Tag Archives: Southern California

Mexican Mafia Chronicles: Champ Reynoso Dies

Word was recently passed to me that another of the pioneers of the country’s most damaging prison gangs, the Mexican Mafia, has died.

Adolph “Champ” Reynoso passed at a Colorado hospital near the federal maximum-security lockup where he’d spent his last many years. He was 75.

Reynoso was part of L.A. crime lore. He was a member of Big Hazard, an East LA street gang.

Later, he was made a member of the Mexican Mafia while in prison. He was one of the 22 Eme members indicted in the first federal RICO case against the gang — coming in 1995, and hingeing on the testimony of Ernie “Chuco” Castro, up to that point one of the most influential members of the organization.

The trial pulled back the veil on the mafia in several ways – one of which was to reveal its scheme for using street gang members to tax drug dealers in the barrios of Southern California, the revenue for which was funneled to mafia members and their associates.

The scheme remains in place today and has turned the Mexican Mafia into more than a prison gang –rather, an organization with enormous influence beyond prison walls.

Years later, now 61, Reynoso was identified as a leader of the Eme in the Supermax prison at Florence, Colorado, in testimony about a hit that took place within the gang at the prison.

At his passing, he was deemed the highest-ranking active Mexican Mafia member.

The last few years have seen the passing of several Eme figures from those years — those who formed or spread the Eme: Peter “Sana” Ojeda, Frank “Frankie B” Buelna, Ruben Rodriguez, “Black Dan” Barela. Joe Morgan and Benjamin “Topo” Peters died years ago. Many others have dropped out of the gang while in prison – an exodus that began with Castro, who went into federal witness protection, and, before him, Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza.

Most of the older Eme members, like Reynoso, were heroin addicts on the street — reflecting the fact that their criminal careers began in the late 1960s, early 1970s — a time when heroin crept into the Mexican-American neighborhoods of Southern California with a vengeance.

 

 

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Filed under Drugs, Gangs, Southern California

DREAMLAND … in two weeks

Two weeks from today, my third book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury Press), is officially Dreamland-HCBigreleased.

The story of this epidemic involves shoelaces, rebar, Levi’s 501s, cellphones, football, Walmart, American prosperity, with marketing, with Mexican poverty and social competition, and with the biggest swimming pool in the US and what happened when that was destroyed.

It’s about the marketing of prescription pills as a solution to pain of all kinds, and about a small town in Mexico where young men have devised a system for retailing heroin across America like it was pizza.

The tale took me from Appalachia to suburbs in Southern California, into one of the biggest drug-abuse stories of our time – and one of the quietest, and whitest as well.

Until April 21, you can buy the book presale, at a discount, at Amazon here … or at Barnes & Noble here.

It’s been a long haul, and I thank the many people I met and spoke to along the way as I put together this American saga.

Hope you like it.

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Filed under Border, Business, Drugs, Global Economy, Mexico, The Heroin Heartland

LAT Op-Ed: Parks, Gang Free, Returned to Owners

An opinion piece of mine is out in the LA Times — this one about the radical changes at Southern California parks.

Parks, by and large, are now free of gang presence. They are, generally speaking, places where families can play and relax without the fear that not so many years ago kept them away.

As I say in the piece, this mostly benefits working-class families who couldn’t use gang-infested parks near where they lived years ago.

This marks a real revolution, I think. Dominating parks was part of how gangs emerged and grew strong in Southern California.

Hope you like the piece.

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Filed under California, Gangs, Los Angeles, Prison

As a legend passes, a Walmart in Compton?

A legendary Compton indoor swap meet is closing this week, and vendors say they believe it will be replaced by a Walmart.

Snapseed Compton Fashion Center Dresses BWThe Compton Fashion Center, 2100 N. Long Beach Blvd., closes Thursday after 32 years, during which time it revolutionized immigrant business formation in Southern California.

In a tersely worded December 1 letter to vendors, some of whom had been in the CFC since it opened, the owner, Soo Lee, told them they had 30 days to get out.  That deadline was later extended another two weeks – leaving this Thursday as the day when the lights go out.

Shortly before Christmas, the center put up large signs announcing a “Close Out Sale” – and thanking customers for years of patronage – that vendors had not agreed to. Vendors say this left them with little time or opportunity reduce inventory and find a new location.

Of several CFC merchants I spoke with, all said they believe the space will be occupied by a Walmart, though the owner, Soo Lee, has said nothing about his plans for the enormous space. So this may be rumor as much as anything.

Walmart did not confirm a new store at the Compton swap meet. But the company didn’t quite deny one in the future, either. Here’s the statement a spokeswoman emailed me:

“While we are always looking for ways to better serve our Compton customers, we don’t have any new projects to announce.”

Okay. Still leaves the question of what will go into the center that was making the owner push the vendors out so abruptly after so many years in business.

Walmart last summer put a store in the new azalea Shopping Center in South Gate, four milIMG_1919es away, and traffic was so heavy the store wasn’t able to keep its shelves stocked for the first few weeks, according to a shopping center spokeswoman.

Of course, Walmart has also had problems locating inner-city stores in Southern California. Inglewood famously turned away the giant retailer, fearing it would lay waste to numerous mom-and-pop merchants.

“If Walmart comes, all the merchants on Long Beach Boulevard and around here will be wiped out,” said Kirk Kim, owner of Cycadelic Records, which has rented space near a swap meet entrance since CFC opened.

Compton Fashion Center opened in the space of what had been a Sears in 1983. It was the first large Korean-owned indoor swap meet in Southern California.

With that, in a region then becoming a magnet for immigrants from across the world, the indoor swap meet idea took off. Swap meets became a safe place for immigrants, speaking little English and without much capital, to wedge into a cranny of the American Dream.

Compton Fashion Center, in particular, drew people from all over with, in its heyday, 300 vendors selling jewelry, Photo Jan 12, 1 18 21 PMmakeup, music, cellphones, groceries and clothe.

“The holy grail of the hood,” one Yelp customer called it.

At Cycadelic Records in the 1980s, Kirk Kim’s father, the late Wan Joon Kim, and mother, Boo Ja  — Korean immigrants who spoke little English – became the first to sell and promote the gangster rap then emerging from Compton garages. The couple, known as Pops and Mama, sold the first records by NWA frontman Eazy E, and dozens of other rappers that grew to chronicle the city’s crack-and-gang nightmare, as West Coast gangster rap became an international phenomenon. His shop and the center have been in numerous rap music videos.

But a lot has changed since then. National retailers have discovered the hood. Whether the indoor swap meet is slowly fading away is an open question.

Kirk Kirk believe the CFC owners have been keeping vendors out with an eye to attracting to a big-box retailer. Whatever the case, he said, foot traffic has dropped along with the number of vendors.

Last week, the center was slowly emptying. Stalls sat abandoned. Owners were boxing product and sweeping the floors.

“It’s sad. These folks are like my family,” he said. “I see these people more than I see my sister.”

Photos: Kirk Kim; t-shirts and dresses in booths at Compton Fashion Center.

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Filed under Business, California, Los Angeles, Migrants, Southern California

Is This How Gangs End?

I’m very proud of my cover story in the January’s edition of Pacific Standard Magazine about the decline of gang violence and gang presence in Southern California.gangs-illo

I’ve been watching this phenomenon quietly unfold for several years. It amounts to a revolution in criminal behavior in the region that essentially invented the modern street gang, then exported it to much of America.

It’s not necessarily to say that, literally, all gangs have stopped existing, though some have. Rather, it’s to say that their behavior is so much more underground, low-profile, so quiet, that it amounts to about the same thing for many working-class neighborhoods that were besieged by these guys for so long. Some are still active but none is as active as gangs were a decade or two ago.

These were truly street gangs, meaning they took their power, identity and reputation from their streets and how well they “defended” them.

Areas like Drew Street, mentioned in the piece, are now seeing a resurgence that was denied them for many years due to the stifling presence of their local gangs.

Anyway, I hope you like the piece. Daily Beast selected it as one of the Best Longreads of the Week – so that was nice….Let me know what you think, please.

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Filed under California, Gangs, Los Angeles, Southern California

The Flowers of El Monte….dope taxes and attacks on blacks

Today’s RICO indictment of the El Monte Flores gang offers another glimpse of the Southern California gang underworld and how it’s changed.

EMF ran taxation of not just drug dealers but also of fake-document vendors on behalf of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, according to the indictment.emf

The gang also allegedly participated in the wave of race-hate crimes by Latino street gangs against blacks, ordered up by Mexican Mafia prison gang members.

For several years during the late 1990s and well into the 2000s, Latino street gangs were the county’s leading, and by far the most violent, perpetrators of race hate crimes.

This is about the 7th or 8th indictment of a Latino gang alleging this. Others include Hawaiian Gardens 13, Azusa 13, Avenues, Florencia 13, etc.

(You can see more of what I’ve written explaining that entire phenomenon in an chapter in the book, Black and Brown in Los Angeles, published last year by the U.C. Press.)

El Monte Flores – from El Monte and South El Monte – is one of those Latino street gangs that grew up in the numerous barrios that emerged in post-WWII Southern California, places where Mexican-American workers lived.

Now, 50+ years later, the gang, like virtually all Latino gangs in the region, pays homage and obedience to the Mexican Mafia. In this case, the orders allegedly come from an Eme member named James “Chemo” Gutierrez, who just finished a 20-year federal sentence for murder in time to catch this indictment.

Reading between the lines of the indictment, Gutierrez took over in 2007 for Frankie “Frankie B” Buelna, the long-time Mexican Mafia member who was killed in a bar fight in Pomona and before his demise controlled many of the gangs in the San Gabriel Valley.

What’s interesting about these RICO indictment is how they have become almost as routine as morning coffee.This is the 25th or 26th in the last six or so years. So many that the US Attorney apparently no longer holds press conferences to announce them.

Still, the indictments are powerful things and have gone a long way toward changing gang activity in the region.

Federal prison sentences are longer than state time. There’s no parole. Plus, guys are sent to prisons in South Carolina, or Arkansas, or Minnesota – far from friends and family. No girlfriend’s going to be visiting any gang member in Arkansas. Plus, so many gang members are wrapped up in each indictment. the EMF was tiny, with 41. The Florencia and HG13 indictments each involved over 100 defendants.

The effect has been to either neutralize many gangs, or force them underground, giving the neighborhoods a welcome breather from the constant blight, graffiti, shootings etc that for so many years accompanied the presence of any LA street gang.

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Filed under California, Drugs, Gangs, Los Angeles