LOS ANGELES (CN) – More than 500 law enforcement officers participated in an operation Wednesday targeting 32 members of the Mexican Mafia who controlled drug smuggling, narcotics sales and the extortion of prisoners inside the Los Angeles County jail system.
The defendants arrested Wednesday morning are among 83 charged by a federal grand jury in two racketeering indictments unsealed Wednesday, according to Justice Department spokesperson Thom Mrozek.
Members of the Mexican Mafia violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, according to the indictments, which detail the power structure of the organization and its strong-arm control over Latino street gangs in Southern California.
The Mafia’s influence extended to the county jails, including the Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.
“These cases have delivered a major blow to the Mexican Mafia and leaders of many of the street gangs under the control of the organization,” United States Attorney Nick Hanna said in a statement. “By taking out the gang members who control the jails, and by disrupting their communications network, we undermined the Mexican Mafia’s ability to coordinate street gang activity.”
According to the indictments, members of the Mexican Mafia smuggled drugs into the jails and laundered money generated from drug sales.
Mafia members extorted inmates by “taxing” drugs smuggled in and used violence against those who didn’t cooperate, the indictments claim.
Another extortion scheme detailed in the indictments required all Latino inmates to contribute a percentage of their commissary spending on food and hygiene goods into a “kitty” that generated additional income for the Mexican Mafia member when the kitty was sold to another inmate.
One indictment focuses on Mexican Mafia member Jose Landa-Rodriguez, 55, and two now-deceased members of the prison gang, who allegedly controlled the criminal enterprise in the Los Angeles County Jail.
Landa-Rodriguez – who was incarcerated there at the time – and other enterprise leaders flexed their power with the help of trusted “shot-callers,” or associates, the 136-page indictment says.
“These Mexican Mafia members and associates, working together to control criminal activity within LACJ, have become their own entity or enterprise and effectively function as an illegal government within LACJ custody facilities,” the indictment states.
Landa-Rodriquez sanctioned murders, a series of assaults, and the kidnapping and planned murder of the relative of a gang member who crossed him, according to the indictment.
A second Mexican Mafia member, Luis Vega, 33, ordered a murder and directed assaults against those who showed disrespect or failed to follow Mafia rules.
“[The operation] lifts the veil on only one aspect of the complicated factors behind inmate-on-inmate assaults and the dangers to our custody staff,” Sheriff Jim McDonnell said in a statement. “Many assaults have been directed, and carried out, by the Mexican Mafia and are documented in this investigation that took more than four years.”
Attorney Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, a key facilitator for Landa-Rodriguez, was among those arrested Wednesday morning. Attorneys are highly valued members of the operation because attorney-client privilege can conceal criminal activity from law enforcement, according to the indictment.
Zendejas-Chavez traveled to state and federal prisons carrying messages for Mexican Mafia members, such as the names of people potentially cooperating with law enforcement, according to the indictment, which also accuses him of facilitating a plot to extort $100,000 from the Mongols outlaw motorcycle gang.
The second RICO indictment unsealed Wednesday focuses on a criminal enterprise run by incarcerated Mafia member Michael Lerma, 61, also known as “Pomona Mike.”
According to the indictment, Lerma had control over, and extorted drug profits from, Latino street gangs in and around Pomona, as well as from incarcerated Latinos in Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County. The indictment also says members of Lerma’s criminal enterprise engaged in robberies, identity theft and fraud, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and other acts of violence.
Lerma profited from these criminal activities when top-level female associates known as “señoras” deposited proceeds into his prison account, according to the indictment.
“Gang violence in the jails also spills over to the streets and adversely affects our communities,” Paul Delacourt, the FBI Los Angeles Field Office assistant director, said in a statement. “This three-year investigation focused on players at all levels for their role in the conspiracy – from the shot-caller, to the secretary, to the dealer, to the smuggler.”
A total of 35 defendants are already in custody in state prison or county jail facilities and are expected to appear in federal court soon, according to Mrozek. Sixteen members remain at large.
If convicted, most of the defendants could face decades in federal prison, or even life without parole.