A major operation against one of Puerto Rico's foremost criminal gangs has revealed how this group's control of prisons helped to create a method of criminal governance that swept the region.
In a sweeping indictment unsealed on September 16, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) charged over two dozen members of El Grupo de Los 27 (The Group of 27) with drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion and murder, among others.
One of the oldest gangs in Puerto Rico, the gang rapidly dominated criminal economies inside the country's prison system. According to the indictment, their main source of revenue came from extorting other inmates, either by taxing those bringing drugs inside prisons or by directly forcing prisoners to make regular payments.
Hundreds of gang members were also collecting thousands of dollars by phoning members of the public to extort them and were connected to the distribution of cocaine, heroin, marihuana, fentanyl and other drugs inside Puerto Rico’s prisons.
The gang also seems to have received substantial assistance from prison officials and members on the outside.
“Members of Los 27 were able to introduce this contraband into the prisons with the help of corrupt…correctional officers, civilians who worked inside of the prison system, people who visited inmates, and persons who—from outside the prisons—threw drugs into the facilities,” explained Stephen Muldrow, US Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico.
Over its long lifespan, the gang is believed to have amassed criminal profits of around $40 million.
The arrests included the group’s founder, Luis Pinela-Pizarro, alias “Shino Pinela” or “Tio,” who reportedly founded Los 27 in 1980.
Several Puerto Rican prisons have reportedly separated inmate wings between members of Los 27 and its rivals, the Ñetas, to avoid conflict.
InSight Crime Analysis
Los 27 are an interesting part of the American criminal landscape for being early pioneers of a prison gang model that has spread throughout Latin America.
While there are older gangs, such as Nuestra Familia in California, whose membership is also primarily recruited inside penitentiaries, Los 27 and the Ñetas were among the first in the United States to develop the systematic extortion of other criminals.
This type of control has since become commonplace in Latin America. Some of the region’s most significant criminal threats, such as the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) in Brazil or the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs in El Salvador, have similar modi operandi to Los 27.
These include extorting or collecting regular payments from prisoners, controlling drug trafficking inside and having the corrupt connections to source drugs from various sources.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Puerto Rico
But where the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs took control of prisons starting in the late 1980 and the PCC in the 1990s, Los 27 was doing so over a decade earlier.
Once a prison gang achieves the level of control described in the DOJ indictment, it becomes extremely hard to dislodge. Los 27 have recruited hundreds of members and will likely continue to do so, even if its leaders are sent to prisons on the mainland. The corruption and collusion of prison officials that facilitated their criminal economies will not vanish overnight.
The mere fact that that Pinela-Pizarro and his group are still going strong, four decades on from their creation, shows just how widespread their influence is.