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Inside the Feds' All-Out War Against the Latin Kings of Florida

The intense law-enforcement focus on the Florida criminal organization has resulted in dozens of its members being locked up—and now it's the largest gang in the state prison system.

Latin King tattoos. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

It was just after 7 AM on May 12 that Oscar Valdivia heard the sound of granite fists pounding on the front door of his two-bedroom apartment in Sunrise, Florida. Wearing only his boxer briefs, the 50-year-old Cuban-American handyman stumbled into the living room.

"Police! We have a warrant!" a man shouted as he opened the door.

"Half my nut sack is hanging out of my underwear while I've got a red dot trained on my chest," Valdivia recalls in an interview. "That's when I see a SWAT team coming up the stairs."


The cops, outfitted in green, military-style tactical uniforms, turned out to be US Marshals and deputies from the Broward County Sheriff's Office. A week earlier, an indictment in Fort Lauderdale federal court had charged Valdivia's 21-year-old son, also named Oscar, with illegally possessing a small cache of firearms.

"They told me the Feds wanted him," Valdivia Sr. recalls. "That's when I knew it was serious."

Oscar Valdavia Jr., a.k.a. "King Oscar." Mugshots courtesy Broward County Sheriff's Office

Junior, who was home and surrendered without resistance, is among 27 alleged members of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation corralled in the latest law enforcement offensive against the Florida chapter of the notorious Chicago-born gang.

Valdavia Jr., along with three other Kings, is only facing gun charges. But a Fort Lauderdale federal grand jury indicted another 21 "known" Kings, including 12 alleged leaders, on racketeering and conspiracy charges, accusing them of belonging to a criminal enterprise engaged in murder, robbery, kidnapping, narcotics trafficking, witness tampering, retaliation, and fraud. Two women identified as female gang members, or Queens, were also arrested on racketeering, armed robbery, and drug charges.

"They are very influential," former statewide prosecutor Anne Wedge-McMillen tells VICE. "One of the Latin Kings' legitimate goals has been the promotion of brown pride among Latino groups. A lot of members join for the purpose of having a family, support and a guiding influence. Along the way, the organization became corrupted."


Wedge-McMillen, now a private criminal defense lawyer, prosecuted the gang's top leader in Florida two years ago in a state racketeering case. "The Latin Kings are an organized crime group," she explains. "Their criminal activity is exactly what the racketeering statutes were created for."

In the last half decade, law enforcement agencies in the Sunshine State have conducted multiple sweeps against the Latin Kings, rounding up dozens of members for allegedly dishing out a menu of violent criminal offenses. By charging them with racketeering and conspiracy, authorities claim they have an easier time building solid cases that produce lengthy prison sentences. But the intense focus on the Latin Kings is only swelling the gang's numbers in Florida's prison system, while also putting some Latin Kings behind bars for crimes they had no role in.

And in at least one major racketeering case, the overzealous pursuit of Latin Kings led to charges being dismissed against two dozen ex-members due to shoddy investigative work.

Only 166 Latin Kings were registered as inmates by the Florida Department of Corrections in 1997. As of 2013, nearly 1,000 of the tens of thousands of Kings nationwide were housed in Florida correctional facilities, making it the largest prison gang in the state, according to the Florida Department of Corrections. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) has suggested another 900 Latin Kings in the state are outside the prison system, making it the largest gang in Florida, period.


The Latin Kings adhere to a biblical-style manifesto and identify themselves by wearing black-and-gold colors and tattooing their bodies with five- and three-point crowns, the gang's national emblems, according to the feds. State and local factions, known as "tribes," are headed by five-person committees that make important decisions, including meting out gang justice against stray members. Each state tribe has an "Inca," or a figurehead, that the local committees ultimately report to, according to Wedge-McMillen.

Local, state, and federal agencies have devoted significant resources to putting as many Latin Kings behind bars as possible. Between 2006 and 2010, the FBI, the DEA, and FDLE joined forces with nine city and county police departments to investigate 12 central Florida Latin Kings accused in a state indictment of racketeering conspiracy, murder, attempted murder, armed robbery, drug trafficking, and firearms violations.

The investigation eventually led to Jose "Goofy" Perez, a 39-year-old Miami Latin King who joined the gang in 1986 and rose to the Inca throne in 2008, according to Wedge-McMillen, who led the state racketeering case against him and the other Kings.

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During a 2013 trial, another high-ranking member told jurors how he held down an excommunicated Latin King while Perez burned off the crown tattoo on the victim's chest with a scalding hot pan. Perez, convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, and directing criminal gang activities, was sentenced to 20 years in state prison.


But not all Florida investigations against the Latin Kings have gone so smoothly. In 2008, Hillsborough Circuit judge Daniel Sleetthrew out racketeering charges against 23 alleged members who were ensnared in a Tampa Bay Club raid two years earlier.

The judge ruled there was no evidence the defendants conspired or committed crimes together, and admonished investigators for using a confidential informant who "was left to his own devices, to scheme of ways to entrap reluctant suspects and to brazenly weave a web of deception in the face of his police handlers."

The ATF did not respond to requests for comment, and the FBI and US Attorney's Office both indicated they do not comment on open cases. But it's clear the Latin Kings remain a top law enforcement priority in Florida.

In March 2014, the Osceola County Sheriff's Office gang unit built a state racketeering case against four alleged Orlando members, including area leader Joey "King Hush" Hernandez. According to local news reports, the quartet participated in armed robberies and burglarized vacation homes in Orlando "to promote and further the interest of their gang affiliation." They were also charged with grand theft, battery, dealing in stolen property, and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.

Eight months later, prosecutors slapped Hernandez with additional charges of attempted murder and obstruction of justice by witness tampering, according to Osceola County court records. He allegedly ordered a failed hit against a gang-member-turned-informant hiding out in Miami.


In the most recent crackdown that ensnared Oscar Valdivia and his son, a multi-agency task force led by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) focused on disrupting Latin Kings tribes operating in Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties.

The task force's breakthrough came in early January, when a confidential informant gained the trust of Christopher Isabel, the second-highest ranking Latin King in Florida, who resided in the Broward city of Plantation, according to an ATF arrest affidavit obtained by VICE. Isabel, 33, allegedly acted as a middleman, setting up four heroin deals worth $19,000 between the snitch and two Latin Kings from the Palm Beach tribe. The informant was outfitted with hidden audio and video recording devices and paid for the drugs using money provided by task force investigators, who monitored all the meetings from a close distance, the affidavit says.

Isabel eventually acquired half a kilo of heroin from the gang's Tampa distributor using $31,000 provided by the informant. Task force agents pulled Isabel over near his Plantation home and arrested him after finding the heroin in his Ford Edge on February 4.

Christopher Isabel, a.k.a. "King Nano"

The affidavit states that Isabel, known as " King Nano," agreed to cooperate against the supplier—a 44-year-old Tampa man named Jorge Hernandez who is not a Latin King—by placing a monitored call to him. "Isabel advised Hernandez that he had the money and was on his way to Tampa," the affidavit reads. "Hernandez advised Isabel to meet him at the location where they had previously met."


Five days later, the ATF task force arrested Bobbie Tejada, a 32-year-old regional officer in the Latin King's state hierarchy from Hollywood, Florida. According to the criminal complaint, Tejada, a.k.a. "King Riko," sold an AR-15 rifle to a confidential informant on January 2, 2014.

Bobbie Tejada, a.k.a. "King Riko"

At Tejada's May 13 arraignment, ATF task force officer John Eric Wendell testified that King Riko and another gang member plotted to rob a tow truck driver they suspected of ripping off drugs from them on June 12 of last year. They were pulled over on West Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale before they could jack the driver. Officers found two semiautomatic handguns in their car. Tejada and the other gangbanger, Andres Lugo, were arrested for possessing firearms as convicted felons and violating their probation, according to a Lauderdale Lakes Police report obtained by VICE.

The latest racketeering indictment also charged the 23 Latin Kings for crimes that are already being tried in the state criminal justice system. For instance, alleged gang members Juan Alvarez and Juan Marcos Vega are scheduled to go to trial in September in Miami-Dade County court for armed robbery. They were included in the RICO complaint for the same robbery. Sean Buendia, a.k.a. "King Chill" from Hollywood, was also included in the indictment because of pending robbery and attempted murder charges in Broward after he allegedly beat and stabbed a man who he stole 14 grams of methylone from last June, according to court records.

"Prosecution of a gang member for an individual crime is tremendously difficult," Wedge-McMillan explains. "But a racketeering indictment allows you to pull together old convictions to start establishing links with other members. It can now be used as evidence. There are usually more witnesses, which lessens the chance people will be scared to testify."

Prosecutors have not said why four alleged Latin Kings, including Valdivia Jr., are not included in the racketeering indictment. According to the indictment, he illegally possessed two .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols, two rifles, a .357 revolver, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and 1,000 ammunition rounds between February 25 and May 8 of last year. Junior, who had a pending state felony case for marijuana possession with intent to sell, according to the Broward County Court online criminal database, also allegedly sold a handgun to a person he believed was a convicted felon.

Valdavia Sr. insists his son, identified as "King Oscar" by federal agents, was nothing more than a wannabe gangster.

"His lawyer told me they used a snitch against him," Vildavia says. "He's just stupid for hanging out with the wrong people at the wrong time."

Francisco Alvarado is a freelance investigative journalist based in south Florida. Follow him on Twitter.