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<b>STRADDLING WORLDS:</b>  Raymond Macias stands against the wall of City Council chambers as authorities discuss the potential benefits and repercussions of a proposed gang injunction. In front of him sits J.P. Herrada (in glasses), surrounded by members of Palabra and Santa Barbara law enforcement officials. (May 15, 2013)

Paul Wellman

STRADDLING WORLDS: Raymond Macias stands against the wall of City Council chambers as authorities discuss the potential benefits and repercussions of a proposed gang injunction. In front of him sits J.P. Herrada (in glasses), surrounded by members of Palabra and Santa Barbara law enforcement officials. (May 15, 2013)


Gangbuster or Gangbanger?

Arrest Casts Shadow on La Palabra


Raymond Macias, a defendant on the city’s proposed gang-injunction list and the Eastside program coordinator for La Palabra ​— ​a nonprofit working with at-risk youth ​— ​is sitting in Santa Barbara County Jail on $3.8 million bail. He faces allegations that he was the head of a criminal organization that collected drug taxes from street gangs throughout the county, and if convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

The charges against Macias, one of 15 people indicted by a Grand Jury and arrested last Thursday, put a sharper focus on an organization that has been in the crosshairs for years. Many prosecutors and members of the SBPD don’t like Palabra and don’t trust the people working with the organization, including Executive Director J.P. Herrada, himself a former gang member and two-striker. Authorities question the motives of group leaders and wonder if their interests really lie in helping the city’s at-risk youth. But supporters see it as one of few organizations taking an innovative and grassroots approach to dealing with gang-related issues in Santa Barbara.

Down Low for the LowDown

Palabra sprung up a few years ago out of the Collaborative Communities Foundation. Herrada originally worked with the Foundation but eventually molded it into Palabra. It came at a time when teenage gang violence was a citywide focus, and several groups working with troubled youth were fighting for grant money. Palabra was eventually able to secure significant funding from the McCune Foundation, the Fund for Santa Barbara, and the Bower Foundation.

Group leaders say their goal is to minimize violence on the streets of Santa Barbara and decrease the number of youths entering the justice system. Recognizing the difficulty in doing so, Palabra doesn’t make kids denounce or quit gangs but tries instead to develop alternative paths for them. The group regularly conducts street mediation, and it recently stood against the proposed gang injunction with an organized showing at City Hall when councilors addressed the issue.

Palabra doesn’t have a lot of infrastructure in place, but Herrada is smart and articulate about what he knows ​— ​the streets. “J.P. has opened my eyes that life doesn’t always look like it does over here,” said the Bower Foundation’s Jon Clark. “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes … J.P. has shown me that more than anybody. We must have that different voice in our community.” Herrada is working with the foundations to improve the way hard data is collected so there can be a better understanding of how Palabra works.

While it may be hard to quantify what exactly Herrada does on the streets, foundations trust him, as evidenced by the checks they write. The Bower Foundation, for example, gave Palabra $75,000 last year. And there are stories about the work Herrada and company have accomplished, like helping kids avoid gangs or get out of them. Herrada also says Palabra is able to stop violence before it happens, another metric difficult to calculate.

Herrada’s methods, however, often come into question as authorities observe how he and fellow leaders seem to keep one foot in the gang game. Part of the reason for the rocky relationship is Herrada’s lack of a rapport with police, which likely stems from a culture that distrusts law enforcement as well as a desire to protect the kids with whom he is interacting. Though he has his ear to the ground, Herrada, in order to keep the trust of the kids he works with (and to avoid getting labeled a snitch), won’t share information with police. “We knew we were coming in, rocking the boat,” Herrada said of Palabra’s style.

Since Palabra has been around, authorities say they have experienced more defiance from youth and find it suspicious that Herrada, Macias, and Joe Sanchez ​— ​another Palabra worker ​— ​tend to show up at some crime scenes shortly after an incident has taken place. An assault outside the Franklin Center last year, which Macias and Sanchez witnessed, led to Palabra being banned from holding meetings at city facilities.

Some law enforcement officials don’t mind that Palabra doesn’t work with them, but they say the group is helping to actively thwart police efforts. Police and prosecutors allege Herrada and company expose informants, use their meetings to teach kids how to avoid law enforcement, and actually encourage gang culture. “It’s long been our belief that they’ve been involved in gang organizing,” one official said. And, quietly, authorities are using Macias’s arrest to prove their point.

By Paul Wellman

FULL-COURT PRESS: (from left) ATF agent John D’Angelo, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce Dudley, and Lompoc Police Chief Larry Ralston held a press conference to announce the arrest of 15 alleged gang members. (June 7, 2014)

Troublesome Connection

While his association with Palabra wasn’t mentioned at a press conference last Thursday, Macias, according to Lompoc Police Chief Larry Ralston, was the head of a criminal enterprise, coordinating and collecting a drug tax from numerous street gangs around Santa Barbara County. His reputation on the street was apparently well-known, and his arrest didn’t come as a surprise to many.

The money collected, Ralston said, was routed to leaders and influential members of a gang, identified in court documents as the Sureño gang. The Sureños ​— ​a prison-based outfit of Southern California gang members ​— ​work as foot soldiers for the Mexican Mafia, a highly organized Hispanic prison gang. Last week’s arrests took out “the most influential, top-rung drug dealers of our communities,” Ralston said.

If Macias was profiting from the alleged transactions, he didn’t show it in the modest way he lived, attempting to support his family in a small home on the Eastside. Still, police believe they have their man. “He was the leader of this gang,” Ralston said. “The person that kind of calls the shots for the gang.”

Fifteen people were arrested June 6 after a Grand Jury indicted them on a number of charges. “Sixteen [sic] of the most ruthless individuals in our community are now behind bars,” said Sheriff Bill Brown, calling the group “scourges of criminal gang and illicit activities in Santa Barbara County.” During the arrest, authorities also confiscated seven firearms, 10 ounces of cocaine, and 1.5 pounds of methamphetamine. Macias, along with eight others, is facing charges of kidnapping for extortion and torture with the special allegations of use of a gun and a gang enhancement. Officials wouldn’t comment on the circumstances of the alleged kidnapping and torture, other than to say the incident occurred January 3. Ralston said his department began its investigation into Macias and the others about eight months ago.

Macias, 33, and Juan Zavala ​— ​the only other Santa Barbara–based suspect arrested last week ​— were also indicted for solicitation for extortion with a gang enhancement. Macias was also indicted for drug sales with a gang enhancement. According to Sergeant Lorenzo Duarte of the SBPD, four of the guns, the cocaine and meth, and a large sum of money were all taken from Zavala’s residence.

Macias has a criminal history dating back to 1998, when he was convicted of unlawful sexual intercourse. He was 19 when he had sex with a 15-year-old, records show. Since then, he has been in trouble for various drug-related crimes ​— ​possession of a syringe at the County Jail in 2001, possession of a pipe in 2008, possession of cocaine and opium in 2008, and possession of heroin and a syringe in 2009. He has spent time in prison but been off probation since July 2012. There was no mention of gang status in any of his previous records.

In a legal filing related to the gang injunction, a declaration from Detective Gary Siegel outlined 16 contacts police had with Macias when he was a minor. He was arrested four of those times and cited three others, according to the court documents.

His attorney, Santa Maria–based Michael Scott, said he hadn’t yet received documents related to the newest case. “The chief made some strong comments,” Scott said, “but without seeing the Grand Jury transcript or police reports, I can’t comment on the accuracy of those statements.” He called the charges “very serious.” Indeed, if the charges against Macias and the 14 other defendants are true, the Mexican Mafia and the Sureño gang are perhaps more pervasive in the community than previously thought. And if true, Macias’s connection to La Palabra could cause more trouble for the nonprofit.

Support Runs Deep

Herrada wouldn’t comment on the charges against Macias, saying he would “let the system do what it has to do.” But until he is proved guilty, Herrada said, “We have his back.”

Herrada said Palabra had been working in Santa Maria around the same time investigators started looking into Macias. Palabra was attempting to get a crisis-response program up and running after a rash of killings ​— ​several police-related ​— ​upended the city. Many people in Santa Maria wanted to retaliate against officers, Herrada said, but Palabra’s workers stopped it. “This isn’t the best way to do it,” Herrada said he told them. Palabra organized a march in the city and sought to introduce training through the Santa Barbara Response Network.

Herrada said he and others were working to unite groups in Santa Maria, not for nefarious purposes, but to “see if we can come together to really change the community we live in.” He doesn’t hide the fact that many of the people they interact with are active gang members. “We know some of them are involved still,” Herrada said. “But to make a change, I have to get to those people.” Macias was heading up that effort, Herrada said, so he was up in North County almost every other weekend.

Herrada said he takes full responsibility for anything his organization does, but he hopes people also look at the good work Macias was carrying out, explaining he’s spoken to kids and parents whom Macias has helped. And he said he’s not worried about rocking the boat. “For once in my life, I’m doing something positive and real and trying to make a difference,” Herrada said. “I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing.”

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