Latin Kings conspiracy trial begins in federal court
A war between two local gangs that lead to the shooting deaths of two men outside a Griffith restaurant in 2007 started when the wrong person was killed, a Latin Kings gang member testified Tuesday in federal court.
Jose Zambrano, 32, of Sauk Village, Ill., spent the beginning of co-defendant Martin Anaya’s trial at U.S. District Court in Hammond telling a jury how the Latin Kings operate in Chicago, including a leadership structure that rivals the military and an intense rivalry against other gangs.
Anaya, of Chicago, is on trial for charges of taking part in the racketeering conspiracy of the Latin Kings, dealing vast amounts of drugs and murdering Christina Campos, an Illinois woman. Most of the 22 other defendants charged in the case have already pleaded guilty, and many are expected to testify against Anaya, including Highland resident Alexander Vargas, whom Zambrano described as one of the regional leaders, or Incas, of the Latin Kings.
The 2007 Griffith double homicide started after Vargas’ brother was shot and killed in October 2006. Zambrano, who was a regional enforcer and reported directly to Vargas, told the jury that Vargas’ brother and a friend were standing outside a house talking to a Latin King member when someone in a car pulled up and started shooting. Vargas’ brother and the friend both died, but the Latin King member, who Zambrano said was the actual target of the shooting, escaped unscathed.
Vargas was especially upset, Zambrano said, because his brother was not involved with the Latin Kings. The leader called a meeting at his house, crying before his fellow members and telling them how he couldn’t sleep at night. He wanted blood, but not just any would do. Zambrano said Vargas wanted to see the leaders of the Latin Dragons, who they believed called for the shooting, die.
“It was basically an all-out war,” Zambrano said.
Another Latin Kings member, Brandon Clay, did shoot and kill a Latin Dragons member in November 2006, Zambrano said, but that wasn’t enough for Vargas because the man, Edward Delatorre, was considered a low-level member. Instead, he kept pushing a hit list of known leaders of the Latin Dragons, and Zambrano said at one point he and another gang member made a bet that whoever killed a Latin Dragons leader first would get a free steak dinner from the other person.
They finally got their chance when they received word that James Walsh and fellow Latin Dragons leader Gonzalo Diaz would attend a birthday party at what was then Sopranos restaurant in Griffith in February 2007. The two men, along with three other defendants, waited several hours before Diaz and Walsh came out.
“We pulled up and road-blocked the car,” Zambrano said.
Clay and co-defendant Jermaine Ellis both got out, with Clay shooting Walsh and Ellis shooting Diaz, Zambrano said.
The men left but were soon chased by police. They made their way to an alley off of Calumet Avenue, where they jumped out of the car and ran. Zambrano said he escaped by hiding for several hours in the snow under a bush.
Anaya’s attorney, Adam Tavitas, cautioned the jury during his opening speech to question the credibility of the witnesses, pointing out that many of them face decades and life in prison unless they cooperate.
Joseph Cooley, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, said during his opening statement that other gang members will testify about how Anaya, one of the oldest among the defendants, helped to recruit Vargas but remained a street soldier. Others will testify about how Anaya and other Latin Kings members drove into the territory of the rival Latin Counts and started shooting. One of those Latin Dragons, Christine Campos, ran for cover.
“This defendant walked up and shot and killed her as she was hiding between two cars,” Cooley told the jury.
He emphasized that although they would hear evidence about the murders of Campos, Walsh, Diaz and several other people, the trial was really about the criminal conspiracy of the Latin Kings. And although Anaya was never a leader in the group, he did help to distribute large quantities of drugs and “raised addicts” across Chicago and Northwest Indiana.
Zambrano described that gang activity, including how the Latin Kings have operated under three ultimate leaders, or coronas, who oversaw various regions in and around Chicago. Each region had its own set of leaders and oversaw street chapters that had their own numerous leaders, including treasurers and secretaries. Members were required to pay a monthly due of $20 and attend regular meetings. Anyone who missed three consecutive meetings had to run three laps around a park.
Zambrano testified that he woke up one time to discover a fellow gang member’s van sitting outside his house, holding 150 kilograms of cocaine that the Latin Kings wanted him to store until they could sell it.
The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.