Gang news travels through the Stanislaus County Jail in writing so small it's barely readable to the naked eye.
But that code can be read by Norteño gang members behind bars, who take the tiny notes so seriously that they're known to lead daily classes on how write them.
Wila, pronounced "WHEE-lah" in jailhouse slang, is a miniature scroll passed around like a gang newsletter. The notes detail the comings and goings of inmates, their standing on a gang roster and instructions to be passed to gang bangers on the street.
"There is no debating the fact that Norteños on the streets have a direct communication line to the county jail and to (prison)," said gang prosecutor Tom Brennan. "This communication line allows the gang to maintain unity and ... foster allegiance to their cause."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Wilas were at the center of a court battle last week after prosecutors said they found a stash of notes justifying the 2007 killing of an alleged gang traitor — Roger Villanueva, 26, an aspiring rap artist from Turlock.
Better yet, prosecutors say, the wilas were written in the first person and included the names, personal information and details of past prison stays of two men accused of Villanueva's murder: Alvaro "Tito" Saldana, 25, and Raymond "Raymo" Gutierrez Jr., 30.
Deputy Paul Teso said those wilas were questionnaires gang leaders require from new Norteño inmates who are investigated, then cleared for active duty in the gang while behind bars.
One of the questions asks if the inmate has ever perpetrated "red on red," or Norteño against Norteño crime. Teso believes Saldana and Gutierrez wrote about Villanueva's murder to prove the victim was a gang dropout worthy of being targeted.
If found to have killed a fellow gang member without an official order or justification, Saldana and Gutierrez could have been assaulted or killed by other Norteños in jail, Teso said.
Defense attorneys argued that the wilas could not be definitively linked to Saldana and Gutierrez. A judge is to decide next month if the wilas will be allowed in as evidence.
Wilas are smuggled in an inmate's body cavity or in the lining of jail- issued jumpsuits and other clothing to gang members on the street or the so-called shot callers held in the Public Safety Center.
Many of the roughly 140 Norteño gang members in the downtown jail have perfected the art of microwriting, as evidenced by a binder holding hundreds of wilas intercepted by deputies. Some inmates can fit up to nine lines of text in a space no more than a quarter-inch deep.
In court Thursday, Teso testified that the skill of miniature writing is important enough to merit secret classes held by Norteños for one hour each afternoon. A gang leader serves as a teacher and edits essays written in wila form by Norteños to practice their craft.
Defense attorney Frank Carson was incredulous.
"Do they get a star like first grade for a 7-year-old?" Carson said, mocking Teso. "This is just silly."
But the notes make their way to state prisons, where Norteño leaders get updates on their manpower in the local jails.
"It's a big problem everywhere," Teso said. "It's all connected."
Authorities say they believe Saldana and Gutierrez lured Villa-nueva away from an event held in memory of fellow rapper Moses Rodriguez Jr., who was shot and killed in an October 2006 double homicide in Turlock.
Villanueva, who performed under the name Smoke da Villain, was shot multiple times in the back yard of a Turlock home on May 25, 2008. Investigators found 13 bullet casings at the scene.
Testimony in the Saldana and Gutierrez case is to continue April 6.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2337.