Ties That Bind: Prison gang, street gangs linked to violent murders

Ties That Bind: Prison gang, street gangs linked to violent murders

From the Las Vegas Optic

Editor’s note: The following is part two of a series exploring the role street gangs, prison gangs and organized crime play in violence, drug trafficking and addiction within Las Vegas and its surrounding communities.

Sweeping raids by federal law enforcement agencies in August of 2012 resulted in 14 Las Vegas homes being searched. By the end of the day, 25 people were arrested, including Jeromy “Joker” Vasquez and Jose Albert Herrera. Six years later, on the morning of Jan. 21, 2018, the paths of these two men would cross again, and result in a bloody end to Vasquez’s life.

The winter morning began with a car fire in front of Vasquez’s home on Don Fidel Street, just before sunrise. The fire was not an accident, according to authorities, but is believed to be the result of Vasquez owing someone money for drugs, according to affidavits filed in U.S. District Court.

Vasquez was a member of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico, a violent prison gang, according to federal authorities. So too was John F. Salazar, aka “Stoner,” a witness to the shooting.

Following the car fire, Vasquez and Salazar drove to Herrera’s home on New Mexico Avenue. Vasquez believed it was Herrera who’d set the fire, and he confronted Herrera armed with a .40-caliber handgun, according to Las Vegas Police Department incident reports. Both Herrera and Vasquez were shot during the confrontation. Thirty-six-year-old Vasquez died in the street.

 

A brief moment of peace

Following Vasquez’s death, the public received few details about the shooting. Because of an ongoing federal investigation, many court records were sealed and unavailable to the public or the press.

Herrera was treated at Alta Vista Regional Hospital and later flown to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque. By 2020, the shooting was ruled self-defense. Las Vegas, it seemed, had returned to normal, and for more than a year, the town did not experience violence at the level of that January 2018 morning.

But the peace didn’t last. In the early morning hours of June 15, 2019, gunshots again rang out, this time from a home on Chavez Street. By the time the sun rose, 27-year-old Cruz Gallegos lay dead in the front yard of the home.

The Chavez Street home belonged to the mother of Marcos Ruiz, Gallegos’ uncle. Three men were inside the home at the time of the shooting, including Marcos Ruiz and his brother Arturo Ruiz. Marcos, according to the FBI, is a Westside Locos member and an SNM associate. Arturo Ruiz is a former member of Los Carnales, a prison gang the FBI believes is currently at peace with SNM, according to affidavits. The Westside Locos are one of about eight street gangs that SNM has close ties to, according to the affidavits. Agents also allege Gallegos’ father, Glen “Gato” Greenier, was a member of SNM. Greenier died from a drug overdose in 2010.

A witness to Gallegos’ death said Marcos Ruiz had accused Gallegos of trying to set him up “with the cops,” according to LVPD incident reports. Gallegos swore it wasn’t him though, but he said he knew who it was: Gary Coca, a man FBI agents allege is a prospective member of SNM.

About a month after Gallegos’ death, on July 16, 2019, another man was shot outside a Las Vegas home. The reason for the shooting is unknown, but FBI agents suspect it was drug related. Coca was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The charges were dropped after Coca was taken into federal custody for charges of cocaine distribution and robbery. The man who was shot lived.

 

A key rule broken

Three gunshots disrupted the peace again, just days later, on July 22, 2019. Those three shots ended the life of Leroy “Smurf” Lucero, a man FBI agents say was an SNM leader.

Agents allege Lucero was not only a leader, but also a recruiter for the gang who was “responsible for recruiting and mentoring the majority of the SNM members in the Las Vegas area,” according to affidavits filed in U.S. District Court.

SNM operates under a “blood in, blood out” philosophy, which means someone joining the gang must be initiated by beating or killing someone for the gang, and that the only way someone can leave the gang is through death. A prospective member must be sponsored by at least three SNM members who vote-in the prospect, according to federal affidavits.

A cardinal rule of SNM, agents say, is that members do not speak with law enforcement. It’s a rule Lucero broke by not only speaking to members of law enforcement, but by testifying against other SNM members in federal court.

Lucero attempted to hide that testimony from other SNM members and continued to act like a member of the gang, according to affidavits. However, during Lucero’s testimony, several SNM defendants were present in the courtroom. The FBI says Lucero and his attorney were aware this put Lucero at significant risk of retaliation by SNM, and that the FBI had provided Lucero with “sufficient funding” to move away, but that he instead moved back to Las Vegas and continued to act like an SNM member.

No one has been charged in Lucero’s death, but affidavits show federal authorities suspect Marcos Ruiz and Gary Coca of being involved. SNM rules also dictate that, as a leader-turned-government-witness, younger members he’d brought into the gang would be required to kill him, according to affidavits. Members from Las Vegas.

 

A bloody end to the summer

Less than two weeks after Lucero’s death, LVPD responded to a home in the 500 block of Perez Street just after 6:30 p.m. Officers found a man lying on a couch, bleeding from at least one gunshot wound.

The man was Gilbert Montoya, a member of the Westside Locos gang, according to the FBI. When LVPD asked Montoya who shot him, he responded “nobody shot me,” according to LVPD incident reports. A woman at the Perez Street home told police Montoya had shown up at the door with gunshot wounds, and that Marcos Ruiz had shot him.

Within a half hour of responding to the house on Perez Street, officers were called to Marcos Ruiz’s home in the 600 block of Union Street where Marcos “Mark” Carrillo lay dead on the living room floor. Carrillo, according to the FBI, was also a member of the Westside Locos.

During an interview with New Mexico State Police, Montoya said he’d been at a cousin’s home when a car driven by Rhonda A. Greenier drove up with Marcos Ruiz as a passenger, according to an arrest warrant filed in San Miguel Magistrate Court. Montoya told police he got into the vehicle and that Greenier drove them to Ruiz’s home.

Montoya said Carrillo and Ruiz were “wrestling on the couch,” and that Ruiz had a gun in his hand. Police reports do not state when Carrillo arrived at the home on Union Street, but state that Montoya heard a gunshot, one that killed Carrillo.

Montoya attempted to run out a back door, but found it locked. Montoya told police Ruiz then called for him, and when Montoya turned around, he saw three flashes and knew he’d been shot. Montoya still managed to run from the home, escaping from a side door.

Greenier, 44, was later arrested following a search of her vehicle, charged with felony possession of cocaine. She has not been charged in connection with the shooting of Montoya or the death of Carrillo.

Marcos Ruiz was later arrested and charged with first-degree murder before being taken into federal custody early last year, charged with distribution of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

The murder charge in Fourth Judicial District Court is still pending, but now-former District Attorney Richard Flores has told the Optic in the past that, in some cases, federal prosecutors will request that local charges be dropped so the Department of Justice can prosecute at the federal level.