Sureno gang is most powerful in Oklahoma prisons, intelligence officer says

Even though they aren't the most numerous, the California-based Sureno gang is the most powerful group operating in Oklahoma prisons today, a state Corrections Department intelligence officer told The Oklahoman.
by Andrew Knittle Published: September 19, 2012
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Even though they are relatively few in number, the California-based Sureno gang is the most powerful group operating in Oklahoma prisons today, a state Corrections Department intelligence officer told The Oklahoman.

Melissa Townsend, an intelligence officer with the Corrections Department, said the Hispanic gang has a firm grip on the flow of contraband into the state's prisons.

“It doesn't have anything to do with numbers,” Townsend said. “Power comes from control of contraband and whoever's in control at that moment. And right now, it's the Hispanics.”

Typical contraband items are drugs and cellphones, but can include anything not allowed on the inside by prison officials.

Townsend said another reason the Surenos have become as powerful as they have — at least in Oklahoma — is continuity and organization.

“They have a very strong connection to their members on the street,” she said, “which is another thing that makes them as powerful as they are.

“Some prison gangs are just prison gangs ... they don't have any connection, really, to the streets.”

And the Sureno prison gang has become powerful in Oklahoma, despite the fact that Hispanics make up only 7.5 percent of the prison system population, according to the department's latest annual report.

Whites (53.6 percent) make up the largest segment of the population, followed by blacks (29.3 percent) and American Indians (9 percent).

Townsend said the Surenos are associated with the Mexican Mafia — which is an extremely exclusive criminal enterprise with very few actual members — and that the gang is essentially an umbrella organization with smaller factions operating underneath it.

“Surenos are basically foot soldiers,” she said. “And they belong to all kinds of different sets ... and some Sureno sets don't get along.”

Rise to power

The Surenos' rise to power in Oklahoma has been evident in recent years as Hispanic gang members have been involved in some highly publicized jailhouse brawls over the past three years.

In November 2009, fights between the Surenos and American Indians broke out at three prisons after prosecutors announced that murder charges would be filed against David Allen Tyner, an American Indian who pleaded guilty in May to killing a Hispanic man and five others in southwest Oklahoma City.

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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