Tag Archives: taxation

the Original SoCal Mexican Mafia Godfather Dies

Los Angeles never had a mafia in the way that many East Coast cities did.

Regional organized crime never really took root out here. So we never had the mafia dons, running the large crime syndicates that made the headlines in, say, Cleveland or New York.

About as close as we came was Peter “Sana” Ojeda.

Ojeda, the oldest active member of the Mexican Mafia, died June 7, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons website, which lists him as 76 years old.

Sources tell me he apparently suffered a heart attack during an operation in a federal prison medical facility. YouTube memorials are already up.

To understand Ojeda’s importance, it’s important also to understand that the Mexican Mafia is neither Mexican nor was it, for many years, a mafia, strictly speaking. It is a prison gang, controlling Latino gang members in the state prison system. It took its name as a way of inspiring fear in others. Ojeda was part of that formation early on, as well as the spread of the Mafia’s influence across the state prison system.

The Mexican Mafia had no connection (until recent years) to the underworld in Mexico. Its members were, to begin with and for many years, like Ojeda’s, Mexican-American, who spoke only halting Spanish, if any at all, and whose families had been in the United States for generations.

For many years, in fact, the Mexican Mafia only ran prison yards and its influence was barely felt outside those walls.

But in the early 1990s, all that changed. The man who ushered in that change was Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a long-time member of the Mexican Mafia who had grown up in Orange County.

Ojeda, who was then on the streets, organized a meeting of O.C. street gangs at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana, filmed by law enforcement, during which he stood on bleachers dressed in a black-and-white long-sleeve shirt and told them all to stop with the gang killings and the drive-by shootings. He urged them to tax drug dealers in their neighborhoods as a way of funding neighborhood defense.

This stunned many in the Mexican Mafia, and they began to follow his lead, often using emissaries to organize meetings from San Bernardino and Pomona out to Elysian Park in Los Angeles, where one of the biggest meetings was held.

The Peace Treaty, as all this came to be known, sounded great. Gang leaders doing what law enforcement could not. But it evolved into something sinister and lasting: A system whereby gang members would indeed tax drug dealers in their area and funnel the proceeds to Mafia members, many of whom were in prison for life.

This taxation system far outlasted the Peace Treaty and is still in place today across Southern California, described in dozens of federal RICO indictments and in interviews I’ve done with dozens of gang members.

It amounts to the only regional organized crime syndicate that Southern California has ever known.

Taxation transformed Latino street gangs from scruffy neighborhood territorial entities into money-making ventures, though these were often fairly rag-tag. It gave career criminals, doing life terms in prison, access to a labor force — youths on the street who would do their bidding and admired them the way little leaguers look up to major league ball players. The Big Homies, as they were known on the street, could change life in a barrio with only a few words smuggled from prison in microprint on small pieces of paper.

It’s worth noting that their organizations on the streets, too, were often inept, bumbling, hampered by limited communications, by greed, envy, betrayal, rumor and gossip and drug use, as well as the constant return to prison of anointed emissaries of incarcerated Mafia members. One trial I sat in on involved a mafia member trying to organize three gang members to kill a rival, a man who rarely drove but was often walking in his Pomona neighborhood. Dozens and dozens of cellphone calls on how to do this and it still didn’t happen.

But Mafia taxation changed a lot about Southern California street life.

For a decade, Latino street gangs became the leading race-hate criminals in Southern California, a culture that grew from orders by many members of the Mexican Mafia that gangs should now rid their areas of black street gang/drug sales competition. As they were interpreted on the street, far from direct Mafia control, those orders often became directed at any black person, and thus in some neighborhoods campaigns were waged to get all black families to leave, which included murder, firebombings, assaults, racist graffiti and more.

Taxation made Mexican Mafia members equal in many communities to the town mayor or city council, at least with when it came to their ability to affect life in those areas. Now with the obedience of thousands of gang members on the street, many of whom were too young to have ever laid eyes on the incarcerated men they were obeying, Mafia members could, and did, ignite crime waves from maximum-security cells merely through letters smuggled from prison or via liaisons who transmitted their orders to the street. They drained city budgets, mangled lives, and forced young gang members to commit crimes that landed them in prison for life. I’ve interviewed several young men in such situations.

Ojeda was a contemporary of the pioneers of the Mexican Mafia (he’s far lower left in this photo). Among them was Joe Morgan (standing above him in the photo), whose story is also fascinating. Morgan was a Serbian-American who grew up in Boyle Heights/East LA and became culturally Mexican-American, and helped found the Mexican Mafia. Morgan died many years ago.

Ojeda was the last surviving member of that generation of the Mexican Mafia, made a member in 1972 in Tehachapi. Here’s a photo of him from those years (top right).

Throughout his life, but especially following the Salvador Park meeting, he would remain a household name in the Southern California Latino street-gang world. Meanwhile, he was in and out of prison.

In 2016, he was convicted a final time of conspiracy, largely on the basis of testimony from a former protégé, and sent to prison for 15 years, which most people figured was a life sentence.

But his control over Santa Ana and much of Orange County Latino street gang life seemed to me mostly unquestioned. So, too, his reputation as the Godfather of Orange County.

16 Comments

Filed under California, Drugs, Gangs, Los Angeles, Prison

Dirty Thirds: Cops, the Mexican Mafia & LA’s disappearing gangs

Los Angeles has seen gang violence plummet in the last decade.

Some of the reasons why were on display in two federal criminal conspiracy cases announced this afternoon at a press conference at the L.A. office of the U.S. Attorney.

The cases involved the Mexican Mafia prison gang controlling drug taxation and trafficking in two places: The LA County Jail, largest jail in America, and in the city of Pomona.

The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang that runs the Latino gang members in the state’s prison system. About 25 years ago, it extended that power to the streets, ordering those gang members to tax neighborhood drug dealers and funnel the proceeds to MM members. Drug taxation thrives and amounts to the first regional organized crime system in the history of Southern California.

One case involved a Mafia member who controlled drug trafficking in the entire jail, according to the indictment: Jose Landa-Rodriguez, who grew up in East LA,  a member of the South Los gang. He’s apparently been in county jail for many years, during the reign of the now deceased Lalo Martinez, a controversial MM member. Through those years, and after Martinez died, Landa-Rodriguez allegedly grew to control the drugs entering and for sale across the jail system.

Inmates not with the Mexican Mafia had to get his permission to sell. Only way to do that was by funneling a third of their product to the gang — hence the name of the case, Operation Dirty Thirds — then waiting while Mexican Mafia associates sold the stuff. That’s one way of controlling your competition. Violators were often beaten. That’s another.

They were helped, prosecutors allege, by Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, a local attorney whom investigators say helped facilitate the trade, passed notes back and forth between Mexican Mafia associates, and that kind of thing. They were also helped by a slew of go-betweens who would get arrested with drugs in their bodies.

The other indictment involved a Mexican Mafia member named Mike Lerma, who has controlled Pomona for many years from his cell in solitary confinement at Pelican BayState Prison maximum lockdown. Crews of members from 12thStreet, Cherryville and Pomona Sur street gangs were working together under Lerma’s command, the indictment alleges. The indictment alleges Lerma’s crews did kidnappings, robberies, identity theft. These are Pomona gangs that have harbored animosity against each other for years, but have repressed the urge to go after one another due to orders from Lerma, according to officers I spoke with.

(Btw, I briefly met Mike Lerma one time, in his cell in Pelican Bay State Prison. We were separated by Plexiglass and he was cooking a cup of cocoa on his hotplate in his pale-yellow concrete cell where he spent 23 hours of every day. He was small, a wan and bent fellow, wearied by years on solitary confinement. From behind the glass, he waved, said how you doing? I said fine.)

The mafia’s system has forced gangs to abandon what made them local neighborhood scourges because it leads to unwanted police attention.

“Years ago, they were about turf,” said one. “Now they’re about protecting their business.”

For decades, they waged wars over turf. They defended street corners, parks, markets, apartment buildings like they actually belonged to them.  They were very much street gangs, and their activity — graffiti, shootings, car jackings, simple hanging out through which they did their recruiting — blighted working-class neighborhoods across Southern California.

These days, though, they are absent. They have retreated into the shadows. Doesn’t mean they’re gone for good. Just that they’ve disappeared from the streets, no longer are out in public, damaging neighborhoods that can least afford it, spraying up mom-and-pop markets. Homicides are way down because gangs don’t have easy rival targets to shoot at. That’s one reason anyway. In Pomona, the once-notorious Sharkey Park – from which Pomona 12thStreet earned its name the Sharks (members often had shark tattoos) — hasn’t had a shooting in who knows how many years. Some Pomona cops at the press conference couldn’t remember the last one. As if to exorcise the past, the park has been renamed Tony Cerda Park, in honor of a Native-American activist and tribal leader; pow-wows are held at the park.

Gangs are just not evidence in Southern California. It’s a remarkable, profound change in culture and crime, and one that benefits cities, neighborhoods, and working-class residents most of all. Parks are once again places for kids to play. This is part due to dictates in the underworld, from organizations like the Mexican Mafia, who want their business protected.

But it’s also due to an unprecedented amount of collaboration among law enforcement. In the 1980s and 1990s, this didn’t exist. Agencies fought each other for credit, turf, budget, as the gangs grew fierce and brazen. But the last decade or more has seen a remarkable change and that too you could see at the press conference.

At the press conference, cops of all stripes assembled to thank each other for working together. The feds thanked the locals. The locals thanked each other and the feds.

“I want to give special thanks to our law enforcement partners,” said Pomona Police Chief Mike Olivieri.

(For the record, apart from Pomona PD, that includes the FBI’s San Gabriel Safe Streets Task Force, the LA County Sheriff’s Department, ATF, the DEA, Ontario Police Department, the IRS Criminal Division, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Division.)

“Today’s action is not an isolated event. Southern California law enforcement is united in its fight against violent criminals and street gangs,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, continuing the theme.

I’ve been to a dozen of these gang-conspiracy press conferences and I always like it when they thank each other. Because it wasn’t always that way.

Speaking with a prosecutor outside the press conference, we marveled at the change and wondered how the trauma of the 1980s and 1990s might have been avoided had this kind of collaboration been more common

6 Comments

Filed under California, Drugs, Gangs, Southern California

Adios Underworld Pioneer Sana Ojeda – I think

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.Peter Ojeda

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Gangs, Los Angeles, Uncategorized

GANGS: Cisco and the Streets

Mexican Mafia member Rafael “Cisco” Munoz-Gonzalez was sentenced to life in prison today.Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 1.59.46 PM

Munoz-Gonzalez was tried on charges that he’d controlled the Puente 13 street gang, ordering gang members to tax local drug dealers in the La Puente area, sell methamphetamine, and attack rivals and even one cooperating witness, who was stabbed 22 times in a jail lockup — all this according to a US Attorney’s report.

His brother, Cesar, was also sentenced to life in prison for running Puente 13 and giving orders on behalf of Cisco, who was locked up until 2008.

The Mexican Mafia prison gang has run its drug-dealer taxation/extortion scheme since the early 1990s. The scheme is as close as Southern California has come to a regional organized crime system.

Truth is, though, it’s not that organized. It’s remarkable that these guys can control Southern Califonria Latino street gangs from prison. The system has broken up the SoCal gang world into little fiefdoms. But it is far from perfect, communication between maximum-security prison cells and the streets being shaky at best.

That and the greed and conniving of Eme members often leads to feuding, plotting, death decrees and betrayal of the kind that would give Shakespeare fodder for a dozen more tragedies.

Cisco Munoz-Gonzalez was part of an earlier Mexican Mafia soap opera. He and Ralph “Perico” Rocha, also an Eme member, were allegedly feuding with the associates of then-influential Eme member, Jacques “Jacko” Padilla, who ran Azusa 13 from his maximum-security cell at Corcoran State Prison.

Rocha and Munoz were supposedly collecting taxes from dealers in Azusa.

Padilla’s wife and liaison to the streets, Delores “Lola” Llantada, went to war with the two carnales. Women liaisons with991-ringleader jailed Eme members have enormous shot-calling power across Southern California. On a couple occasions, I’ve thought they were as powerful as the local mayor.

But this was the first example I’m aware of in which a woman actually ordered hits.

Anyway, a big RICO case came down, brought against Llantada and others in her crew.

Llantada and her cohorts are now doing lengthy prison terms. Padilla has since dropped out of the Eme, and is a genial chap, as I found when I interviewed him a couple years ago.

Now the brothers Munoz-Gonzalez are going away forever.

As the world turns, Mexican Mafia style.

Now, as an antidote to this grim stuff, here’s one about stuff to do in LA — Oaxacan basketball and photgraphy.

Keep scrollin’ down…..:)

Photos: Rafael “Cisco” Munoz-Gonzalez and Delores “Lola” Llantada

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

GANGS: Two illuminating Mexican Mafia tales

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.

The second was the sentencing of Santiago Rios and his son, Louie, from the Azusa 13 gang. Rios senior was accused of being the gang’s “llavero” — keyholder, or shotcaller, anointed by the Eme to run its affairs in Azusa.

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.”

A federal RICO indictment in 2011 sent the Rioses and 49 other Azusa members to jail, and now to federal prison.

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.)

3 Comments

Filed under Drugs, Gangs, Prison, Southern California

DRUGS: SB County Supe accused opponent of Mexican Mafia ties

A story today in the Daily Bulletin in the Inland Empire is interesting for what it dredges up about an episode in the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

Members of the tribe, each of which earns a ton of money from their casino, feel in with San Bernardino gang members and through them with the Mexican Mafia members in that area. Now it’s become a campaign issue, according to the story.

The Mexican Mafia prison gang remains the most fascinating criminal enterprise in California. It’s able to force street gang members to exact taxes from local drug dealers. When MM members began this system in the early 1990s, it amounted, and still does, to the first region-wide organized crime in the history of Southern California, which had been spared the Italian mafia and others.

Local gang members were ordered to do the bidding of the MM — also known as “Eme”, which is Spanish for the letter M — whose influence in the prison system is vast. Gang members hopped to it, for the most part. The revenue is shared among taxers, shotcallers and the mafioso from each areas of SoCal.

Today, years after its formation, the Eme taxation system is often as ingenius as the member in that area, which is to say sometimes enormously so, sometimes not at all.

In Huntington Park, the Eme member, doing life in Pelican Bay State Prison, ordered gang members to tax popsicle vendors and street drag-queen prostitutes, as well as drug dealers. One transgender told me recently they had to pay taxes to even live in the area, as the considered their presence a besmirching of the barrio’s rep.

Out in SB County, according to fed documents, the local Eme figured out that some members of the San Manuel Band were juicy sources of cash. In 2008, Sal “Toro” Hernandez, the Eme member from San Bernardino, was implicated in the whole thing. A DEA document, according to newspaper reports, said the Eme was extorting money from tribe members, who each reportedly earn $100,000 a month in revenue from their casino.

“Toro” Hernandez pleaded guilty as did his brother, Alfred. (Here’s a reprint of a Press Enterprise article on the case.)

Will be interesting to see how the campaign, and this issue within it, plays out.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Drugs, Gangs, Southern California