WINTER GARDEN — The hot dogs were lousy, and the customers were few.
But Hot Dog City still raked in millions of dollars.
The financial success had nothing to do with the food: The business was a front for a cocaine-and-marijuana operation run by a homegrown gang gone big time, drug agents said.
Newly released documents paint a picture of a violent group that hid in plain sight on the main drag of this historic city, down the street from the police station.
Never miss a local story.
At night, they went home to a quiet, working-class neighborhood nearby. Soon, people realized something was wrong.
Cars came and went at all hours at the homes of Daniel Perez, 27, accused of leading the Westside gang, and his brother David Perez, 25. The brothers disappeared for days at a time. Nobody seemed to work.
In May, drug agents raided five homes and businesses, confiscating cars, guns and cash. Sixteen people were arrested. Most remain jailed. Two more are on the run.
Most are charged with conspiracy to traffic cocaine. Daniel Perez could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of directing the activities of a criminal gang.
Like many other gangs, Westside used fronts to wash cash, investigators said.
Members operated the hot-dog shop and a secretarial service elsewhere in Winter Garden, arrest papers show. Although they didn’t do much business, a steady flow of money was deposited into corporate accounts. Investigators said it came from drug profits.
“It gives it the appearance of legitimacy,” said the lead case agent, Brent Harrison of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The arrests stemmed from a painstaking 11-month investigation that involved intercepted cell-phone conversations among gang members, surveillance, bank records and the use of informants.
The scope of the group’s enterprises was large for a neighborhood gang, said Chuck Broadway, the FDLE supervisor on the case. But gangs of all sizes are a growing problem in Florida and throughout the U.S., experts said.
Once confined largely to South Florida, gangs have spread to Central Florida, Tampa and beyond. Orlando has about 2,500 gang members, according to the National Gang Intelligence Center.
In this cyber age, MySpace and Facebook have become strong recruiting tools for young people. In 2007, 15.5 percent of Florida middle- and high-schoolers surveyed said at least one of their closest friends had belonged to a gang in the past year.
Last year, Attorney General Bill McCollum unveiled a gang-reduction strategy, citing an “alarming” problem in the state. The Westside arrests were a result of that strategy, which targets kingpins.
Most of Westside’s members grew up together in the Winter Garden area and were documented as a gang in 1997. They started with small-time shenanigans such as graffiti, fights and hanging out, rising to trafficking in large quantities of cocaine and marijuana, Harrison said.
The gang isn’t nearly as widespread as the notorious Crips or Bloods. But there are about 80 members and associates in Central Florida, Texas and Mexico, including the Perez brothers; their mother, Olga Perez, 47; and a cousin, Adam Medina, 22, who was a drug runner, court papers show.
Daniel Perez’s girlfriend, Diana Quintana, 20, also known as Diana Silguero, and her brother, Richard “Porky” Silguero, 29, also were involved, according to arrest records. Quintana is said to have handled many Westside financial transactions and was president of Hot Dog City and Diana’s Secretarial Service. Both closed after a couple of years.
Focus began in 2005
In early 2005, law enforcement began focusing on Westside, which operated in Winter Garden and Apopka. Members bragged of distributing more than 50 kilograms monthly, records state.
In mid-2005, Matthew Wood, later convicted of cocaine trafficking, was arrested in a bust of the Oviedo Souljas gang and sought a reduced sentence. He told investigators that he and his associates bought up to 10 kilograms weekly from Westside members, court papers show. A retail kilogram costs about $26,000 in Orlando, with wholesale prices at least $10,000 less, Harrison said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Winter Garden police arrested some lower-level members of Westside, but nobody would rat out the higher-ups.
In January 2006, law officers got a break.
A traffic stop in Louisiana yielded 40 kilos of cocaine. The man transporting the drug from Texas told them it was to be delivered to a man named “Fierro” in Clermont. Investigators say Daniel Perez is Fierro, which if spelled with one “r” means “fierce” in Spanish.
Undercover agents delivered the cocaine and arrested a longtime Westside member, Nicolas Heller, 26, a runner for Daniel Perez, documentation shows. He is serving a six-year federal prison term for conspiracy to traffic cocaine and is a witness for the prosecution in the current case.
Heller named the No. 2 man at Westside, Hector Escalante, 26, as a cocaine supplier. The two have known each other since they were 14. Escalante, arrested in July 2006 on cocaine charges, told a DEA agent that he distributed nearly 200 kilos of cocaine supplied by Daniel Perez.
Escalante also told the DEA that Perez obtained his cocaine in a community in Mexico where Perez’s father owns a home. Investigators think Perez’s stepmother brought the cocaine to Texas, where she owns a clothing store and where Perez’s grandmother and father live, arrest papers state. The stepmother has not been charged.
Though the drug trade is risky, gang members earned far more than the average working person, court papers show. Ten vehicles, including Hummers, a BMW, a Chevrolet Tahoe, a Chrysler 300 and a Dodge Magnum, were seized in Clermont and Winter Garden during the May raid.
Five guns, $30,000, cocaine and computers also were confiscated. In the past four years, 125 pounds of cocaine and 100 pounds of marijuana tied to the group were seized, Harrison said.
Escalante admitted delivering $810,000 in drug payments, hidden in a concealed compartment in a Suzuki Forenza, in three trips to Texas in 2006. He earned $5,000 for the first trip and $24,000 each for the others. On each of the last two occasions, he brought 20 kilograms of cocaine back to Central Florida with him, he told authorities.
The suspected Westside bosses may have eluded capture temporarily by buying loyalty. Perez routinely gave money to associates in jail or their families to ensure their silence, drug agents said. When that didn’t work, he used threats, witnesses said. Escalante admitted being warned not to snitch but testified anyway in a 2006 case against Richard Silguero.
Last April, Quintana’s MySpace page displayed a graphic that read, “Snitches Get Stitches,” according to court papers.
“Witness and victim intimidation is a huge problem,” Harrison said. But for now, Westside is out of commission, he said. Though some peripheral members and associates remain on the street, the leaders and core members have been arrested.
Law officers know one bust won’t halt the drug trade. But they hope education, enforcement and rehabilitation make a noticeable dent.
Susan Jacobson can be reached at sjacobsonorlandosentinel.com or 407-540-5981. To see more of The Orlando Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com. Copyright (c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email tmsreprintspermissionsgroup.com, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.