How a criminal organization took control of a nonprofit community group in Salinas A special report

| Israel Villa

A Special Report by Voices of Monterey Bay and the Monterey County Weekly
KSBW-TV contributed to this story

A community responds
Voices editorial

Northern California’s most notorious prison and street gang has infiltrated a nationally known Salinas nonprofit organization dedicated to nurturing youth leaders.

Public records and extensive interviews with law enforcement as well as gang sources paint a disturbing picture of how the Nuestra Familia and its affiliated Norteño gangs took control of MILPA, whose acronym stands for Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement.

Recent events involving MILPA staff, much of it brazen and made public in news reports, indicate a pattern of gang activity and identity. But a deeper gang infiltration of the organization is corroborated by court documents, police reports and multiple sources who declined to be named out of fear for their safety or because they are not authorized to speak on the record.

Many in the Salinas community suspected something was wrong with MILPA following the August 2018 beating of a 14-year-old boy facilitated by the nonprofit’s community liaison. Now, with the release of a jailhouse video showing MILPA leader Israel Villa using gang signs to intimidate an inmate, many community leaders are condemning MILPA for its gang affiliations.

MILPA has garnered nearly $2 million in grants and support and achieved national recognition for its social justice efforts involving formerly incarcerated people. It’s funded by the California Endowment and other respected grantmakers. It has partnered with national think tanks like the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice and was featured in The Atlantic and The Chronicle of Social Change for helping to “direct juvenile justice policy in California.” Its staff has served on a panel for a California Assembly subcommittee on public safety and worked in jails and prisons on the East Coast.

Many sources say they believe MILPA didn’t start out under the influence of gangs when it was created in 2012, and don’t claim MILPA itself is a criminal organization. But there is convincing evidence it has been infiltrated at the highest level by active gang members.

In fact, quite a few who work or volunteer at MILPA are not gang members — rather, they’re motivated by concern and care for their community. The organization’s philosophy, as stated on its website, appears thoughtful, urgent and important for our times: “MILPA uses (a) healing-informed, relationship-centered approach to incubate next generation leadership and infrastructure while striving for social justice.”

But control of MILPA took a sharp turn after a number of Nuestra Familia associates got involved.

Israel Villa grew up a member of Salinas East Market, or SEM, the Norteño street gang that’s known as an incubator for lower-level leaders of the Nuestra Familia. In the 1990s, he did a stint at Chad, the California Youth Authority prison near Stockton that’s officially known as N.A. Chaderjian. Chad, too, was a breeding ground for future gang leaders.

Villa has declined repeated requests for an interview, and said as of Oct. 21, he is seeking the counsel of an attorney and will not comment before he has gotten legal advice.

In 1999, Villa, then 21, was arrested and charged with attempted premeditated murder. According to police reports and court records, Villa and another man, Karlo Haros, were in a Salinas 7-Eleven when they asked another customer where he was from — a classic gang challenge. The man said, “From the south.” The men left the store and the store clerk stepped outside, where he heard one of the assailants yell “Fuck Vagos,” referring to a Sureño gang faction from Salinas. Then the clerk “heard someone yell ‘SEM,’ saw a flash, and heard gunfire.” The victim was shot in the leg, but survived.

Villa accepted a plea deal for assault with a semiautomatic weapon and was sentenced to nine years in state prison, where gang investigators report he was a confirmed member of the Northern Structure, a mid-level subset of the Nuestra Familia. He was ordered to register as a gang member upon his release, court records show.

More recently, he did time in federal prison for drug trafficking charges. In a 2011 affidavit, an FBI agent wrote that he first looked into Villa while investigating Norteño/Nuestra Familia criminal activities. The North County Gang Task Force had identified Villa as a Norteño gang member and methamphetamine dealer in Salinas. According to the affidavit, while the FBI’s undercover buyer was purchasing 14 grams of meth from Villa, he asked if Villa could provide him with a gun.

According to the affidavit, “Villa said he had a .357, but it ‘had two bodies’ on it, which (the informant) took to mean it had been used in two murders.”

Villa pleaded guilty to possessing methamphetamine for sale and was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Although he denied being associated with the Nuestra Familia in a court sentencing memorandum, he did agree to gang terms being part of his federal probation conditions. “Any concern the court may have about Mr. Salazar-Villa associating with Nuestra Familia is addressed by the recommended condition that he not associate with any gang,” the document reads. He was released two days before Christmas in 2014.

Along the way, Villa, now 41, got an “M” tattooed on his neck, a reference to the “Market” in Salinas East Market. He got involved with MILPA, where his  brother George Villa, also validated as a Northern Structure member by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, was MILPA’s program assistant.

In an interview last month to talk about the future of the group’s work in particular and community organizing in general, Villa spoke about the opportunity MILPA presented him, and others like him, who had spent vast amounts of time incarcerated and for whom job opportunities were scarce when they were released from prison.

“Even just one person given a chance at a paycheck can impact the whole community. I’ve finally managed to re-enter society,” Villa said. “I’ve always had a support system, but there have been a lot of barriers. I could never find a job because my record is ugly, and because of all the violence. Here I’ve had the opportunity to do something positive.”

Asked about the future of MILPA, Villa said, “We ain’t going nowhere. We’re in the process of becoming a nonprofit and we’ve diversified and we’re doing good. We’re doing a lot of good work. We’re going to fight our fight the way we need to fight it.”

Soon after MILPA formed,  Sergio Diaz de Leon — a tech-savvy Nuestra Familia member, according to multiple sources, who’s known on the streets as Trix — was helping set up the group’s website, databases and infrastructure, according to the MILPA section of his LinkedIn profile, which was removed after a reporter contacted him Monday. (He says he resigned from MILPA over a year ago.)

Besides developing MILPA’s business systems, De Leon was recorded in multiple phone calls with Michael Escobar, who is currently standing trial in Santa Cruz County for a 2014 double homicide in Watsonville. One of the victims was 4-year-old Jaelyn Zavala, who was killed by a stray bullet in her family’s restaurant when the shooters targeted a rival gang member outside. It is expected that these calls will be played for the jury in the ongoing trial.

Escobar and De Leon, who both started in the East Las Casitas gang in Salinas “are 100-percent connected,” said a local law enforcement official. “Talking on the phone in and out of jail, (taking) trips to Tijuana together.”

Louis Gutierrez, another of the Nuestra Familia’s rising stars, was also drawn to MILPA’s glow, to the point that he wore a MILPA shirt when he went to register as a gang member at the Police Department. Norteño gang members Elijah Ramirez and Edgar Ibarra — who in 2014 was sentenced to eight years for his involvement in an attempted murder in Watsonville — also joined the project.

But together with Israel Villa, the involvement of De Leon and Gutierrez would ensure the Nuestra Familia’s foothold in MILPA — and Salinas.

Nuestra Familia’s vision of becoming a more sophisticated criminal organization with a legitimate public face began a decade ago, sources within the gang say.

The gang was about to be dealt serious blows in a series of takedown raids around California, many led by agents at the state’s Department of Justice working with the FBI and local police.

Threatened, the gang’s leaders decided to take a lesson from history, striving to become less like street thugs and more like the East Coast Mob operating hotels, charitable organizations, trash hauling companies and strip clubs as fronts. Court documents show that Nuestra Familia leaders decided they would continue to rob, extort and sell drugs on a wholesale level, but agreed they’d also learn how to better use legitimate businesses as fronts, how to compromise police and politicians, and how to use lobbying and advocacy as political tools.

By 2007, the gang was testing the waters, operating businesses such as a Metro PCS store in Jack London Square in Oakland, a clothing store in Los Baños and a tattoo parlor in Hollister.

But the raids kept coming and progress on the “legitimizing project” was slow.

Meanwhile, in the wake of four police shootings of unarmed Salinas residents in 2015, community support for MILPA’s criminal justice reform agenda began to swell. Unaware of the group’s Nuestra Familia connections, Alisal residents who grew up frustrated by systemic racism found hope in MILPA’s vision of a spiritually empowered and healed community.

Volunteers flocked to the group, and soon MILPA was attending academic and justice conferences around the country, speaking about Chicano identity, racial inequity and decolonization. Their message and programs incorporated curricula developed by Jerry Tello, a well respected motivational speaker and recognized authority in family strengthening. His Joven Noble and Xinachtli, two leadership frameworks for young Mexican-American men and women that blend indigenous spiritual traditions with a social change and awareness mission, have been widely used not just by MILPA but other local organizations. They adopted Tello’s strategy of “La Cultura Cura” (Culture Cures) and wove Native traditions into their advocacy programs.

Retired Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin said his department tried working with MILPA in its early days.

“My early perception was that this was Jerry Tello’s work being brought to action,” McMillin said. “So why wouldn’t I support that? It was another step in violence reduction, which shouldn’t be all law enforcement-centered.”

The U.S. Department of Justice even suggested in a 2016 report that the Police Department should meet more often with community organizations, and named MILPA as one of them.

“I had the sense from day one that this was a Norteño-influenced organization,” McMillin says now. “But they got together and they’re seemingly trying to do something good, and I thought to give them a chance, to take some chances on trying policing in a different way.”

Soon, however, some of McMillin’s officers told him they had concerns about active, violent gang members working at MILPA.

And then Salinas residents began to notice that things didn’t add up. Young parents who’d grown up associated with Sureño gangs — the Norteños’ main rivals — noticed their children were treated differently when they tried to join Joven Noble. Certain young men, especially those from Norteño families, were seen as having “potential,” according to police and gang sources. These youths were given extra attention with the idea they’d ultimately be groomed to sell drugs or do other tasks for the gang, the sources said.

Others noticed that MILPA’s leaders, including Villa, were — and are — often seen in public wearing red, the Norteños’ color, and posing in photos captioned with gang slogans from Salinas East Market on social media. Residents noted that MILPA never mentioned the words “gangs” or “youth violence,” and rarely talked about teaching young people how to avoid guns, drugs or the gang life. It seemed an odd omission in a community historically plagued by one of the state’s worst youth violence records.

The myth began to unravel in 2016. Raul Tapia, a MILPA co-founder whom the press (including some current Voices contributors) lavished with praise for “turning his life around,” was found with $3,000 in cash and 85.5 grams of meth in his car. Police searched his residence and reported finding “a rifle, a shotgun, a replica pistol that had real gun components installed, 6 grams of base cocaine and 44 grams of methamphetamine.” They also found a red bandanna on display in his living room, with “MILPA” printed on it in white letters.

Tapia was given a suspended four-year prison term for narcotics trafficking  and was ordered to serve felony probation. But a few months later, in April 2018, he violated his probation terms when he was caught with meth in his car by Pacific Grove police, according to the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office. This time, he was sentenced to serve his four-year term in Monterey County Jail.

MILPA officials did their best to distance themselves from Tapia. Staff said they’d fired him a few months before his arrest, and they told KION-TV that Tapia didn’t engage in criminal activity until after he was fired.

The list of MILPA associates involved in Nuestra Familia goes on. A year after Tapia’s arrest, Michael “Jap” Obiacoro led police on a chase — his BMW reaching 65-75 mph on East Market Street in the 4.5-minute pusuit —  and ultimately pleaded no contest to evading officers. He was sentenced to four years in prison and is serving his term in Pelican Bay, where he’d spent the better part of the previous two decades as a validated prison gang member. He told officers he worked at MILPA, and his Facebook page still declares he is “working with Milpa in downtown Salinas as a community activist.” His 2017 arrest and conviction while working at MILPA weren’t widely publicized.

Obiacoro was previously convicted of robbery for the benefit of a street gang in 2000. In 2014, while he was still in prison, correctional officers learned he planned to smuggle out Nuestra Familia writing and messages upon his release that July.

A police report says he was held under what prison guards call “potty watch,” during which he ultimately defecated a plastic-wrapped “bundle of gang notes” that included the gang’s history, latest rules and “no good” (hit) lists.

McMillin, meanwhile, was “all over the country looking at violence prevention programs. Some included guys who still have one foot in the game,” he says. From the Violence Interrupters in Chicago to the groundbreaking work of Teny Gross’s Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence in Providence, violence reduction programs often use people who are very close to the street — which is important for their credibility — and sometimes that means they might still be involved in the gang life.

But McMillin wasn’t comfortable advancing the same ideas at home. He had concerns, he said, about “putting officers in a position of having to work side by side with people who might still be involved in criminal activity in Salinas.” Arresting Tapia “with guns and drugs and cash” sealed the deal, he said.

“Then the skate park video came out.”

If the public had questions about whether a criminal element had permeated MILPA, the skate park video provided the answer.

On Aug. 7, 2018, MILPA held an event it dubbed “Night Out for Safety and Liberation,” an alternative to the police-sponsored National Night Out. In a video captured at the scene, a 14-year-old boy said something perceived as offensive to MILPA community liaison Louis Gutierrez, an admitted Northern Structure member. Gutierrez responded, “What did you say? What did you say?” Then the boy was beaten up by 21-year-old Richard Alex Diaz. As Diaz was assaulting the boy, others yelled, “He’s just a little kid.” But Gutierrez stood between onlookers and the fight and said, “Let him.”

Gutierrez, who has made a point of letting others know he’s a nephew of longtime Nuestra Familia leader Matt Rocha, was sentenced last month to two years in prison for the assault, and admitted committing the attack for the benefit of the Norteño gang. Diaz pleaded no contest to felony assault in April.

Despite the damning video, MILPA went on a public relations offensive, saying in an emailed appeal that the organization was “slandered and attacked by the media due to an unfortunate and unexpected altercation.” To counter the news media’s “bullshit narrative,” MILPA asked supporters to pose with an “I support MILPA” sign. Others, including Salinas City Councilman Steve McShane, wrote letters to local newspapers championing MILPA as an organization doing good in the community.

A longtime Alisal resident told Voices at the time that locals were too terrified to come forward about the incident, that word on the streets was that anyone who talked about it would be “dealt with.”

In March, Villa was captured on a jail video call.

The recording, made on March 22 of this year, occurred just weeks before Tai Agoun Cruz was due to be sentenced in the killing of 18-year-old Paulino Guzman III; the video was released Oct. 16 by Salinas police in response to Public Record Act requests.

Cruz, described by the District Attorney’s Office as a member of the Salinas East Market gang, was in Monterey County Jail after being convicted of killing Guzman at a Norteño party in north Salinas just before Christmas 2015. Cruz had pleaded guilty to manslaughter, with enhancements that the crime was committed for the benefit of the Norteño gang. Investigators said Cruz helped put Guzman’s body in a plastic tub and rode away with it the next day. The body was never found.

During the sentencing hearing on April 10, Guzman III’s stepmother made an impassioned plea to Cruz.

“I’m not here to judge you,” she said. “As a mom, as a Christian, I just pray for you,. I just want to know where his body is so we can lay him to rest.”

She ended her plea with a piece of scripture: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

“I just pray to God you find it in your heart to do the right thing and let us know where he is so we can lay him to rest,” she said.

Cruz simply replied, “No comment.”

That statement came just weeks after Cruz received a stern message  from Villa.

Inmates at Monterey County Jail can make video phone calls to the outside. In the video call from Cruz, obtained by Voices, the Weekly and other media outlets, Villa is seen with fellow Norteños and pointing his fingers — like a gun — to the letter “M” on his cap. He throws a hand sign signifying the 500 block of East Market Street, where Salinas East Market got its start. Looking at Cruz, Villa clamps his hand over his mouth, then slides a finger across his throat.

Police and sources within the gang say the message was obvious: you snitch, you die.

“In the gang, every hand gesture means something,” a source familiar with Villa and the Nuestra Familia said. “Each movement was a full and complete message. It told a story.”

Considering that Villa was incarcerated because of a federal informant, the source said, his gestures suggest one of the Nuestra Familia’s cardinal rules: If you are a traitor, I will kill you.

As connections between some prominent MILPA members and Nuestra Familia emerge, questions about funding have followed this week. “The video is troubling and raises serious concerns,” Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo said. “The county will now have to review whether any future funding should continue.”

Karen Smith, spokeswoman for the county health department, which oversees a MILPA grant, said, “We are concerned, management is concerned about the incident and they’re taking the matter very seriously.”

Since its inception seven years ago, MILPA’s advocacy and programs for mentoring youth have attracted prominent, well-intentioned funders. A quick count of publicized grant awards shows it has received well over $1.7 million in funding, some of it public money.

Through Monterey County Behavioral Health, California’s Board of State and Community Corrections awarded MILPA $270,000 to conduct community outreach around Proposition 47, a project that’s still underway. Its next community advisory meeting is scheduled for December 7. (Proposition 47, known as the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative and approved by voters in 2014, reduced the classification of most nonviolent property and drug crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor.)

As part of that outreach, MILPA members have regularly attended orientation meetings for returning parolees, where the group makes a presentation about services it offers, said state Parole Agent Joel Orozco. He said Villa hasn’t attended such a meeting for more than a year, but other MILPA staff have. The last time they attended was in July, he said, but added that the group’s gang ties now raise concerns about the safety of returning felons.

“Knowing what I know now, I’m not going to invite them anymore,” Orozco said Monday.

According to state Division of Juvenile Justice spokesman Michael Sicilia, MILPA is a recipient of a 2018 Innovative Grants Program award. MILPA supporters have posted on social media that the group has a three-year contract with the state to teach in its youth detention facilities, but the DJJ wasn’t able to confirm the grant’s details by press time.

The group also received $500,000 from the Latino Community Foundation in 2015.

Early this year, MILPA was awarded a $35,000 grant from the Community Foundation for Monterey County, which had received grant funds from The James Irvine Foundation designated “to ensure low-income workers in Salinas have the opportunity to advance economically.”

Through a $7 million grant, the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice partnered with MILPA to expand the Restoring Promise initiative by “opening radically reimagined housing units” in New England correctional facilities. Vera Institute declined to state how much of the $7 million went to MILPA, but Vera spokesperson Poonam Mantha responded with a statement Monday. “MILPA is and will continue to be our partner,” the statement reads. “…We value their expertise in our work fighting systemic racism and addressing white supremacy within the justice system.”

But MILPA’s principal source of local funding comes through Building Healthy Communities, or BHC, a 10-year project of the California Endowment. MILPA has a two-year grant from the project for $962,818 that expires this year, according to Larry Imwalle of The Action Council of Monterey County, the fiscal receiver for Building Healthy Communities.

Since police released the video showing Villa throwing gang signs and intimidating Cruz, Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter says the city is taking steps to make sure MILPA’s presence is eliminated from the city-led Community Alliance for Safety And Peace.

“It’s tearing our community apart and for this to happen, it was very disheartening,” Gunter says. Since the Villa video was released, “We haven’t heard from MILPA’s leadership, we haven’t heard from BHC and we haven’t heard from the Endowment saying they find the behavior despicable.”

Salinas City Councilmember Scott Davis, who works as a deputy sheriff, shares that view.

“We’re starting to see more and more evidence come forward of infiltration of a criminal street gang that was originally created to do good for our community…. Everyone recognizes that MILPA, as an organization doing what it was created to do, has done some good things. But you can’t be a social justice warrior by day and a gangster by night. It makes me extremely hesitant and cautious when you have these allegations and yet not one member of their leadership can denounce the gang.”

MILPA has taken steps to become a nonprofit corporation in its own right. The group filed incorporation papers with the state last year, signed by one of the group’s founders, Juan Gomez, who could not be reached for comment but later issued a statement. MILPA has received tax-exempt status from the IRS but is not yet required to file a Form 990 financial report.

MILPA’s focus on criminal justice reform makes the group a natural adversary of the police. Members testify at hearings in Sacramento in support of restrictions on when police may use force, and rally residents together after police shootings in Salinas. 

Several community members feel the accusations of gang activity are yet another example of how the police will stop at nothing to destroy MILPA, because, they say, it’s been effective at rejecting school resource officers and pushing to end the city’s participation in the reality TV show LivePD.

“Villa made an error in judgment, but this is a personnel issue,” said Phillip Tabera, board member of the Salinas Union High School District and staunch MILPA advocate. “The actions of one individual should not penalize the entire organization. This is not the first time that these type of things happen to an organization that’s trying to do great things for the community.”

Jesus Valenzuela works as lead organizer for Building Healthy Communities, which he says is also deciding whether to become an independent nonprofit. BHC is funded by the California Endowment through 2022, and Valenzuela says the remainder of 2019 will be largely devoted to determining plans for BHC’s future beyond that point.

Valenzuela says the video showing Villa has been mischaracterized: “We don’t condone any type of gang activity. But we do feel that there is further investigation needed to figure out the context of [the video],” he says.

As to Nuestra Familia’s larger hold on MILPA, Valenzuela says he’s heard rumors that similar things have happened at other organizations. “That’s not something we see day to day with MILPA. Their track record speaks for the good work they’ve been doing.”

What will happen to its many projects and whether any of MILPA’s criminal justice reform work can be salvaged remains to be seen.

As one former Norteño gang member critical of MILPA  put it, “When you’re sick, it’s important to eradicate the cancer or the virus. But do you have to eradicate the whole body?”

Monterey County District Attorney Jeannine Pacioni says she had long been aware of MILPA’s association with the gang, particularly in light of the skate park fight in 2018 and public discussion that followed.

“I agree that when people come together for a good purpose it’s a great thing. But if you’re not working toward a positive goal and you’re using it as a front, I’m very offended by that. Because other people are buying into it—other people want to do what you’re going to do.”

Meanwhile, Villa recently applied to serve on the Monterey County Juvenile Justice Commission, a Superior Court  program that looks into “the administration of juvenile court law in this county and to ensure that the highest standards of care and services are maintained for the youth within the juvenile justice system.” The commission has not yet discussed Villa’s application, officials said.

Brian Contreras ran Second Chance Youth Program, a  youth-violence-intervention program in Salinas, for nearly three decades. He understands maybe better than anyone the struggle MILPA faces in trying to walk the line between using experts who have lived the lifestyle they’re now advocating against.

MILPA, he says, “is a really good idea and they have a good philosophy.

“But my question is, do you denounce gang activity? If you’re going to sit there and model that to the community, you can’t straddle that fence.”

Contreras recalls the advice of his own probation officer, Dan Villarreal, who became a mentor to him. Early on at the start of Second Chance, Contreras says he was also trying to straddle fences — he had left behind his criminal past, he says, but still associated with those in the life.

“Dan told me one day, ‘I heard you were at so and so’s birthday party.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but how do you know that?’” Some kids who Villarreal worked with told him they met Contreras at the party and said he was “cool.” But Villarreal told him, “‘You can’t work in this environment and do those sorts of things. It sets the wrong tone.’”

Contreras still believes MILPA is a good — great, even — idea, but he says they have to change the way they do things.

MILPA released a statement Oct. 21, five days after news stories about the video of Villa and Cruz talking. “We are disappointed, but not surprised, by the recent attacks on our organization,” it reads. “MILPA gives voice to marginalized communities, youth and residents. We stand by our community and leaders because they are the most impacted by a justice system that is racist and oppressive…We do not condone violence, criminal, or gang activity. As we have seen repeatedly, the response of the media and Salinas law enforcement is to rush to judgment and allegations.”

Last week, as the community reeled from the release of the Villa-Cruz video call, MILPA staff was mum about the controversy on its Facebook page. At 10:50 p.m. on the night the video made headlines, MILPA posted a graphic that simply read “#StopLying.”

A few days later, this was followed by a quote from Malcolm X: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

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