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Bosses of an American racist prison gang have been convicted of murders and racketeering offences after investigators broke the encoded messages they used to order attacks.

Barry "The Baron" Mills and Tyler "The Hulk" Bingham, leaders of the Aryan Brotherhood. were found guilty last week of orchestrating the murder of black inmates from behind the confines of a maximum security prison. The verdicts came at the end of a five-month trial and two weeks of jury deliberations. The two aging king-pins face possible execution for their crimes, the LA Times reports.

The trial, the first of several targeting the leadership of the Aryan Brotherhood, covered 17 murders or attempted murders between 1979 and 1997. Mills and Bingham were convicted on all but one of the counts against them. Two others defendants, Edgar "The Snail" Hevle and Christopher Gibson, lieutenants in the Aryan Brotherhood, were convicted of lesser roles in some of the deadly assaults orchestrated by Mills and Bingham.

Prosecutors hope the trial will limit the power of the Aryan Brotherhood, a gang of around 100 men who use fear and violence to control drug pushing and gambling in jails across the US.

Mills and Bingham were accused of authorising attacks against black inmates or against members of the gang suspected of collaborating with the authorities or breaking its strict internal code of conduct, which prohibits members from abusing the drugs they sell or forming homosexual relationships.

Al Benton, a former senior member of the Brotherhood, who appeared as a witness for the prosecution for the state in exchange of a more lenient sentence, testified how he stabbed a victim through the throat after receiving orders from Bingham, an inmate in the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

These instructions, encoded using steganographic techniques developed by Francis Bacon 400 years ago, were written in invisible ink, whose contents only became visible when held over a flame. The gang smuggled messages by placing them within mop handles or under recreation yard rocks.

Defence lawyers argued that the deadly assaults in the case were the result of racial tensions in prisons and not as a result of an overarching racketeering enterprise. They argued that the testimony of government inmate witnesses was procured by inducements, such as promises of reduced sentences, and was therefore unreliable. But the prosecution produced a raft of documents, including decoded letters and membership lists, to back-up its case. The government even produced a "mission statement" for the gang setting out an agenda for the Aryan Brotherhood to become "the very best possible criminal organisation".

Members of the gang were encouraged to read works including Nietzsche, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu's The Art of War as well as how to make shivs from the shaved-off silver of light fittings. ®

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