LOS ANGELES (CN) – Federal prosecutors say members of the Mexican Mafia formed an alliance with a drug trafficking organization in Michoacan, Mexico, to sell methamphetamine and marijuana in the United States, but during opening arguments Thursday defense attorneys told jurors a federal informant was the ringleader and was paid by the government the entire time.
According to prosecutors, a partnership between the Mexican Mafia, a U.S. prison gang, and the Mexican drug cartel La Familia Michoacana allowed for a cross-country network to distribute drugs. Defendants in the case were indicted on conspiracy to distribute drugs in 2013 after a two-year investigation.
The partnership, referred to as “The Project” in court documents, began in 2011, when Sonia Apodaca called Jose Rodriguez-Landa aka “Fox” in a Los Angeles County jail.
She introduced Landa to a member of La Familia, who wanted help for a relative who was in prison. Prosecutors say these phone conversations were coded, but the suspects discussed “The Project.”
U.S. Attorney Mark Childs called this a marriage or a treaty between the two organizations and in part credited Landa, who was originally from Michoacan.
Landa put La Familia in touch with Mexican Mafia member Michael Moreno. Based in Norwalk, California, Moreno would be the cartel’s point of contact, according to prosecutors.
Money was sent to Mexican Mafia members in prison to get the deal moving. As part of the arrangement, members of the Mexican Mafia would provide protection and collect money for La Familia, who would then sell drugs to the U.S. prison gang on the cheap, prosecutors say.
On June 13, 2011, members of the Mexican Mafia met at a hotel in Los Angeles, including Luis Gerardo Vega aka “Little One” who said the deal between the two organizations was solidified.
“Now we’re affiliated with La Familia,” Vega said, according to prosecutors, adding Vega said the two groups had an alliance at another summit the following month and would discuss prices.
Prosecutors were able to provide jurors a detailed timeline and video stills from the meetings thanks to an informant, Ralph Rocha aka “Perico” or “Parrot.”
Another informant whom prosecutors only called “Ray” was a cellmate of Landa’s and he provided other information about the Mexican Mafia’s operation in the jails.
Childs acknowledged the informants’ motivation to help themselves as they’re facing prison sentences, but said all activity of the conspiracy was recorded.
“If agents had recordings, they wouldn’t have to rely on Perico’s word,” Childs told jurors.
Landa’s attorney Carlo Spiga said his client did not have the capability to unite the two organizations. He described the Mexican Mafia, made up of Mexican-American gang members, as a group without a hierarchy.
“There’s no duke,” said Spiga. “It’s not a pyramid. It’s arranged horizontally.”
Spiga said Rocha was facing charges for extortion and did not voluntarily approach law enforcement until the last minute to strike a deal.
Defendant Fred Montoya’s attorney Carlos Iriarte said jurors would be shown money orders with large sums of money that were allegedly used by the Mexican Mafia and were signed by “Jon Santos.” But Iriarte told jurors all the money came from Rocha, who was in turn being paid by the federal government.
“When you see Jon Santos make no mistake that is Perico,” said Iriarte. He summarized prosecutors who spoke at another defendant’s hearing: “Perico is the engine that drove the investigation.”
Attorneys for Manuel Jackson, Vega and Apodaca all made similar arguments that Rocha was behind plans to unite the two organizations.