FLAGSTAFF, Arizona. – Along the road from Hank Blair’s trading post in the small community of Lukachukai on the Navajo Nation, a sign would sometimes pop-up in a corn field where the crop was ready for.
But the announcement was not for corn. It was a sign that a local gang had to deal with a fresh supply of cocaine and methamphetamine.
For 15 years, the Red Skin Kingz terrorized this isolated part of the big reservation near the Arizona-New Mexico border. The trade in drugs, murder, kidnapping, arson, and aggravated and sexual violence, the gang intimidated the community where the enforcement of the law is more than 45 minutes on a good day.
“They were the most organised, worst people we’ve had around here forever,” said Blair, who owned the Totsoh Trading Post for 34 years. “It was scary.”
Now, after the recent sentencing of three high-profile gang members, including a mother and son, authorities believe that they shut down the gang that distributed a level of violence not seen by one of the gangs on the reservation since the 1990s.
The authorities conducted more than 300 interviews in the investigation of the Red Skin Kingz, with the help of a task force of tribal, state and federal officials, said Michael Caputo, an FBI assistant special agent responsible for the Arizona district. It was founded in the middle of the 1990s when the Navajo Nation saw an explosion of gang activity in and around the capital city of Window Rock, with turf wars, drive-by shootings and retaliatory homicides. The model has since been extended to other parts of the Indian Country.
Navajo Nation residents, stunned to silence by a gang that raised her profile on social media and threatened people love to talk with the police, is encouraged, but still wary.
“This investigation has cut off the head of the snake, if you will, and we have the main players who were involved in this gang,” Caputo said.
“We have for everyone? Hard to say,” he said.
Lukachukai is at the foot of the mountains, about 10 km from Dine College, the first college established by an Indian tribe in the United States. The community of about 1,700 has a boarding school, petrol station, post office, trading post, and usually scattered housing.
Members of the community witnessed the gang crimes for years, Blair said. But with the nearest police district so far away, no one was sure that the authorities or can make a difference, ” he said.
The death of a man in the autumn of 2014 was a turning point. Tim Saucedo family in Gallup, New Mexico, reported him missing, and authorities discovered he was shot in the chest by two gang members on a picnic in the Fields where they met for a drug deal. Saucedo’s body was dismembered and burned in the fire, according to the court documents.
Federal prosecutors charged a gang leader Devan Leonard and Kyle Gray in Saucedo’s death the following year, a move that Navajo Nation police Capt. Michael Henderson said helped show that enforcement of the law was attention.
“It started to fall together, looking at all this and doing research on the way back to 2012 the time,” he said.
The Red Skin Kingz does not match the level of gang violence in the 1990s, but the drug trafficking operation was one of the most organised police have seen on the reservation, Henderson said. The planning of criminal activities, mostly centered around a steamed corn business, according to court documents. The members are given the status by the sale of drugs, the collection of the debts, and the attacks of members of the community, court documents state.
The charges against the five Red Skin Kingz under a federal extortion statute intended to combat organized crime are rare in Indian Country, prosecutors said. The two other suspects — Uriah, Shay and Randall Begay will be sentenced later this year.
Getting the community to talk was difficult, because people were afraid of retaliation. Some lived near the suspects and others are family or related by the clan. Many who worked the courage to talk would only do so anonymously, Henderson said.
Philip Sandoval Jr, the vice-president of the Lukachukai Chapter, was hesitant to say anything, even after Gray, Leonard and Leonard’s mother, Lucille, were sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment.
“You start to open your mouth and say this and that,” Sandoval said. “You don’t know who is still there.”
The fear was not unfounded.
After Saucedo was killed, by a gang kidnapped a witness and threatened to harm her child if she told anyone what happened. Gang-members also of stolen vehicles, and burned the house of one of their victims because they believed that the family, together with the ministry of justice, court documents state.
Samuel Yazzie, the Lukachukai Chapter president, said that even after the arrests, some residents remain afraid, not willing to shoot or report suspicious activity, or in the public call suspects, he said.
“I understand that, but I think that is the way it goes,” he said this week.
Henderson can not say with certainty whether the arrest of the gang members have made the community safer. But he points to a decline in the number of serious crime sexual violence, murders, robberies and aggravated assaults since the arrests in the police district includes Lukachukai.
“It is interesting to see the numbers,” he said.