He was a 16-year-old inmate doing time at the Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, Calif., who came up with the idea of forming a Latino “gang of gangs” inside the prison walls. These convicts would put aside Mexican American street gang rivalries, protect themselves from overzealous guards and band together to battle black and white inmates. The year was 1957, the inmate was Luis “Huero Buff” Flores from Hawaiian Gardens and the ragtag clique of about a dozen teenagers he assembled were the first members of the Mexican Mafia. The gang soon metastasized, spreading to institutions throughout California and then the nation.
Six years after the founding of La Eme -- the Spanish pronunciation of the letter M -- Rene “Boxer” Enriquez was born. Enriquez, a heroin addict and prolific stickup man, was sent to prison and soon became enmeshed in the Mexican Mafia. He eventually assumed a leadership role as the gang evolved from a prison mob into a sophisticated criminal operation that muscled in on the drug trade in the Southwest.
Enriquez’s story is told by a Fox 11 television reporter, Chris Blatchford, in “The Black Hand: The Bloody Rise and Redemption of ‘Boxer’ Enriquez, a Mexican Mob Killer.” Blatchford is well-suited to tell this story. He has covered crime in Los Angeles for decades and he captures the nuances and nihilism of the prison world.
No inner-city kid
Enriquez’s childhood does not fit the Dickensian template one would expect from a sociopathic hit man. He grew up in a predominantly white suburban Cerritos neighborhood, in a home with two parents who had immigrated here from Mexico. His father, an ambitious, hard-working man who eventually owned a custom furniture factory and dabbled in commercial real estate, had his faults, but he clearly cared for his son and despaired deeply when he went astray.
Enriquez quit school in the ninth grade and, along with his older brother, joined a street gang in nearby Artesia. After briefly working for his father, he quit, began slamming heroin and pulling holdups to pay for his habit. He was arrested after one bungled job and was soon tied to a host of others, because of their similar MOs as well as Enriquez’s distinctive tattoos. He pleaded guilty to 21 counts of robbery and was sentenced to seven years in state prison. Legs chained, hands cuffed and wearing a red jumpsuit, he was loaded on the “Gray Goose” -- the prison bus -- and locked up at what was then known as Soledad State Prison. He was 18 years old.
Shortly after arriving at Soledad, Enriquez and his cellmate spotted a member of Nuestra Familia (Spanish for “Our Family”), a prison gang from Northern California and a deadly La Eme rival. They beat him on the head with a shaving cream can and robbed him.
A member of the Mexican Mafia sent him a few cigarettes and a note, welcoming him. He liked Enriquez’s style. When Enriquez was transferred to another prison, two men approached him on the yard. They told him they wanted him and a young convict named “Puppet” to “do a hit” on “Angel,” a Santa Monica gangbanger. They didn’t tell him why and he didn’t ask.
“Puppet grabbed Angel and Boxer just started stabbing him over and over until the untaped plastic handle slid up to cover the point of the shank and made it no longer effective,” Blatchford writes. “That’s the only thing that saved Angel’s life . . . It was Boxer’s first hit. ‘It was then I knew I was on the path. I was being looked at [by Eme]. I was honored that I was picked for the mission and exhilarated by the immediate recognition I received on the yard as a ‘big homeboy.’ ”
He continued “putting in work,” and was soon made a carnal, or leader. Eventually, he was released from prison but within a few years was sent back for life. He killed a rival carnal who was on a Mexican Mafia hit list and ordered the shooting of a female drug dealer. Enriquez was a shot-caller during many significant events in La Eme’s history, such as when leaders in the early 1990s ordered a halt in drive-by shootings against other Latinos, and when they expanded the gang’s reach and financial base by “taxing” drug dealers.
Enriquez is such an unsympathetic character, showing no remorse or reflection until the end of the book, that the narrative, despite the many dramatic events, sometimes drags. The writing is rough in spots, and midway through “Black Hand,” as Enriquez’s story becomes bogged down in a litany of prison shankings and beatings, the reader loses track of the many convicts, their nicknames and their multitudinous beefs against one another. One gangster Blatchford describes was sentenced to life for -- in a phrase that sums up the senselessness and inanity of the violence -- “murdering a murderer who had offended another murderer.”
Life on the inside
Blatchford -- who co-wrote “Three Dog Nightmare” with Chuck Negron of the rock band Three Dog Night -- is at his best when chronicling the history of the gang and Enriquez’s rise through the ranks. The narrative is interspersed with fascinating prison arcana. He explains how friends of inmates would pound black tar heroin into paper-thin sheets and slip it between sheets of legal documents; or secret balls of heroin in soap and Oreo cookies; or soak children’s drawings with methamphetamine. Enriquez, who would fashion syringes out of metal ink cartridges inside ballpoint pens, managed to stay high even when locked up in California’s most secure prisons. Blatchford explains how inmates -- making collect calls from prison phones and employing friends on the outside who used three-way conference calls and call forwarding -- could run criminal enterprises from behind bars.
The Mexican Mafia -- like its Italian counterpart -- is better at promulgating the myth of the brotherhood than generating actual loyalty. Enriquez’s story reveals that, ultimately, La Eme members have four destinations. The lucky ones die in their cells. The others either get capped on the street, shanked in the yard, or they become snitches. Enriquez was no different. After a decade at Pelican Bay State Prison’s secure housing unit, he is now in a witness protection program for cooperating inmates. Enriquez is hidden away at an unnamed prison, somewhere in the United States, to keep him away from the many carnales he testified against.