HOLLAND, Mich. — It has been about eight months since federal authorities swept through the Holland Latin Kings organization, arresting 31 alleged key members of the group.
Police say it appears that the bust has shut down most of the criminal operations of the Latin Kings for now. In fact, newly released police reports do indicate that the criminal organization may have lost its momentum over the past several months, and gang-related crime has dropped.
Gangs have been active in the Holland community since the ’90s, with shootings, assaults, graffiti and even the fire-bombing of homes.
Pedro Soto said he was being pulled into that lifestyle.
Pedro said they offered him protection, which seemed important to him when he was considering joining the gang.
To move on from that lifestyle, Pedro joined part of the Christian-based Holland Escape Ministries program.
Escape Executive Director Willie Watt is his favorite mentor and friendly competitor for pool games in the recreation room. Watt was in a Chicago gang before becoming a pastor and starting the Escape program in Holland.
His mission now is to assist kids like Pedro looking to escape gang life. His goal is to help them complete their schooling, artistic endeavors and change their personal life when nobody else will try to help them.
“We take pretty much the worst of the worst,” Watt said. “We also get students that don’t fit in anywhere else, kids that have been suspended or expelled.”
Pedro said getting arrested was his wake-up call. Since he joined the program, he said he’s gotten caught up on his school work and has been given the chance to train in the Westside boxing program.
He’s also been encouraged to pursue his passion for art and is creating a wall mural in one of the Escape classrooms.
Since the Holland Latin King bust it has been easier for some of those kids to focus on other opportunities.
Pedro was in juvenile detention when the sweeping federal indictment came down for the 31 alleged members of the Latin Kings in early 2013.
His mom was pleased with the arrests.
“She said I got lucky cause it all happened when I was locked up,” said Pedro.
Since the arrests, Francisco “Javi” Mares and Uvaldo “Pa” Ruiz have each been sentenced to 42 months in prison. They were some of the first to take a plea deal in exchange for their testimony.
According to court documents, ten others are in the process of making plea agreements or are awaiting sentencing: Mario Hererra, Arturo Deleon, Frank Cisneros, Matthew Penaloza, Andrew Penaloza, Caesar Garza, Roberto Reese, James Potts, Miguel Soto and Yancy Martinez.
Meanwhile, 19 other cases are pending, including three men accused of being higher-ranking leaders in the gang: Eric Ruibal, Nicholas Bernal and Francisco Martinez.
The other pending cases include Francinet Cruz, Nicholas Bernal, Raymon Gaytan, Jr., Ramon Morales, Antonio Rios, Jose Hernandez, Julio Hernandez, Juan C. Hernandez, Joseph Martinez, David Casillas, James Gonzales, Joshua Grant, Anthony Guzman, Arnuflo Lopez, Joseph Menchaca, and Joe Cabrera.
A judge stated early in the case that one of the main leaders, Desidario Amaro, had accepted a plea agreement early on in exchange for protections for his testimony.
Holland Police Captain Jack Dykstra said since the bust, crime has plummeted.
“We had an incredibly, remarkably slow summer,” he said.
Police reports and logs show that things are changing. In 2012, there were 203 calls for gang-related activity. Through October, there have been 134 calls for gang related crimes, or a drop of about 21 percent.
The nature of the calls has also been different. In 2012, a larger number were for more serious crimes while in 2013, 83 percent was for graffiti.
By October, police reports for gang-related crime showed that the numbers of gang stabbings, assaults and injuries had dropped 61 percent from 2012.
Dykstra said the changes are even more dramatic when compared to what was happening about six years ago, when houses were targeted with rocks and arson-related activity.
“In 2007 we had a terrible summer, terrible year in terms of gang activity,” Dykstra said.
Through October, there had been a 47 percent drop in overall reports of gang-related crime compared to 2007.
“Thirty-one indictments basically eliminated the entire mid-level and high-level leadership in that gang. When that’s gone, that pretty much takes care of that criminal organization,” Dykstra said.
However, the investigation still continues, and more arrests are pending. Irvin Canto wasn’t part of the indictment, but he’s now wanted on a state charge and is believed to have been involved in the Latin Kings, according to Holland police.
Willie said even though crime has dropped, there’s more work to do.
“My biggest fear is, say after 19 years, or how many years these individuals got, what’s going to happen when they get out?” he said.
For example, police say Eric Ruibal, who was convicted and served around five years for firebombings in 1999 was released, only to be indicted again this year for more crimes related to the gang.
Willie said the community needs to step in to provide employment when former members of the group are released from prison. He said for those with criminal records, gang activity may be the only way they feel they can make money.
One of the Latin Kings who was arrested already approached Willie about options after prison.
“His daughter was in our program and he came in to talk to me after seeing my story and was amazed at how I was able to walk away from the gangs and start helping individuals,” Watts said.
As for Pedro, he’s on track to return to school in January. He said he’s proof the community can continue to move forward with the assistance of programs like Escape.
“I think it will help a lot of people because it helped me get my stuff back together and get back on track and stuff,” said Pedro.