Escalating violence between black and Latino gangs in Southern California has generated national headlines of late, but for local law enforcement the main attraction in Disney-country has been the “Needle Nazis.”
In recent months, authorities have launched a crackdown against the little-known gang “Public Enemy Number 1,” which also goes by the name PENI. Members of the gang have been dubbed “Needle Nazis” because of their heavy drug use and white supremacist ideology. Until now, the gang has operated mostly in Orange County, but recently it has been growing and spreading to neighboring states.
The gang constitutes a rare “hybrid between a skinhead gang, a street gang and a prison gang,” according to a new report by the Anti-Defamation League. While members of the small group subscribe to the racist ideology of such larger hate organizations as the Aryan Brotherhood and the Nazi Low Riders, their primary activity is criminal — drug dealing, identity theft and murder.
Authorities took action against the gang after chancing upon a “hit list” last November that included several law enforcem ent officials and an Orange County prosecutor. Last month, about 300 police officers from local and federal agencies conducted a massive sweep in Southern California that resulted in the arrest of 67 PENI members on a variety of charges.
“The hit list took the group to a new level,” said Melissa Carr, director of special projects for the ADL’s Orange County/Long Beach regional office, which spent more than a year working on the report with the help of law enforcement authorities. “They are a cause for concern because of their ideology, because of their ability to recruit and because we know they’re on the move toward the Pacific Northwest and Arizona.”
Clay Eperson, a lieutenant with the Costa Mesa police department and a founding member of a state task force on skinhead groups, confirmed that the list provided “motivation” for the crackdown.
The gang was born in the 1980s as part of the punk rock underground California scene, taking its name from the British band Rudimentary Peni. While some members initially wanted to focus on white supremacist ideology, others favored criminal activities and eventually won control of the group. Several of the gang’s key leaders are behind bars.
“They claim they have ideological motivations, but their actions are essentially mercenary and self-serving,” Eperson told the Forward. “They are a threat, but they actually rarely act against minorities.” The ADL noted in its report that the group had worked with Latino gangs.
One area of concern for authorities is the ability of PENI to recruit in California’s sprawling penitentiary system. The Aryan Brotherhood and the Nazi Low Riders are both classified as “prison gangs” by the state’s department of corrections, and, as a result, their members are imprisoned in so-called secure housing units. PENI, however, is considered a “disruptive gang” whose arrested members commingle with the general prison population. As a result, the ADL and law enforcement sources said, PENI members have been tapped by the two larger gangs to join their drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises inside and outside the prison system.
The ADL estimates that PENI’s membership doubled between 2003 and 2005 to about 400. Most of the members are active in Orange County’s main cities, including Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach, as well as the Inland Empire areas of Riverside and San Bernardino. The ADL said that the gang also has a smaller presence in Northern California and has begun recruiting in Arizona, near the state’s Lake Havasu and Bullhead City areas.
“This is a bona fide criminal operation,” said Brian Levin, associate professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University. “What is significant is that they have become more established than the Aryan Brotherhood and become their strategic affiliates.”
While acknowledging PENI’s growth, Eperson, the police officer, said that the gang’s loose hierarchy and heavy drug use made it “easier to control.”
“I would hate to see a more efficient group take the stage,” he said. “We’re pretty good at neutralizing them.”