is still more work to be done.
“We definitely still see the drive-bys,” said Salazar, a former member of Pueblo’s East Side Dukes gang. “We just haven’t seen as many. There’s still shots fired, though, almost every night in the East Side.”
Salazar added: “The problem that we have is that at some point these individuals are eventually going to be released. Many of them go back to their old way of doing things.”Denver Post: Pueblo Colorado