Special Reports

One victory at a time

Gang squad Detective Luis Ortiz fiddled with his radio one recent Tuesday afternoon, fighting for a clear signal. The surveillance microphone broadcasting from inside a house had a limited range.

The basement walls of a home less than a mile from Northeast High School muffled the signal, so Ortiz lurched his sedan around the block, hoping the air would clear.

Over static, he made out conversation as the "money guy" counted $14,000 for the "dope guy," a man called Primo who was peddling 30 pounds of Mexican marijuana. Ortiz had been tracking Primo for weeks.

A confidential informant, a drug trade middleman who connected buyers with sellers, spoke up occasionally to lubricate the deal and keep things moving.

Ortiz smiled. He liked what he was hearing. Still, he could go either way on this informant, whom he had recruited only the previous night.

"This guy is pretty good," Ortiz said brightly, but then reconsidered. "He’s pretty spooked."

An hour or so later, the drug traffickers emerged from the house and drove away, unmolested by a half-dozen undercover surveillance officers and seven tactical team members lurking nearby.

Ortiz punched numbers into his cell phone, trying to raise the informant and learn when the next, and presumably bigger deal, would go down. That was the deal he wanted to bust.

"Man, I hate to let dope walk away," he said.

Thirty pounds of any illegal drug probably would be worth pulling out of a house in midtown or the East Side, but the stakes are higher in the Northeast area, where Hispanic gangs predominate.

The difference in the gang scene there became clear recently as two Kansas City Star reporters and a photographer spent three weeks following members of the Kansas City Police Department’s gang squad. Overworked and undermanned, the eight-member unit is charged with tracking the city’s more than 3,300 documented gang members and draining their economic lifeblood, the narcotics trade.

Nowhere are the squad’s frustrations more exasperating and victories more substantial than the Northeast. Exasperating because detectives regularly watch large quantities of dope change hands without making arrests in order to work their way up the drug chain. Substantial because when the detectives finally seize larger drug quantities, the defendants usually face harsher penalties in court. And with harsher penalties, defendants are more likely to cooperate and give up their sources.

Only a tiny fraction of Hispanic youth are involved in gang-related drug trafficking, Northeast area leaders say. But they are devastating some neighborhoods.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations and the Latino street gangs that work with them use the Northeast as a major distribution point for cocaine and other drugs, according to a May report on Kansas City’s narcotics market by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Think of it in economic terms.

The Hispanic gangs have access to international connections and transportation systems that bring in wholesale quantities of methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine.

Those drugs are resold, often to African-American gang members for retail distribution to users.

So while East Side gang members deal in ounces and grams, Northeast gang members move pounds and kilograms.

To get inside those deals, Ortiz and his partner, Eric Benson, depend on confidential informants, or CIs, like the middleman helping them on the 30-pound marijuana deal.

They had confronted this CI the previous evening, after they recovered $1,100 hidden under his car’s dashboard during a traffic stop. Benson had asked him the three standard questions used to encourage drug traffickers to cooperate.

"Who are your enemies? Who are your competitors? Who do you owe money to?"

In this case, the CI gave up Primo, who owed him $10,000 that he never expected to see. Primo, a common street name, is the Spanish word for cousin.

The CI had ties to an old-school prison gang that doesn’t tolerate mistakes.

"They know if they do something stupid, they can be killed," Ortiz said.

But now, Ortiz hoped that the CI could help him reel in Primo.

Midafternoon the next day, Ortiz drove past the house he had staked out on the marijuana buy and stopped about a half-block away. He turned his rear view mirrors to get a good view of the house, then pushed his seat back, almost flat, to lower his profile.

After six years working the Northeast, Ortiz, 33, regularly changes vehicles, searches out lunch spots far away and is careful which cell phone he uses to call informants.

"They know my face and my truck," explained Ortiz. "That’s why I carry my gun all the time."

Still, he radiates optimism. The money for dopers is good enough that deals are likely go through even if the gang targets believe they are being followed. At that moment, Primo was circling in the Northeast with 60 pounds of marijuana in his trunk, completely ignoring the risk of being pulled over in a routine traffic stop.

"It’s all about the money," Ortiz said. "This guy is greedy."

After an hour, the surrounding neighborhood came alive. Pedestrians passed on the sidewalk. A tradesman gawked from across the street. A teenage girl walked out onto a nearby porch and talked on her cell phone while watching Ortiz’s car. Finally, the girl led an elderly woman out to the porch. She, too, watched.

Concerned, Ortiz straightened his seat and pulled away slowly. Another 60 pounds would walk, but the CI had promised Ortiz a sweet deal at the end -- 300 pounds of marijuana, a couple of pounds of methamphetamine and more than $100,000.

Several hours later, Ortiz’s cell phone rang with a message from the CI. The 60-pound marijuana deal never happened because the CI couldn’t find a buyer for Primo’s dope.

The volume of drug trafficking and gang activity is a constant concern for neighborhood leaders, who would rather celebrate the Northeast area’s architectural richness, central location and ethnic diversity.

Two years ago, Michael G. Bushnell, president of the Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association, stood in his backyard holding a baseball bat, watching a fight develop between two Latino gangs in adjacent apartment buildings. Complaints to police and landlords calmed that situation for a time, but the problem moved elsewhere.

"As a neighborhood association president, it makes it difficult to recruit quality homeowners," Bushnell said. "The (crime) perception thing is killing us. That, and the real estate slowdown, is going to wipe out older neighborhoods."

Dennis Carroll, director of the Northeast Mobile Crime Watch, almost longs for the days when his biggest felony concern was 75 stolen cars a month.

"We used to pull our hair out chasing auto thefts," Carroll said. "That’s now gone to aggravated assaults and shootings."

Fueling the expansion in Latino gangs is the area’s burgeoning Hispanic population.

According to recent U.S. Census estimates, Jackson County’s Hispanic population grew 4.2 percent from 2005 to 2006 while the non-Hispanic population stayed stable.

Community leaders caution that only a tiny proportion of Hispanic youths are involved in gang and drug activity. Luis Cordova, director of community programs for the Mattie Rhodes Center, has moved his office to the Northeast to expand his agency’s work there.

"It’s a small percentage, but that small percentage is creating havoc in our community," Cordova said.

For a few days, Ortiz and Benson lived on "doper time." The CI had promised a succession of deals that never materialized.

But by early Monday morning, Ortiz felt confident he could watch as the CI set up Primo for 2 pounds of methamphetamine and another 30 pounds of marijuana at a house south of Independence Avenue, near Lykins Square Park.

Ortiz prepared to announce this at the weekly 10 a.m. briefing, but Sgt. Jay Pruetting, who leads the gang squad, dropped news that trumped all other investigations.

Early the previous day, firefighters had found two bodies in the trunk of a burning car in the 4900 block of East 22nd Street. The men were Hispanic, with one believed to be Cuban.

And one matched a missing person’s report from Omaha, Neb.

That connection cheered no one. Omaha is a notorious Midwestern stronghold for Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, an El Salvadoran mob that federal agents say is the nation’s largest and most violent street gang.

Though smaller than Kansas City, Omaha reported recently that it tracks almost 3,500 gang members, about 200 more than here. A lieutenant, sergeant and 25 police officers are assigned to its gang squad, making it more than triple the size of Kansas City’s unit.

In late October, authorities in Omaha arrested 40 people linked directly with MS-13, recovering guns, marijuana, methamphetamine and cocaine.

Pruetting said his team keeps tab on a couple of legitimate MS-13 members who appear to be hiding here, trying to keep a low profile. Members of other Latino gangs also occasionally claim to be affiliated with MS-13, but that’s usually just bluster.

But officers always are concerned about gang migration from the north.

Ortiz disappeared from the squad for a couple of days, plying his shadowy sources for information about the murders. But he also needed to serve a search warrant from a gang investigation unrelated to Primo or the murders. If Ortiz didn’t jump back into the squad’s day-to-day work, the warrant would expire and have to be returned unused to the judge who signed it.

So about 5 p.m. that Wednesday, Ortiz organized a raid on a two-story, wood-frame home overlooking North Terrace Park. Soon a dozen weary suspects sat in the backyard wearing plastic handcuffs.

Pruetting, who missed the kick-in, arrived just as the jail wagon pulled away. He called over his officers for a quick meeting.

Homicide detectives needed help from Ortiz’s confidential informants.

Pruetting’s briefing the next morning was concise: Police believed that a notorious Northeast meth dealer had played a key role in the two Latino men’s murders.

The CI, who had sapped so much of Ortiz’s time the previous week, now had snuggled up close to Primo and the meth dealer, hoping to put together a 4-pound meth deal. If officers could catch the meth dealer with serious dope, they might also come across evidence of the murders, Pruetting explained.

Primo remained a target, but now the squad focused on the meth dealer and the homicides.

Two hours later, as Pruetting watched a home near Ashland Square Park, word came from an officer up front that the meth dealer had pulled away in a bright red pickup, easy to follow.

For the next three hours, Pruetting and others trailed the meth dealer as he rented a car, sampled meth at a restaurant and bought groceries for a woman staying at an eastern Jackson County motel.

Ortiz called regularly with fresh intelligence. The meth dealer apparently needed to raise about $54,000 from people who owed him money.

Pruetting was skeptical.

"His problem is that he owes everybody money," Pruetting observed.

By 3:30 p.m., the meth dealer was back home. Ortiz awaited information from the CI.

"This has been too stressful today, doing this thing," Ortiz said.

Word came about 5 p.m. that Primo and the dope guys were ready to meet the meth dealer. The squad sprinted back to Independence Avenue. With a police helicopter overhead, the team followed the "dope guys" for a meandering trip through Northeast residential neighborhoods.

Finally, about 6:20 p.m., Pruetting called it. The deal didn’t happen because the meth dealer wouldn’t answer his phone.

Back in the squad room, Ortiz shook his head and described the meth dealer’s case as "my biggest headache ever."

Days later, Ortiz finally caught a break, but not the one he had expected.

Three confidential informants phoned with news that Primo wanted 11 pounds of cocaine that a Northeast gang wanted to sell.

The next afternoon, federal immigration agents watched a house north of Independence Avenue near Budd Park. Soon, a gold Chrysler minivan arrived. A man emerged and entered the house. He came out a few minutes later, carrying a large yellow envelope.

The van pulled away, took a couple of turns and drove onto Independence Avenue. When the van changed lanes without signaling near Independence and Norton Avenue, a marked Kansas City police cruiser pulled it over.

Ortiz called in a drug-sniffing dog and quickly recovered more than 4 pounds of cocaine from under the seats. A search of the house near Budd Park soon revealed an additional 2.2 pounds of cocaine.

But as the two men from the van sat handcuffed on the sidewalk, a familiar red pickup drove by.

The meth dealer waved to the two men as he passed.

The meth dealer still was on the loose, and Primo still was selling dope. But recovering almost 7 pounds of drugs counted as a successful day.

Later at police headquarters, Ortiz asked one cocaine suspect, Oscar Ruiz-Ayala, about his gang tattoos. According to federal court records, Ruiz-Ayala responded that he’d been involved with MS-13 nine years before in El Salvador.

Later in court, Ruiz-Ayala nodded and smiled at Ortiz as the detective sat in the front row with Mark King, a federal immigration agent.

Ruiz-Ayala then said something to Ortiz in Spanish.

"What did he say?" King asked.

"He said, ‘I’ll wait for you in El Salvador,’ " Ortiz replied in a whisper.

Luis Ortiz, whose name and face are known to every big doper in the Northeast, then nodded back at Ruiz-Ayala and gamely acknowledged the threat with a smile.

Epilogue: The murders of the two men found in the car trunk remain under investigation. Police interviewed the meth dealer, who denied any role in their deaths. Ortiz eventually arrested Primo, and that investigation continues. Ruiz-Ayala remains in federal custody.