Arthur Nevarez, a 40-year-old former Eastside gang leader, testified as a witness on behalf of the City of Santa Barbara’s proposed gang injunction Tuesday, describing his life as a gang member, his many years behind bars, and the Mexican Mafia’s growing role in Santa Barbara affairs. Until he took the stand, Nevarez — facing a sentence of 87 years to life on charges of felonious domestic abuse — had been described throughout the trial by prosecuting attorney Hilary Dozer only as “Mister X.”
Nevarez testified that at some point the cocoon of isolation surrounding Santa Barbara’s gang culture was breached and that the area came within the influence of both the Surenos — a regional gang — and the Mexican Mafia. He testified that the Mexican Mafia “claimed” Santa Barbara. “Santa Barbara is now spoken for,” He said. As a result, Nevarez also testified, gang-affiliated drug dealers have been paying taxes to the Mexican Mafia, and some purposefully get arrested for minor offenses so they can distribute drugs in jail.
He claimed such transactions generate $5,000-$6,000 a month in sales, of which one-third goes to the Mexican Mafia. Dozer cited the emergence of the Mexican Mafia in Santa Barbara as an important reason the city needs a gang injunction. It’s added a new element of entrepreneurial volatility and violence to a gang culture that’s otherwise been exclusively turf-based, he said.
“Word went around jail that things should lay low,” he said.
Nevarez has spent the past four-and-a-half years in County Jail, and after “resigning” from gang life two-and-a-half years ago, he’s been kept in protective custody. Since then, he’s testified as a witness in several trials against other gang members and has helped jail officials decode letters and other encrypted written communications inside and outside the jail. Since the injunction was proposed, Nevarez testified that the number of gang members booked on violent charges had conspicuously dropped. “Word went around jail that things should lay low,” he said.
One of the challenges confronting advocates of the injunction — which now targets 11 adult gang members — is the sharp decline in violent gang crime since 2010. To approve the injunction, Judge Colleen Sterne must find that gangs constitute an abiding and intolerable nuisance in Santa Barbara and that traditional law enforcement efforts aren’t sufficient. If gang violence is dropping, Dozer needs something else to bolster his sense of the heightened threat posed by gangs and simultaneously to explain away the decline in related activity.
Nevarez’s testimony appears to serve both functions. On the stand, he was composed, articulate, and compelling. His account reinforced last Friday’s testimony by Santa Barbara Police Detective Michael Epstein, who described confronting four active gang members in the past several weeks — on separate occasions — and asking why the streets had grown so quiet. One, Epstein stated, intimated that the gang injunction was responsible. While saying, “‘Tinct, tinct, tinct,’” Epstein recounted, the gang member pantomimed a stabbing motion. “I would infer there’s going to be some stabbings,” Epstein said of the encounter.
Nevarez, who recently appeared in an anti-gang documentary produced by the Santa Maria Police Department, said he’s been out of custody for only five of the past 22 years. He opted to resign while awaiting reclassification in the County Jail after participating in an assault there. He said he “manipulated” the system to get transferred to the County Jail from the High Desert State Prison in hopes of impressing gang leaders with the Surenos — a Southern California gang with major influence in correctional facilities and on the streets — as well as the Mexican Mafia. Nevarez acknowledged that in exchange for his cooperation, pending torture charges against him were dropped.
With those charges dropped, he now enjoys an admittedly outside chance of winning an appeal on other charges and getting out at some point in his lifetime. Likewise, defense attorneys argued that because Nevarez has been locked up in protective custody the past two-and-a-half years, he lacks firsthand knowledge of contemporary gang life. Nevarez argued that as an interpreter of letters and “kites” written by gang members, he keeps current.
After the hearing, defense attorney Tara Haaland-Ford commented, “The gang injunction doesn’t target the Mexican Mafia. To the extent the Mexican Mafia is involved in Santa Barbara, it’s not going to address the Mexican Mafia.” When the gang injunction was first proposed more than three years ago, 30 alleged gang members — “the worst of the worst,” according to Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez — were named. Just weeks before the injunction trial started, 19 of those 30 were dropped from the lawsuit. The trial is expected to continue through the rest of the week.