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Editorial: The case against La Familia

‘I want to seize the territory down there and hold onto it.” That was Holyoke Police Chief James M. Neiswanger speaking about a city neighborhood that is the home turf of La Familia, a 40-year-old gang that sells heroin. There is a reason the chief sounds like a general looking for a tactical advantage.

A raid March 29 that brought 11 arrests appears to have cost La Familia much of its leadership. Though a task force called its three-year operation against the gang “60 Minutes,” its members surely hope gains against street violence and drug distribution last longer than that.

This is indeed a war and other gangs that build wealth and power through the distribution of heroin in western Massachusetts will be looking to capitalize on a weakened La Familia.

Though few people in Hampshire and Franklin counties know anything about 556 South Bridge St., the supposed headquarters of La Familia, they may be familiar with consequences of the drug trade authorities say operated from that address. In Holyoke, ongoing conflict between the La Familia and Latin Kings gangs is responsible for street violence and homicides that drag down the city’s image and its citizens’ hopes. The gangs war openly with each other, in shootings that put the entire city at risk. Police struggle to make cases against gang members because witnesses are intimidated and understandably fearful.

Farther afield, heroin distributed through Holyoke, by this or any gang, reaches users across the region, damaging lives and families. It is common for arrests involving heroin in Hampshire County to link back to purchases in Holyoke.

Successful prosecution of the 11 men indicted March 29 in connection with the 60 Minutes operation would impair La Familia’s ability to rule through violence and addiction. The Holyoke chief put it this way in a press conference describing the operation: “These drug dealers, or thugs, make the streets of our city unsafe. They really are a cancer to our society that should be cut out and sent to prison for a very, very long time.”

It took a lot of people and law-enforcement agencies to get even this far in their battle with La Familia. The investigation by the Western Massachusetts Gang Task Force included members of the FBI, the Holyoke, Springfield, Chicopee and Lee police departments, the state police, the Hampden County sheriff’s office, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshal Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In addition to halting the flow of drugs, the probe sought to identify how La Familia is run, and by whom, and to understand how and where it operates. The gang is said to recruit juveniles, known as Mafilia, using them to get its illegal work done as a condition of membership.

The task force made its case by the harrowing methods of this public business: recruiting confidential informants, conducting surveillance and making controlled drug purchases from targets of its probe.

Going to jail is nothing new for members of La Familia. According to an affidavit filed March 29 by Mark S. Karangekis, an FBI agent involved in the operation, the man believed to be the gang’s current chief, Francisco Diaz, 34, won that role when earlier leaders were incarcerated. The gang has chapters inside prisons.

Even before the raid at 556 South Bridge St. a little over a week ago, Diaz had pleaded guilty to firearms offenses and been sentenced to three years in state prison. As he reported to prison last week, Diaz now faces additional charges. As a whole, the 11 men indicted March 29 face charges of that include distributing heroin and cocaine and possessing with intent to distribute heroin or cocaine.

We hope the new charges against Diaz and his confederates reduce the ability of La Familia to work its terror in south Holyoke and beyond for a long time to come.

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