Peter "Sana" Ojeda, the reputed Mexican Mafia godfather of Orange County, who was arrested last week, helped pioneer the gang's transformation over a generation by showing it the way out of the prisons and onto the streets, authorities say.
The system of using street gang members to extort "taxes" from drug dealers, which Ojeda allegedly introduced, has been implanted throughout Southern California and is now being exported to Northern California and other states, authorities say.
"These guys are branching out," said Leo Duarte, a state Department of Corrections expert on the Mexican Mafia.
Those who say they know the 63-year-old Ojeda describe his demeanor as simple, humble, respectful and polite. He is said to be a handyman, repairing properties for his father-in-law.
He lives on an unassuming working-class street in La Habra, lined with beige stucco homes, one of which he shares with his young son and his wife, Rosemary, who declined a request for an interview.
The property is lined with a white wrought-iron fence and has fruit trees, a small basketball court and neatly trimmed grass.
Ojeda was arrested Wednesday and charged with federal racketeering. He was among 36 people charged that day with felonies, including drug trafficking and murder, after a two-year investigation that officials hope will crush the Mexican Mafia in the county.
Authorities believe Ojeda, who could face life in prison, controlled the drug trade of Latino street gangs in Orange County by using violence and coercion to keep them in line, while forcing them to pay the Mexican Mafia a percentage of their profits. Through Santa Ana city jailers, Ojeda declined a Times request for an interview.
Ojeda has been a member of the Mexican Mafia since the 1960s, officials believe. And before his arrest, he was one of the most respected mafiosos still on the street, authorities say.
Ojeda did not invent drug dealer taxing; the Mexican Mafia had been taxing inmates in California prison yards since the 1960s, said Duarte.
"A lot of them study the culture of Aztec history and [also] get the ideas from the Italian mafia," said Duarte. The Aztecs taxed surrounding communities, and the Italian mafia extorted protection money from merchants.
But the Mexican Mafia -- also known as "Eme," the letter "m" in Spanish -- didn't expand from prisons to the streets in a sustained, organized way until about 1992, gang experts say.
That year, with gang feuds tearing up Latino neighborhoods in Orange County, Ojeda convened leaders of the warring outfits in Santa Ana's El Salvador Park to organize what was billed as a truce.
Police video of the meeting shows Ojeda in a checkered shirt standing atop baseball bleachers, talking to gang members assembled on the field below. Ojeda ordered a halt to drive-by shootings, said Richard Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant and a leading expert on the Mexican Mafia.
Ojeda also allegedly called for gangs to begin taxing the Mexican drug dealers operating in Latino neighborhoods, Valdemar said.
"He says: 'This is your neighborhood. You died for your neighborhood. They ought to pay to sell dope in your neighborhood. They ought to be taxed,' " said Valdemar. "He was the first to order the no-drive-by-shooting policy and the taxation."
But the gang truce was a ruse, a way of bending the fiercely independent street gangs to the Mexican Mafia's will, said Al Valdez, an investigator with the Orange County district attorney's office and author of a book on street gangs.
"Behind the scenes," Valdez said, "they were telling members to whack the guys who didn't pay tribute."
Few mafiosos had believed that gang members would attend such a meeting, let alone obey Mexican Mafia orders.
The El Salvador Park meeting "was like an epiphany, a life-changing moment for the mob, where he got 200 gang members to get together at the park," said Rene "Boxer" Enriquez, a Mexican Mafia member for 17 years before dropping out in 2002. "Sana was the first one we saw put this together. We replicated this guy's success and his model for organizing and infiltrating the gangs."
Over the next several years, Mexican Mafia members on parole began holding mass meetings of gangs in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, many of which were monitored by police. At those meetings, the method of taxing local drug dealers was expanded, and authorities say gang members were also told to halt drive-by shootings.
"That's where the Eme went from being a prison gang to a criminal street organization," Enriquez said.
Over the last decade, the system became a criminal forum for displaying which mafiosos had business acumen.
Some did little with the opportunity; others created massive criminal enterprises.
Enriquez said that when he was in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison in the 1990s, he used the system to control drug dealers in Artesia, Pico Rivera, Victorville, Bell Gardens, and the Lennox and Lincoln Heights areas of Los Angeles.
Through the late 1990s, Mafia member Francisco "Puppet" Martinez, while incarcerated, gained control of gang members who, in turn, taxed street drug dealers west of downtown Los Angeles. The operation generated hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, said Luis Li, the former U.S. attorney who successfully prosecuted 26 members of the Martinez crew.
"Frank's cut was $40,000 a month, and he was in jail the whole time," Li said
Through the intervening years, authorities say, Ojeda was building a similarly lucrative empire in Orange County. "The guy is charismatic and very calm, much like the early leaders," Valdez said. "Their style was to fly below the radar, not attract attention. They believed in carrying a big stick but not wielding it unless you have to."
Authorities believe Ojeda even controlled illegal activities in one of the yards at Pelican Bay prison during the mid-1990s without ever leaving Orange County. "Inmates would call him to get permission to run the yard and direct gang activities," said Devan Hawkes, a Pelican Bay gang investigator.
The arrest of the legendary Ojeda and his alleged lieutenants last week leaves a void in the Orange County Latino gang world, Valdez said.
"But that's only going to happen for a while," Valdez said. "Someone will step in to fill Sana's shoes."