Mexican Mafia prison-gang member Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a pioneer in the Southern California underworld, was found guilty by a jury today of a slew of racketeering charges in a federal court in Orange County.
In 1992, Ojeda held meetings at Salvador Park in Santa Ana, bringing together warring Latino gangs from across Orange County.
It was a stunning moment that showed the power of the Mexican Mafia in the barrios, sworn mortal enemies stood docilely together as Ojeda, from atop baseball bleachers, told them to stop the feuding and drive-by shootings.
The so-called Peace Treaty spread from there to Latino gangs across Southern California, during which Mexican Mafia (Eme) members banned drive-by shootings.
In the end, though, the peace treaty proved a Trojan Horse. Eme members used the newly discovered obedience of Latino street gangs to set up a vast business model of using thousands of gang members to tax drug dealers in barrios across the Southland, then funnel the proceeds to Eme members and their relatives in prison and on the streets.
The new system, which remains in place today, transformed the region’s Latino street gangs from neighborhood entities into money-making enterprises. Neighborhood gang loyalty disintegrated, as feuding over money, taxation, the favor of Eme members, turned gang members against each other. It also led to mass defections of gang members from the Mafia structure inside California prisons.
Spotty and haphazard though it often is, the Eme’s drug-taxation system amounts to the only region-wide organized crime syndicate Southern California has ever known.
Ojeda was convicted of running the Orange County operation – ordering murders, extortion and more – from his federal jail cell, where he’d been since his arrest on a prior racketeering charge in 2005. He was helped by his girlfriend, Suzie Rodriguez, who was also convicted. Both will be sentenced in May.
Still, it’s hard to imagine this will be the real end of Sana Ojeda. Mafia members, most of whom are doing life in maximum security prisons, routinely run these operations with the help of go-betweens on the street.
Last year, Californians were asked to approve Prop. 47, which made misdemeanors of several felonies.
The idea was to send fewer people to prison and a majority of Californians voters approved it. I wasn’t one of them.
I voted against Prop. 47 for exactly the reason mentioned in a recent op-ed piece in the LA Times: that addicts frequently need the threat of jail or prison to get their minds around the idea of entering rehab.
The threat of prison was, in other words, a rock bottom from which some could achieve recovery.
This comes from interviews with many recovering addicts whose lives were saved by being arrested, by going to jail and facing prison time.
The idea that government or society should play no role in pushing addicts into recovery is foolish, dangerous, too. It does no one any good to remove that threat.
But that’s what Prop. 47 does, to the detriment of folks addicted to drugs, I believe.
The op-ed makes the point that it’s leading to an increase in crime. That may be true. But from my standpoint, having written Dreamland, and seeing widespread addiction to pain pills and now heroin across America, it is the former reasoning that makes most sense, particularly given how horrifying difficult it is for so many to kick their habits.
Prop. 47 couldn’t have come at a worse time. Addicts need any kind of impetus they can get. Unfortunately, for many in California, it no longer exists.
The news today that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from Mexico’s maximum security prison either makes you laugh or cry – both.
His capture in 2014 was greeted as a sign that the country had turned away from its history of shoddy, corrupt criminal justice, and toward something more modern. President Enrique Pena Nieto got his picture on the cover of Time Magazine.
So Guzman’s escape is all the more dismal. This was his second – the first coming in 2001 in a prison laundry basket.
This time, he used a tunnel that ran from an out building under construction a mile from the prison to exactly under his cell. Talk about precision! (Watch this video for more amazing detail of the tunnel. Begins about 1:30 into the presentation.)
All you can do is make jokes about it. With my long interest in the corrido, I offer this, the first (post-escape) Corrido to Chapo Guzman.
The hunger strikes in California prisons lately are motivated as much by prison gang maneuvering as by concern over human-rights violations.
That’s the opinion of one veteran gang member I spoke with recently.
Emanating from Pelican Bay State Prison, the strikes protest the fact that hundreds of inmates are housed in solitary confinement in the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), some for many years. A recent strike had 30,000 inmates refusing food. Thousands stopped eating in sporadic strikes last year as well.
Trying to understand what there was to know, I took time from a busy schedule writing a book to speak with the long-time Sureno (Southern California) gang member, who’s done a lot of time in Pelican Bay SHU, as well as several other of the state’s penal institutions, and just been released.
This gang member dropped out in prison several years ago and has spent his recent prison time on what’s known as Sensitive Needs Yards, the new euphemism for protective custody.
Protective custody used to comprise a few hundred inmates statewide, in a couple cellblocks. Now there are many thousands. So the state prison officials came up with SNYs — entire yards to house them all. Most of the new entrants into SNYs are dropouts from prison gangs. (Btw, I wrote about SNYs several years ago.)
SNYs are the most radical change to the state prison system in a generation, probably since Pelican Bay itself opened in 1989.
So great are the numbers of dropouts that most prisons now have at least one SNY. Mule Creek in Ione is all SNY.
In these yards, inmates must live with those that prison gangs prohibit them from getting along with on mainline, active-gang yards. So blacks and Aryan Brotherhood must live together on SNYs. Surenos must live with Nortenos and with blacks – whom normally they are under orders to attack in the mainline yards. All of them must live with child molesters and others they’d have killed on mainline yards.
(In active-gang prisons yards, Northern Hispanics and Southern Hispanics cannot be housed together due to a feud dating to the late 1960s. Southern Hispanics and blacks cannot be housed together, for the same reason. These are some of the divisions that keep life in state prisons confusing to the point of headache.)
Many SNY inmates are tired of the gang life and just want to serve their sentence in peace.
But a lot of these dropouts can’t get the gang out of their blood. So on SNYs have emerged a half-dozen new gangs of various sizes.
The 2-5s are the oldest. But there’s also the Northern Riders (ex-Nortenos); the Independent Riders (ex-Surenos and skinheads); BBC (Brothers by Choice – northern skinheads) and Los Amigos (former Mexican Mafia members).
This is crucial to understanding the prison hunger strikes of the last year, he said.
Guys in Pelican Bay “are saying, these SNY guys are debriefing to get out of the SHU and they’re forming new gangs. Why do you have us slammed (in solitary confinement) if all these guys who are debriefing are forming gangs and still walking the lines?” he told me.
To stoke their numbers, Pelican Bay gang leaders have ordered inmates across the system to participate in the hunger strike. Most strikers have no choice, he said.
During last year’s hunger strikes, “I was in Tehachapi and [the order] came down from Pelican Bay,” the gang member said. “They didn’t eat for three weeks. No one was supposed to eat, or program until they agreed to let out the Brothers and all the people that’s validated gang members in the SHU.
“There was a few of them who didn’t [stop eating], and they put them in the hat (a death list). They took them off roll call, which is the good list,” he said. “They tried to get us (in SNY gangs) to join the hunger strike. We shot it down. We don’t fall under their rules.”
Same thing just happened, he said. An order came down and 30,000 inmates had to stop eating.
For its part, the CDCR, the gang member said, is requiring that all inmates live with each other — no matter the race, affiliation or background – before they’ll let the Pelican Bay strikers out of solitary confinement.
CDCR’s idea, he said, is that prison-gang leaders would have to order an end to the divisions, system-wide, that have made California prison life into a bewildering and dangerous racial and geographic Balkans for decades now.
“The state’s saying, `You guys are telling us you want to come out but you don’t want to program (live on the same yards) with the SNY gangs,’” he said. “The state’s saying, `You guys all got to program together.’”
The gang member expected inmates in Pelican Bay SHU will start insisting on single cells, where many of them double up now. That would force chaos on the SHU system. “There’s not enough room in SHUs to do that. That’s the brothers’ next move.”
Meanwhile, in SNYs, all the new gangs are “fighting for numbers.”
The new gangs illustrate the changes at work in the CDCR since the advent of SNYs.
“There’s Nortenos who are 2-5s, ex-Surenos who are Northern Riders,” he said. “There’s blacks who are ex-Crips who are 2-5s. It’s crazy.”
In the last week, there’ve been two stories that illuminate the world of the Mexican Mafia prison gang and its influence on the streets of Southern California.
The first was the story of attorney Isaac Guillen, a guy who was in a gang, then left, went to UC Berkeley, got a law degree, only to eventually become a mob lawyer, in a sense.
Guillen’s story is classic. Several gang members have told me of how certain lawyers have gone beyond their duties as legal representatives to become liaisons between incarcerated Eme leaders and the rank and file gang members on the street — passing notes, orders for criminal activity, drugs. All behind the shield of the attorney-client privilege.
These attorneys are part of what allows Eme members to exert their influence and control on SoCal gang streets, even while they’re locked up in maximum security prison.
He presided over the drug business, over taxing drug dealers and of implementing gang policy, established at a meeting (prosecutors say) in 1992, of “cleansing” the city of black people. Azusa went through several years of seeing hate crimes such as murder, firebombing of black residences, beatings, graffiti, etc.
The judge, in sentencing him to almost 20 years in prison, called him a “proponent of the racial cleansing of the city of Azusa.”
But the indictment highlights just how much havoc — crime waves, really — can be created in a normally quiet town when its gang begins acting on orders from Eme members who are locked up far away. Often, they don’t know the gang members they are ordering around on the street, who are nevertheless only too willing to do their bidding.
As I mention in the story, numerous other neighborhoods and towns have been gripped by this kind of racial violence committed against blacks by Latino street gang members.
Because of this control, the Mexican Mafia — whose founders are pictured above — qualifies as the only region-wide organized crime that Southern California has known.
(The photo is one I found online without any attribution. If someone can attribute it, I’d be happy to list it, or, if they object, remove it.)
The other day, on my way out of town on vacation, I stopped by a San Bernardino County Courthouse to hear a bit of the trial of Richard Gatica.
Richard Gatica is accused of strangling his cellmate at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga in 2006. He then propped up the cellmate for more than a day, pretending to talk and play chess with the cellmate, and moving the corpse occasionally, so that jailers wouldn’t realize what had happened.
Gatica, who grew up in Rosemead, was already doing two life terms in prison when this happened. So prosecutors are asking for the death penalty.
I happened to catch the testimony of the psychiatrist, employed by the prison system, who examined Gatica for several hours and reviewed thousands of pages of documents about him, and concluded Gatica suffered from several kinds of mental illness.
The doctor described a childhood of apparently nonstop abuse by a sadistic mother who “was severely mentally ill, both because of addictions and because of an innate mental disease which appears to be major depression. … Mr. Gatica was, along with his younger brother, the focus of his mother’s illness and anger in that Mr. Gatica was physically and emotionally abused through much of his childhood.”
Among the mental illnesses Gatica developed was post-traumatic stress disorder.
The doctor went on to say that later, in the prison system, Gatica was incarcerated in a special housing unit, SHU, which amounts to solitary confinement, where inmates are denied human contact, often sunlight and are let out of a cell an hour a day. The SHU is reserved usually for inmates who’ve committed some crime in prison, or been part of a prison gang. Gatica lived in a SHU for a dozen years, the doctor said.
“He grew up without a father in the home and with a crazy abusive mother who was also a drug addict. There wasn’t much opportunity for Mr Gatica to learn coping skills, how to be a loving, caring person. What he learned was how to be a drug addict and a criminal. Being in the segregated housing unit only reinforced Mr Gatica’s dwelling in his internal world of disassociation and very pathological defense mechanisms.”
One of which, the doctor said, was to develop an extreme phobia to germs to the point where he would scrub his cell with a toothbrush “20 to 30 times a day or [wash] his hands 20 to 30 times a day.”
Gatica sat in his seat, dressed in a lavender shirt, a tie, black slacks, glasses, short, gelled hair — looking like a business executive and watching the very middle-class jury absorb all this.
I had a meeting with a parolee yesterday. I’ll omit his name, but he’s been locked up for 10 years, and was convicted in a fairly high profile gang killing.
We talked about a lot of stuff. But one thing I find very interesting is the major change in the prison system that’s been underway for a decade now: gang-associated inmates have been dropping out of gangs in droves and entering protective custody.
Used to be, protective custody was only for child molesters, ex-cops, witnesses and old men. The entire population amounted to a few hundred guys statewide. But in the last decade, gang members, from all the races, including Latinos both northern and southern, have been dropping out in the thousands. (I wrote about this a few years ago. Since then, the SNY phenomenon has continued to expand.)
Prison administrators have had to open up entire yards –800-1000 guys each — not just small wings of prisons, to house all the new PC inmates.
These are called Sensitive Needs Yards — SNYs. Most prisons in the state now have them; one prison, Mule Creek, is entirely PC. The growth population is gang members, as you can see if you ever visit them. (The heads of these guys all have well-known gangs tattooed on them: Avenues, White Fence, Florencia, etc etc. The heads make good reading. If you ever get a visit, check them out.)
Many of these guys are just older — late 30s and early 40s — and tired of the gang rat race. Many, too, are fleeing what problems they got into in “active” prison yards (for active gang members), where they may owe someone money for dope or gambling, or they’ve been greenlighted for some infraction that is real or (often) imagined by prison gang shotcallers.
This is a huge cultural change for CA’s prisons. I’ve heard stories of guys, years ago, who would rather die that “lock it up” in PC, as it was known. One fellow, greenlighted by the Mexican Mafia, walked an active yard and had the words tattooed on his chest, “I’m Still Here” and lasted a good stretch before they threw him off a tier (that’s the story I heard, anyway). Those days are gone.
Within SNYs now, though, there are new gangs sprouting — the 2-5s, the Independent Riders.
An SNY is of course a step down for a longtime gang member like this parolee, who views it all with a combination of both amusement and disdain, having spent years gang-banging on the street in what he considers to be the gang major leagues. (I can’t really go into why he ended up on an SNY.)
The SNY gangs are “starting because a lot of dudes haven’t never been nowhere,” he said, by which he meant, they haven’t been in any mainline prison population, but go right to an SNY as soon as they enter prison.
Worse, coming from a gang world where race lines were strictly obeyed and apartheid conditions rule at times, the parolee felt the new gangs “initiate anybody – whites, blacks, northerners.” (The parolee is a southerner — a southern California Latino gang member, a Sureno in prison parlance, who’ve had a decades-long war with northern California Latino gang members, Nortenos.) “You got a lot of guys that can’t respect that. I didn’t care for it at all.”
With so many guys on SNYs and active yards always on lockdown, one effect is that prison officials have taken to giving the jobs to SNY inmates, he said, who aren’t locked down so often and thus can leave their cells and do the jobs.
Tattoos, meanwhile, are all the rage on SNYs, by guys, according to the parolee, who want to look the part. “A lot of them never really hit a mainline [prison yard]. [But] now they want to portray that image on the SNY yards. Now they want to feel what they couldn’t on the outside.”
What’s more, he said, the yards now lack the order and control that prison gangs imposed. Snitching is rampant, so is gambling.
“There’s no structure. So many people are doing what they want. Somebody’s going to whack you, and nobody’s going to say anything about it. You don’t have to answer to nobody.”