The undercover police sedans arrived about noon in a bustling section of downtown Los Angeles.
Eight uniformed LAPD officers got out and filed into a historic 12-story building on Spring Street. Later, an LAPD helicopter buzzed overhead as a half-dozen officers kept watch over a rear alley. Officers with a police dog searched a nearby coffee shop.
FOR THE RECORD: In the Jan. 30 Section A, an article about former Mexican Mafia member Rene Enriquez reported that Enriquez wrote a book about his life with journalist Chris Blatchford. Blatchford was the sole author of the book.
The high-level security operation, which lasted more than eight hours, was for a prisoner serving life for two murders — a former "shot caller" for the Mexican Mafia who has been under heavy security since he started cooperating with authorities more than a decade ago.
But Rene "Boxer" Enriquez wasn't being taken downtown to talk to prosecutors. He was the featured speaker at a meeting — arranged by the LAPD — with a private group of prominent business leaders and local law enforcement officials.
The LAPD said Wednesday's meeting was designed to educate local authorities and private sector tycoons about the workings of a "transnational criminal enterprise." But the decision to use department resources for a private meeting between business leaders and the convicted killer has sparked criticism and calls for an investigation.
"It's a giant waste of public resources," said Steve Soboroff, president of the civilian Police Commission that oversees the LAPD. He has directed the independent inspector general to investigate the LAPD's involvement in Wednesday's event, which he described as "very, very misconceived and surprising."
A spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti said the event "was inappropriate and should have never happened. We expect a full accounting of why this occurred and we are going to make sure this sort of thing never happens again."
LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing defended the department's involvement, saying that the event helped "inform and create awareness" for local police officials and private-sector guests.
He said the roughly 90-minute event stemmed from a request by the Young Presidents' Organization, an international nonprofit group of business executives that has several local chapters. Downing said a member of the group approached him and asked if the LAPD could help the group talk to someone who had experience "building a transnational criminal enterprise."
Downing said the LAPD decided to sponsor the event and invite local chiefs and other law enforcement officials from the region. Several hundred people attended, he said.
"They really saw how an individual on the opposite side of what they do — kind of the underbelly of society, the violence and criminality — how he grew an organization," Downing said. "I think it was really interesting for them to listen to something that they've never really been exposed to."
Downing declined to say how many officers were involved in transportation and protection, saying that the information could compromise the LAPD's security methods. He said the costs of the officers would be covered by the LAPD.
When asked why the event was hosted at a building in a busy stretch of downtown instead of a secured law enforcement facility, Downing said the LAPD "ensured it was secured."
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he knew about the meeting, but emphasized that it was "not an endorsement" of Enriquez.
"He offers a perspective on organizations and leadership that is unknown to much of this audience," the chief said via text message Wednesday.
The event took place in a large room two floors below ground, according to a guest who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have authorization to speak publicly about the event. To enter, guests had to walk past a police dog and go through metal detectors, he said. Guests were not allowed to bring cellphones or other electronic devices inside, he said.
As waiters milled around the room, the night's top speaker was hidden behind a screen, the guest and another attendee told The Times. The crowd was told the mystery speaker was a skilled leadership figure in a large organization.
It was then revealed that he was a former leader in the Mexican Mafia, a powerful gang born out of California's prisons.
Enriquez was shackled at the waist and legs, the guests said, but his hands were free as he spoke for about an hour, detailing the businesslike structure of the gang and taking questions from the audience.
"He talked about how it grew, how it was branded, how it expanded, how it evolved," Downing said.
Guests seen leaving the meeting Wednesday evening were carrying copies of a book Enriquez wrote with journalist Chris Blatchford, a detailed look at his life in the gang and his decision to leave.
According to the book, Enriquez, 52, came in contact with the Mexican Mafia as a young man after he beat a member of a rival gang during his first stint in prison. When he stabbed another man during a different prison fight, he recalled, "It was then I knew I was on the path."
The Cerritos native rose through the gang's ranks, becoming a "shot caller" during significant moments of the Mexican Mafia's history as the gang grew its financial base and expanded its reach. After almost two decades in the gang, Enriquez left in the early 2000s and started cooperating with authorities. Enriquez was turned over to the custody of the LAPD in 2011 and remains in the department's hands under a 2012 court order, according to a prison spokesman.
Richard Valdemar, a retired sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and an expert on the Mexican Mafia, said he has taken Enriquez to secured jails and facilities to speak to authorities and assist with criminal investigators.
But, he said, those settings have evolved over the years. Enriquez has spoken at law enforcement conferences before, Valdemar said — one time even hugging him as he walked off stage.
Valdemar said he believed Enriquez's presence posed a danger to the public and police protecting him.
"His life is in jeopardy from his old friends. He is still a killer, and he should not be out there," Valdemar said. "He isn't a dignitary. He's a prisoner, a very dangerous killer."
Residents of the lofts in the 1920s building where the event took place had mixed reactions. Some said they didn't mind the idea of a convicted killer giving an address in the area, but others expressed concerns. "What message was so important that they had do it like this?" said Patrick Henry, 46. "It doesn't seem safe."
As the meeting ended Wednesday night, guests stood in the alley behind the building as they waited for their cars. Most declined to speak to reporters about what was said inside. "It was a private meeting," one man told The Times.
By 8 p.m., the alley was nearly clear. Only a white Rolls-Royce remained.