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Latin Kings face conspiracy charges

Thirty-nine gang members who were arrested Sunday in an undercover operation are accused of racketeering.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published August 22, 2006


TAMPA - Most of the state leadership for the Latin Kings gang was behind bars Monday, following a weekend raid in South Tampa, according to law enforcement officials.

"This is tremendous; it's tremendous for the state of Florida," said Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee.

The investigation, known as "Down Crown," targeted statewide leadership of the Latin Kings, a gang symbolized by a crown.

After serving a search warrant Sunday at the Caribbean American Club off Interbay Boulevard, investigators arrested 39 people from several cities, including Tampa, Miami, St. Petersburg, Clearwater and New Port Richey.

Those arrested face charges of conspiracy to engage in racketeering, said Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober.

The 15-month investigation into the Latin Kings statewide leadership reached a tipping point in May, when the Sheriff's Office learned about the beating of a local gang leader, Alexander Valdez, 23, of Town 'N Country.

On May 20, Valdez was beaten by several other Latin Kings as punishment, after they held a "trial," deputies said.

On May 25, Orange County investigators arrested Michael Victor Lugo on a warrant, accusing him of the beating.

Lugo has held several leadership positions within the Latin Kings, including the Inca of Florida, the top job, according to the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. After Lugo's arrest, other Latin Kings leaders planned a statewide meeting, investigators say.

That information came through undercover deputies, who were able to work their way into the organization. They spoke with reporters at a news conference Monday, each wearing a black mask over his head, shielding all but his eyes.

Investigators described the Latin Kings as a close-knit, well-organized group that will be disrupted by the raid.

The group is controlled at the state level by five main leaders, each representing a point on a crown, deputies explained.

There are an estimated 70 members of the Latin Kings in Tampa.

Assistant State Attorney Tom Palermo said to prove the conspiracy to commit racketeering charge, prosecutors must prove two or more people conspired and committed at least two criminal acts.

The charge is a first-degree felony, punishable by a maximum of 30 years in prison.

Ober urged reporters to "stay tuned" for more criminal charges.

Several law enforcement agencies participated in the investigation, including the Sheriff's Office; Tampa police; the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office. Officials said the owner of the Caribbean American Club did not realize the facility was being used by the Kings.

The Latin Kings started decades ago in Chicago, sheriff's officials said. Now, the gang is nationally known.

So how big of a problem are the Latin Kings locally?

Alayne Unterberger, executive director of the Florida Institute for Community Studies, works in a multicultural family center in Town 'N Country. She said the Latin Kings are well established in the community.

She hasn't seen a lot of violence directly related to the gang. The Latin Kings have put on community social events, such as birthday parties and wedding receptions.

"It's like a family," she said.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or vansickle@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 22, 2006, 00:32:24]


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