Monday, 15 August 2011

Power struggle hits Mexican prison gang

Founded in the state's prison system, "La Eme" — Spanish for the letter M — has controlled prisons, jails, drug sales and gang violence since the 1950s. The criminal organization took root in the state's most dangerous prisons and used that control to command Latino street gangs. By the 1970s, the Mexican Mafia's control was felt in and out of the state's prisons — and Peter "Sana" Ojeda had been there nearly since the beginning.

Ojeda was serving time in federal custody on a 2005 racketeering charge when, according to law enforcement officials, Moreno became a "made" member. Although Ojeda was hundreds of miles away, investigators said he kept a grip on Orange County gangs and drug sales. If Moreno wanted to control crime in the county, he'd have to take it away from Ojeda.

In July, officials unsealed a federal indictment against Moreno and Ojeda, as well as 97 of their associates in connection with racketeering charges. The Orange County Register reviewed court documents and interviewed law-enforcement officials with the Santa Ana Police Department, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, the FBI and the California Department of Corrections to piece together a look at the inner workings of the secretive criminal web known as the Mexican Mafia. Some of the sources work undercover and, for safety concerns, asked to remain anonymous.

While elder members hold sway over the criminal web, newer members are eager to stake a claim. What was once an organization shrouded in secrecy, authorities said, is now broadcasted by younger recruits with large tattoos that leave no doubt about their affiliation.

In 2007, Armando "Mando" Moreno joined the Mexican Mafia.

Born in 1971, Moreno had an early introduction to crime. He was raised with two younger brothers and had a history of drug use and gang membership by age 18. He was a parolee who had done time for burglary, escape and possession of a handgun, according to a Garden Grove police report.

By 2009, Moreno had been a Mexican Mafia member for two years and was eager to flex his muscles.

Full-scale riot
For decades, Latino inmates associated with the Mexican Mafia have considered black inmates in state prisons the enemy. Racial tensions were high when Moreno walked into Chino State Prison on July 17, 2009, after he was picked up for possession of a hypodermic needle. As a member of La Eme, he held authority over gangs inside the prison. Moreno was released the morning of Aug. 8, 2009.

When darkness fell that night, Chino prison was burning.

Investigators believe Moreno gave a "green light" on black prisoners in retaliation for an attack on Latino inmates.

According to a prison investigation, the then-38-year-old Mexican Mafia member had ordered Latino inmates to attack black prisoners. The first assault started in Mariposa dormitory and — in an ordered chaos — spread into a racially fueled riot that lasted two days. According to reports, about 200 inmates were injured, including 55 hospitalized with stab wounds, cuts and head injuries. Fifty of the injured were black.

"Moreno sanctioned and provided detailed instructions on the strategic assault of the black inmate population," the report reads.

The rioters tore up multiple housing units, causing an estimated $5.2 million in damages. Moreno was charged with a rule violation of conspiracy to commit attempted murder, even though he was out of the prison when the mayhem began.

"That shows his power, by him being able to control that, organize that, and then kick it off," said an official with the Orange County Sheriff's Department who handles high-power inmates. "It was supposed to kick off at other facilities also, but we were able to squash it before it did."

A 'hard candy' list
Investigators close to the investigation said Moreno was not willing to wait his turn.

By the end of August 2009, according to the indictment, Moreno sent out a "hard candy" hit list ordering his supporters to kill anyone who supported Ojeda.

"That's part of your greed and your alpha male," said an investigator with the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "They want the power. They want the money. They want the respect."

Authorities said Moreno made a quick rise through the Mexican Mafia, and the up-and-coming gangster was seen as a top moneymaker with ties to narcotics suppliers, Armenian organized crime figures and identity-theft rings.

Ojeda appears to have attempted to distance himself from Moreno. By Oct. 24, Ojeda sent a letter to an associate saying that Moreno could not be trusted and was not authorized to conduct business on his behalf.

According to the federal indictment, in the summer of 2009, Moreno ordered the assault and killing of Ojeda supporters incarcerated in Theo Lacy Facility in Orange. Investigators seized numerous "kites," or coded messages, detailing who was to be killed or beaten.

Latino street gangs and inmates in Orange County were split as the former allies fought for control of county jails and streets for nearly two years.

"I feel sorry for the guys at the bottom, not knowing what the hell was going on," said one sheriff's deputy. "They were very confused because they don't know what to do."

The young upstart
The unwritten rules of the Mexican Mafia, according to law-enforcement officials, say members cannot interfere with each other's business, or politic against one another. But those rules are often broken.

"It's very political," said Leo Duarte, a gang specialist with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation who has been studying the prison gang for decades. "You are always going to have some youngster that is coming up with his own ideas, and it causes problems."

Throughout summer 2009, law-enforcement officials said, Moreno and Ojeda went after each other's supporters inside Orange County jails. Assaults continued for months, yet authorities say the two men did not target one another.

According to another of the Mexican Mafia's rules, a member cannot raise a hand against another member without approval.

In January 2010, several members of Los Angeles and Orange County's Mexican Mafia met to discuss the feud, and it was understood that Orange County belonged to Ojeda, according to the federal indictment. The following month, a rumor began to spread — there was something in Moreno's past that was unforgivable.

Black associates
Moreno's criminal history included a 1991 conviction for second-degree murder stemming from a fight outside a house party in Garden Grove.

Though many Mexican Mafia members have violent pasts with homicides on their records, it was the root of the argument, and the victims, that would stain his reputation.

According to a police report of the 1990 incident, Moreno and a gang associate argued with a 25-year-old man about their gang involvement and who spent more time behind bars.

The man is said to have criticized Moreno for being a member of a predominantly black street gang. The conversation became more heated when the man, according to the police report, said: "Brown pride stays with brown pride, not a (racial slur) like you."

A fight erupted in the street and Moreno left, only to return with a 6-foot-5-inch, 300-pound enforcer. Two men were stabbed to death in the fight.

One year after being sentenced, the conviction was overturned in part because the court allowed improper testimony by a gang expert.

But the trial proceedings were of little interest to the Mexican Mafia. What suddenly became relevant in 2010 was that Moreno was at one time a member of a traditionally black gang that had killed Latinos.

To complicate matters, those who were killed were members of one of the largest gangs in Orange County — the same gang where Ojeda got his start.

"That's going to put a major wrinkle in the Mexican Mafia," said a sheriff's investigator. "They are going to say, 'How the hell could this have happened?' I know we're going to see it come up. You've got almost 60 years of the mafia, and it's never happened."

On April 30, 2011, according to the indictment, authorities recorded a three-way telephone call in which Ojeda told another Mexican Mafia member to put the word out — Moreno was to be killed.

After the indictment was unsealed in July, both men were brought to Orange County to face racketeering charges.

Law-enforcement officials said all signs show that Ojeda is still in control of Orange County streets from his prison cell.

Moreno is in federal custody in Santa Ana.



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