Ties That Bind: Federal agents link SNM to Vegas drug trafficking operation

Ties That Bind: Federal agents link SNM to Vegas drug trafficking operation

From the Las Vegas Optic

Editor’s note: The following is part four 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.

The summer of 2019 was a violent one in Las Vegas. By early August, four people had been shot. Three died from those wounds.

By the end of the summer, local police and federal agents suspected one man was involved in each of the shootings: Marcos R. Ruiz, a then 40-year-old resident of Las Vegas who was a member of the Westside Locos street gang and an associate of the often-violent Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico prison gang, according to multiple affidavits filed in U.S. District Court.

Las Vegas police were familiar with Ruiz as well, long before violence erupted in 2019. Police first arrested Ruiz in 1999, when he was 20, for burglary and multiple charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Ruiz accepted a plea agreement in November 1999, pleading no contest to three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Soon after, on Nov. 22, 1999, a grand jury indicted Ruiz of trafficking cocaine. After months of court proceedings, the case was set to go to trial in the Fourth Judicial District Court at the end of January 2001, but days before the trial was to begin, the charges were dropped.

As that trafficking case moved through the court system, Ruiz was charged with second-degree murder in the July 2000 shooting death of 21-year-old Fabian Ortega. Ruiz pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter with a firearm enhancement, and was sentenced to state prison. He served a little more than 24 months in prison, with the rest of the sentence suspended. After being released from prison, Ruiz was placed on supervised parole for another 24 months. Ruiz completed his sentence Aug. 31, 2007.

Ruiz pleaded guilty to aggravated fleeing of a law enforcement officer in September 2016, after fleeing a New Mexico State Police DWI checkpoint in Las Vegas, according to court records.

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In the early morning hours of June 15, 2019, Las Vegas police investigators responded to a homicide call at the home of Ruiz’s mother, near the intersection of South Pacific Street and Perez Street.

Officers who responded to the initial call found 27-year-old Cruz Gallegos in the yard, bleeding from at least one gunshot wound, according to LVPD incident reports.

A witness told police Ruiz was at the house when Gallegos was shot, and that Ruiz had pointed a handgun at her and Gallegos. Ruiz was upset with Gallegos, she said, believing that Gallegos had stolen $70,000 worth of fentanyl, and because he believed Gallegos was trying to set him up “with the cops,” according to an affidavit filed in San Miguel Magistrate Court.

Ruiz didn’t pull the trigger though, according to the witness. Instead, he handed the gun to 56-year-old Max J. Lucero, who fired it, striking Gallegos. Lucero then pointed the gun at the witness, but Ruiz intervened, taking the gun from Lucero. He said, “not her,” according to affidavits.

As Gallegos bled to death in the front yard, Ruiz threw a cell phone at the witness and told her to call the police. Ruiz, his brother and Lucero then got into a vehicle and drove away.

Gallegos was pronounced dead by first responders. Lucero was arrested Dec. 17, 2019, and charged with second-degree murder. Though court records show a plea agreement was offered, it was not accepted and the case is currently set to go to trial.

A trial is scheduled to begin March 16 in Fourth Judicial District Court. Lucero remains in custody at the San Miguel County Detention Center.

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Before Gallegos was killed, Ruiz was under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI for months, according to affidavits filed in U.S. District Court.

For years, federal agents had been tracking the activities of Robert C. Padilla, a suspected drug trafficker from Albuquerque. Agents believed Ruiz was one of Padilla’s drug distributors, and that Ruiz was his “enforcer” in Las Vegas.

Padilla’s Las Vegas operation, federal agents allege, was deeply intertwined with members and associates of the Syndicato de Nuevo Mexico, including Ruiz.

After obtaining court approval for several wiretaps, federal authorities began monitoring phone and text message conversations on six cell phones used by Padilla. Agents also gained approval to tap the phone of Jason J. Jones, a Mexican national living in Albuquerque. Agents allege Jones was one of Padilla’s main suppliers of bulk quantities of cocaine.

During surveillance, agents listened to a March 15, 2019, call between Jones and Padilla where Padilla complained about the quality of cocaine he recently purchased from Jones. Jones defended the quality, arguing that the powder was good, but speculated something happened during the process of turning it into crack cocaine, a task agents allege Ruiz was responsible for.

After talking to Jones about the issue, Padilla called Ruiz to discuss the disappointing amount of crack he’d produced in a recent batch.

“You f—– up, that’s all there is to it,” Padilla said.

“I’ll do it again … There’s no way it should’ve happened like that though,” Ruiz said.

After a brief argument, Padilla told Ruiz he just made a batch and that the powder had yielded the correct amount of crack. He then sent Ruiz a photo of the crack he’d made via text message, a photo federal agents intercepted.

• • •

By selling drugs in Las Vegas, agents allege Padilla was forced to work with Ruiz and others with connections to SNM, including Leroy “Smurf” Lucero, a man agents say was an SNM leader who was responsible for recruiting new members, according to affidavits.

One confidential source told FBI agents that Lucero was selling heroin that originated from Padilla. The source told agents that Padilla was uncomfortable working with Lucero and others connected to SNM, but that he was forced to work with them in order to “handle business,” according to affidavits.

Other informants told agents that Padilla had grown suspicious of Lucero after he was arrested for being a felon in possession of a firearm. Padilla felt Lucero had served too little time for the crime, and that he hadn’t been charged with the same violations other SNM members had been charged with.

Lucero was ultimately gunned down in the driveway of his home near Mills Avenue and Hot Springs Boulevard around 9 p.m. July 22, 2019. Witnesses reported seeing three shadowy figures, dressed in black, standing next to a black vehicle just after the shooting, according to Las Vegas Police Department incident reports. Witnesses told police they heard shouting, and then gunshots before the three shadowy figures hopped in the black car and fled the area. Lucero was pronounced dead by responding paramedics.

Lucero’s death drew the attention of the FBI to Las Vegas as part of a years-long investigation into SNM. The FBI investigation soon intertwined with the DEA investigation into Padilla and Ruiz.

A witness to Lucero’s death told FBI agents Ruiz was one of the shadowy figures, and that he was the driver of the car that fled; however, another witness identified another man as the getaway driver. To date, no one has been charged in Lucero’s death.

• • •

About two weeks after Lucero was killed, LVPD began an investigation into two shootings on the city’s west side.

On the evening of Aug. 3, 2019, police allege Ruiz shot and killed 42-year-old Marcos “Mark” Carrillo and shot 39-year-old Gilbert Montoya.

Montoya survived his wounds, but officers found Carrillo dead on the floor of Ruiz’s home. Ruiz was arrested Aug. 4, 2019, and ultimately charged with first-degree murder, as well as attempted murder.

Agents with the DEA and FBI served multiple search warrants at homes across Las Vegas on Sept. 19, 2019, including Ruiz’s home in the 600 block of Union Street.

At the time of the raid, Ruiz was already in custody at SMCDC, but he was transferred to federal custody in January 2020, after being indicted in U.S. District Court on charges of distribution of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. However, Ruiz’s attorney is seeking to separate Ruiz’s charges from those made in the indictment.

The 19-count indictment was filed against 12 people — including Padilla and Ruiz — and in a motion filed Jan. 13, Ruiz’s attorney has asked the court to separate Ruiz’s case from the others.

The motion further argues that the Department of Justice has failed to prove that the substance shown in the photo sent from Padilla to Ruiz is in fact crack cocaine.

A trial date for the case has been scheduled for this fall, but the trial could be delayed by plea agreements, further motions for separate trials or by delays related to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.