Daniel "Lizard" Hernandez was awakened by an FBI agent at 4 a.m. a few weeks ago.
Time to go, the agent said. We're moving your ass.
"I was all ready to go," Lizard recalled later. "I wanted to get out of there, to come to California and do what I needed to do."
Lizard had been hiding out along the East Coast, a snitch buried deep inside federal protective custody. He was a long way from his former East Bay stomping grounds, and hadn't dared visit his wife and children, who still lived locally. When his handlers shook him from his slumber, Lizard felt relieved, not irritated. Finally, he was going to San Francisco to testify.
In December of 2001, Daniel Hernandez became the highest-ranking member of the Nuestra Familia prison gang to cooperate with federal investigators. From inside Pelican Bay State Prison, Lizard had served as the brutally violent gang's principal secretary, helping inmates in solitary confinement set up bank accounts in Idaho, direct drug sales across Northern California, and even order murders. All of these directives were channeled through him.
Once paroled, Lizard then served as Nuestra Familia's highest-ranking member outside prison. He oversaw battalions across the greater Bay Area, and relayed their progress to his bosses back inside. He was a loyal and merciless soldier until a foolish parole violation threatened to send him back to prison, where his own safety was in question. So Lizard flipped. For seven months, he secretly recorded meetings with his gang's underbosses, allowing federal agents to listen in as his carnals planned drug deals, bought firearms, and talked openly about killing people, including two deputy district attorneys from Santa Clara County.
In the months since federal officials brought indictments based on the evidence he helped them gather, Lizard told his tale from within the confines of protective custody via letters and telephone interviews. It's the life story of a petty hood who reached his full criminal potential only afterentering the California prison system. Like all Latino males incarcerated in California for the past three decades, Lizard was forced to choose a gang allegiance once inside prison. Once he made that choice, his own cunning and aptitude for violence catapulted him up the ranks of one of California's most murderous gangs. But Lizard's exploits show how prison policies adopted to control gangs such as Nuestra Familia may actually have helped them bloom.
Lizard's government handlers ultimately boasted that their prized informant delivered "unprecedented effectiveness as a cooperating witness." According to a memo by prosecutors in the US Attorney's Office, his unshakable undercover effort "will forever leave its mark in the history of law enforcement." Based on Lizard's grand jury testimony alone, the US Attorney's office estimates that twenty Nuestra Familia members pleaded guilty, and five others were convicted in courts across Northern California.
But even after Lizard shed his prison skin and sided with the government, his behavior was hardly that of a reformed citizen. FBI reports show that while on the federal payroll, Lizard performed unauthorized drug deals. And one critic of his tenure as an informant even charges that the FBI's leash on Lizard was so loose that the government turned a blind eye to the killing of a Salinas drug dealer. Lizard and the government deny this accusation.
Still, the gang has been dealt a serious wound with Lizard's help. And in response, FBI documents indicate that street soldiers in Nuestra Familia have ordered a two-year moratorium on murders while they wait for recent publicity to fade.
Of course, once the hit list is reactivated, Lizard knows that his name will sit at the very top.
Gang affiliation in California is often a matter of geography, but for Daniel Hernandez it wasn't that simple. He was born in Pittsburg, which made him a Norteño by birth. But one year later, his family moved to Long Beach, the heart of Sureño country.
Hernandez never belonged to either group until he ended up in prison. His middle-class Long Beach upbringing was spent golfing, surfing, and skateboarding. His father sold vacuum cleaners; his mother was a housewife. Both were steeped in the Jehovah's Witnesses faith. "As a kid I didn't know anything but religion," he said.
Then at fourteen, Hernandez began to glimpse a different world. He smoked pot and tasted alcohol. His teen angst surfaced one day when he threatened to kill his vice principal. After he was expelled, his parents sent him back north to live with an aunt in Pittsburg, where he continued to carouse. He said that was where he picked up the nickname "Lizard," from friends who admired his "clandestine nature."
Lizard first went to prison when he was nineteen. While awaiting sentencing for armed robbery, he said, he knifed a member of the Aryan Brotherhood in self-defense. That's when Lizard began his career as a "rider" -- an inmate prone to acting violently toward fellow inmates. Transferred to Chino State Prison, he celled with two Texas gang members who'd been banished for terrorizing their own prison system. They taught him to grind down plastic shampoo bottles into shanks for knifing an attacker, and to roll up the pages of National Geographic as makeshift spear handles. In November 1986, Lizard tried out these new skills on another inmate and was transferred to San Quentin.
Up to that point, Lizard had identified himself as a Sureño, but only when pressed. But one day on the yard, he was approached by Juan "Nato" Gurule, a long-lost cousin from the East Bay. Nato had worked his way up in the ranks from Norteño street thug to membership in the Nuestra Familia prison gang. Lizard recalls Nato asking him why he claimed Sureño, and if he'd heard the history of the gang conflict. Lizard hadn't, so Nato schooled him on the long-standing war.
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