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Mexican Mafia’s money-making operation in L.A. County jails

The authorities were listening when Ramon Amaya called his wife from the Pomona city jail.

Amaya, a gang member nicknamed Happy, said on a recorded line that he hoped a judge wouldn’t release him before he was sent to the county’s main lockup in downtown Los Angeles.

“I’m gonna tell the judge, ‘F— you, keep me,’ ” Amaya said, adding that he’d “spit in his face” to make sure he was kept in custody.

And he complained about the “nasty” macaroni he’d been fed in jail. “I should stop eating,” he told his wife, “because I’m going to have to s—.”

To authorities investigating the drug trade in the jails, Amaya’s words made sense.

After getting his wish to be transferred to Men’s Central Jail, Amaya was caught smuggling about two grams of heroin and seven grams of methamphetamine. The inmate had hidden the drugs “inside his anal cavity,” an FBI agent testified, “and he didn’t want anything to disrupt that” — either a lenient judge or an upset stomach — “until he got to the L.A. County jail.”

Amaya, authorities say, was a cog in the Mexican Mafia’s lucrative operation in the county jails. The Mexican Mafia, about 140 men who control Latino gang members behind bars and on the streets of Southern California, has long considered the Los Angeles County jail complex — the largest in the country — a base of power and a source of wealth.

The county jail system might not seem flush with money. Most of the 15,000-some people held in its six lockups are indigent. They are not allowed to carry cash, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees the jails, controls what is sold at the commissaries.

But in the recent trial of Gabriel Zendejas Chavez, an attorney accused of working for the Mexican Mafia, and other cases brought by federal and county prosecutors, gang members and law enforcement officers have testified about the schemes through which the Mexican Mafia wrings tens of thousands of dollars a week from the jails’ teeming population and identified the underworld figures to whom the money flows.

Zendejas Chavez with black and gray short hair in a lavender-colored dress shirt, wheeling a black bag on a city sidewalk

Attorney Gabriel Zendejas Chavez, front, leaves the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles with his legal team after the first day of testimony in his criminal trial.

(Meghann Cuniff / Law&Crime)

orange pencil scribble

The Mexican Mafia uses two principal schemes to make money in the jails. The first is called the “kitty.”

Inmates are allowed to buy snacks, toiletries and clothes at the jail’s commissary. For every $7 that a Latino gang member spends, he must contribute $1.50 worth of items to a collection, or kitty, Luis “Hefty” Garcia, an admitted high-ranking associate of the Mexican Mafia, explained at a recent trial.

“It may sound like a small amount,” Garcia testified, “but in the big picture, it’s a large amount of money.”

The collections are sold within the jail to an inmate who pays for the goods by directing a friend or relative on the streets to send the money to an associate of the Mexican Mafia member running the facility.

Joseph Talamantez, an FBI agent who investigated the Mexican Mafia’s grip over the jail system, testified in a related case that the kitty sells quickly because it is usually $50 to $60 worth of goods, but priced at only about $35. The Mexican Mafia member who controls the kitty doesn’t care that it is undervalued because it represents pure profit.

Every week, the kitty produced $1,500 to $2,500 from Men’s Central Jail, $1,000 from Twin Towers, and about $3,200 from the jail complex in Castaic known as Wayside, Garcia testified. This adds up to about $23,000 a month.

The other scheme is the “thirds” tax.

The county jails are awash in narcotics. Garcia, for example, testified that he sold methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, marijuana — “most drugs you can think of” — while held in Men’s Central Jail.

Every Latino gang member who sells drugs in the jails must give up one-third of his supply to the Mexican Mafia member who controls the facility, according to Garcia and law enforcement officials. The Mexican Mafia member will then have an underling sell the taxed “thirds” and pocket the money.

“You don’t have a choice in regard to giving that third,” Garcia said, although the tithe is not without benefits. Customers know not to “burn” a tax-paying dealer, who can use the Mexican Mafia’s enforcers to punish a delinquent debtor, he said.

As with the kitty, inmates who buy drugs will have someone outside jail send money to the dealer’s associate, typically using Green Dot or other prepaid debit cards, witnesses testified.

Agents seized a ledger from the home of Garcia’s girlfriend, who collected his money; the notebook contained many dozens of Green Dot numbers, with the names of customers, the facilities where they were housed and the amounts they had paid.

To compensate for the risk and difficulty of smuggling drugs into the jails, dealers can charge 10 times or more the price of narcotics on the street, witnesses testified. A gram of heroin costs about $50 on the street, but one-fourth that amount can go for $150 in jail, Garcia testified.

Because of the profit margins, many gang members are eager to smuggle drugs into lockups. After secreting the narcotics in their rectum or swallowing balloons full of them, they will turn themselves in for an outstanding warrant or purposely get themselves arrested for a minor charge.

Making sure that drugs are taxed, the kitty is collected, debts are paid and rule-breakers punished requires communication. Much of this is done over jail phones, which inmates know are recorded and monitored by the Sheriff’s Department but see as a kind of unavoidable risk.

Other messages are passed through what one investigator described as a clandestine “mailing system.”

When a Latino gang member enters county jail, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Devon Self testified, he must check in with an inmate who oversees a floor of the jail for the Mexican Mafia, and provide his legal name, nickname, gang, booking number and next court date. These shot-callers add this information to the “roll call,” which Self described as a “list of every inmate they have, every gangster, every soldier that they have at their disposal.”

Mexican Mafia members use the roll call to pass messages and drugs between facilities on trips to court — the one place where inmates from across the jail system mingle, Self explained.

If a Mexican Mafia member in Men’s Central Jail needed to get a message to someone at North County Correctional Facility in Castaic, for example, he would consult the roll call and find an inmate at Men’s Central Jail with the same court date as someone from the other jail. He would then give the inmate from Men’s Central Jail a note and tell him to pass it to the other inmate in the courthouse lockup. After court, the recipient would carry the note back to his lockup and deliver it where it needed to go.

With the roll call, the kitty and the thirds system, “the Mexican Mafia works through the L.A. County jail as — I guess for lack of a better word — a well-oiled machine,” Self testified.

Given the amount of money at stake, the county jails have always been a coveted asset within the Mexican Mafia.

Inmates' arms and hands are seen through barred doors on a cell block at Men's Central Jail

Inmates’ arms and hands are seen through barred doors on a cell block at Men’s Central Jail at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.

(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

In 2007, Eulalio “Lalo” Martinez, a Mexican Mafia member from Rosemead’s Lomas gang, was brought to Men’s Central Jail from Pelican Bay state prison to face charges in a decades-old murder.

For the next six years, Martinez ran the jails, prosecutors charged. According to an indictment brought by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, Martinez collected tens of thousands of dollars in drug taxes, corrupted a sheriff’s deputy who smuggled in heroin and methamphetamine, and fended off a campaign by another Mexican Mafia member, Darryl “Night Owl” Baca, to take over part of the jail system.

The feud between Martinez and Baca, who was incarcerated hundreds of miles away in Pelican Bay, led to a spate of stabbings in the jails in 2009 and 2010, prosecutors said.

After Martinez died from a heroin overdose in mid-2013, Jose “Fox” Landa-Rodriguez, a Mexican Mafia member from the South Los gang, took his place, authorities say.

Agents heard the transition of power play out when Pete “Crazy Pete” Trejo made a call from jail a week after Martinez’s death.

Trejo, who had run Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers on Martinez’s behalf, called Miguel “Big Speedy” Calderon, a Westside Primera Flats gang member who worked for Landa-Rodriguez. Trejo wanted to be sure the transfer of power was “legit” so there was no “confusion.”

After exchanging pleasantries, Calderon declared, “I got that condado” – county – “for Fox.”

“Now it’s a whole different thing,” he said.

Garcia, who became Landa-Rodriguez’s right-hand man, testified that his boss accused another of Martinez’s deputies, Rafael “Stomper” Carrillo from the Avenues gang, of pocketing money owed to the Mexican Mafia. Carrillo was forced to pay Landa-Rodriguez $15,000, Garcia said.

Fines are another way that Mexican Mafia members make money in the jails. Inmates have no recourse to paying, other than going to the authorities and entering a protective custody wing of the jail.

“Basically, a brother can fine anybody for any reason he wants,” one Mexican Mafia associate told investigators, according to a transcript of the interview reviewed by The Times. “We don’t really question whatever they say. If they say it’s blue and it’s black, it’s blue.”

Authorities testified that Landa-Rodriguez controlled Men’s Central Jail and Twin Towers but ceded the Wayside complex to another Mexican Mafia member, Robert “Peanut Butter” Ruiz, who was released from prison in early 2014.

To provide some scale of the money they were making, one of Ruiz’s underlings, Miguel “Peewee” Rodriguez, testified that he collected $20,000 a month in kitty proceeds and drug taxes from the North County Correctional Facility, one of six jails in the county system.

By 2016, the jails had returned to the man who had controlled them before Martinez: Michael “Mosca” Torres, a Mexican Mafia member from San Fernando, according to evidence presented in a prosecution of Torres’ lieutenant.

Torres, whose nickname means “fly” in Spanish, had previously run the county jail system while held there on attempted murder charges from 2003-07, according to witness testimony in that case.

From state prison, where he is serving 45 years to life, Torres has assumed a kind of caretaker role over Men’s Central Jail, the most lucrative of the county lockups, according to a transcript of an interview authorities did with one of his associates. Torres shares the profits among “all the brothers,” the transcript says.

Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles

An inmate in Men’s Central Jail located in downtown Los Angeles.

(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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