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U.S. Indicts 22 in Probe of Mexican Mafia : Crime: The action targets members and affiliates of the prison gang from its reputed godfather to street-level enforcers. Document paints a chilling picture of L.A. underworld.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal authorities Monday announced the indictment of 22 members and associates of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, which for the past two years allegedly has relied on murder and intimidation in an attempt to organize drug trafficking among hundreds of Latino street gangs in Southern California.

The 22 people--ranging from the organization’s reputed godfather to street-level enforcers--were charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act with crimes including murder, extortion and kidnaping. One of those arrested was accused of helping plot the death of a longtime anti-gang activist who had worked as a consultant on Edward James Olmos’ Mexican Mafia film “American Me.”

The indictment marked the first time the RICO act has been used against a gang in Southern California, authorities said.

The 81-page indictment paints a chilling picture of the Los Angeles underworld, signaling an unprecedented degree of organization and ruthlessness in the long and bloody history of Latino street gangs. The indictment culminated an investigation of more than two years by a task force of local, state and federal officials that specifically targeted the Mexican Mafia--known simply as La EME, Spanish for the letter M.

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“One of the principal goals of the Mexican Mafia is to control narcotics distribution by street gangs,” said U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella, charging that the organization “contributes significantly to emboldening those gangs and (has caused) high levels of violence.”

Joining Manella at a news conference at the federal courthouse were Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams and Charlie Parsons, head of the FBI’s Los Angeles office.

They declined to discuss the roles of the alleged Mexican Mafia members named in the 26-count indictment. But law enforcement sources involved with the investigation say those named in the action include the prison gang’s alleged godfather, Benjamin (Topo) Peters, 54, and the man who is engaged in a generational power struggle with him for control of the organization: Ruben (Tupi) Hernandez, 35.

Both men are incarcerated at the state’s maximum-security facility at Pelican Bay. A conviction under the RICO act would allow them to be transferred to a federal prison, which officials say would remove them from the gang’s power base in the California penal system.

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Of the others named in the indictment, 15 were arrested over the weekend and include alleged longtime organization members such as Raymond (Huero Shy) Shyrock, 43, Michael (Musclehead) Salinas, 45, and David (Smilon) Gallardo, 35, the sources said.

The sources say Shyrock is one of the prison gang’s main leaders on the outside, helping plot the move to organize street gangs on Los Angeles’ Eastside. Salinas allegedly conducted similar efforts for the Mexican Mafia in Orange County, the sources said.

The indictment charges Gallardo with, among other crimes, helping plot the fatal shooting of Ana Lizarraga, the Eastside gang counselor who worked as a technical adviser on “American Me.” Lizarraga was killed on May 13, 1992, by two assailants in ski masks as she was parking her van.

“The leadership of the Mexican Mafia felt the movie was disrespectful toward them,” Parsons said, “which led to (Lizarraga’s) murder.”

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Attorneys representing the alleged Mexican Mafia members were not identified Monday.

Founded in the late 1950s when inmates from several Eastside barrios joined behind bars to form a “gang of gangs,” the Mexican Mafia has about 400 to 600 members in the penal system and perhaps twice as many affiliates or sympathizers on the outside.

For years, the gang has controlled narcotics distribution, gambling and prostitution at many state prisons.

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But realizing the moneymaking potential of organizing the about 60,000 Latino gang members from the 450 gangs in Los Angeles County alone, authorities say, the Mexican Mafia has attempted to spread its corrupting influence on the streets.

Signs of the organization’s power play emerged in the summer and fall of 1993, when Mexican Mafia members held a series of meetings with gang members from Riverside to Los Angeles. Relying on fear, intimidation and rhetoric steeped in cultural unity, the EME members ordered the street gangs to halt drive-by shootings and settle their differences face-to-face--or else face the deadly wrath of the syndicate behind bars.

The move--which initially resulted in a drop in Latino gang killings--was welcomed by many residents of Los Angeles’ most violent barrios. But law enforcement officials warned that the Mexican Mafia’s true motive was to reduce the publicity caused by the death of innocent lives caught in the cross-fire so it could organize with little outside scrutiny.

At Monday’s news conference, Block said the organization has been largely successful in its efforts, exacting tens of thousands of dollars in drug “tribute.” But the sheriff noted that the violence continues.

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“Drive-by shootings have gone down,” Block said, “but street killings have not.”

The Sheriff’s Department does not have separate statistics for Latino gang-related drive-by shootings. But in 1994, according to sheriff’s data, there were 121 Latino gang killings in areas patrolled by sheriff’s deputies--up from 80 the year before.

In the past year, Block said, the Mexican Mafia has attempted to instill discipline in Latino inmates in the county jail system through strict hygiene and cleanliness rules. Latino inmates have been required to shave and cut their hair short and keep their cells clean, Block said.

“They even requested ironing boards,” he said, “so they could press their uniforms.”

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It was in County Jail in October, 1993, Block said, that his deputies realized the organization was making serious moves. The Sheriff’s Department informed federal authorities, and the task force was created in November, 1993.

The indictment announced Monday charges that Mexican Mafia members have held meetings from Pomona to South-Central Los Angeles. Much of the activity, according to the indictment, has been ordered by gang members from County Jail and the state penal system.

In one instance, the indictment charges that Gallardo and two associates kidnaped a local drug dealer who failed to pay $85,000 in “taxes.” They eventually let him go after he agreed to pay four kilos of cocaine to settle the score, the indictment said.

In January, an Eastside gang member complained about his gang having to give the Mexican Mafia guns when they already had forked over more than $10,000 in drug taxes, the indictment said.

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To deal drugs in a two-block area near 3rd Street in the Westlake district near Downtown Los Angeles, the indictment charged, drug dealers were required to pay the Mexican Mafia $15,000.

“This was an attempt to get at the core leadership,” Chief Williams said of the indictments. "(But) work has to continue, and it is never done.”


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