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California

After unusual trial, Mexican Mafia member sentenced to life in prison

It was inside Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit that Jose Luis Loza said he first made contact with, and then joined, the Mexican Mafia.
It was inside Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit that Jose Luis Loza said he first made contact with, and then joined, the Mexican Mafia.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

For cutting short the life of a fellow Mexican Mafia member in a hail of bullets, a judge ruled Monday that Jose Luis Loza should spend the rest of his own in a federal prison.

Loza, from Whittier, was convicted of murder, racketeering and other crimes after an unusual trial in August, in which Loza himself testified for two days. It was an unprecedented departure, law enforcement officials say, from the Mexican Mafia’s historical refusal to acknowledge in the courtroom such an organization exists, let alone discuss its politics on the witness stand.

The trial was a window into what is arguably the most powerful criminal organization in Southern California. It demonstrated how the Mexican Mafia, most of whose membership is incarcerated, holds the region’s Latino street gangs under its sway through fear and mythos, exacting a tax from virtually every dollar they make and using their members as foot soldiers for the syndicate.

Loza, 41, was born in the Imperial Valley town of Brawley, the son of a machinist and a warehouse employee. He moved as a child to Whittier, and by the age of 13, Loza testified, he had been jumped into Canta Ranas, a street gang born in the late 1940s in neighboring Santa Fe Springs.

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At 19, Loza pleaded guilty to attempted murder and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. After flitting from facility to facility, he was transferred in 2001 to Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit, or SHU — a wing reserved for the prison’s most dangerous inmates, and where, until a landmark 2015 settlement reformed the unit, the prison’s Mexican Mafia members were held.

Inside the SHU, Loza met a revered figure within his gang: David Gavaldon, a Mexican Mafia member who has controlled Canta Ranas from his prison cell since the late 1980s, law enforcement authorities say. He has been incarcerated since 1984.

Gavaldon “was the first one to sit down and talk to me about joining the Mexican Mafia,” Loza testified. He was in his mid-20s then, Gavaldon more than 20 years his senior, a made man since 1985.

The Mexican Mafia has about 140 members, drawn from Latino street gangs in southern California, law enforcement authorities say. Because its members maintain control of their gangs after becoming made men, the Mexican Mafia’s influence extends beyond the prisons that hold most of its membership.

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In 2011, Loza was released from Pelican Bay. He took a job at a linen service in Chino, then a trucking company in Ontario. He made decent money, as much as $5,500 a month, prosecutors said. But even as he made short-haul deliveries for Gardner Trucking, so as not to stray beyond the 50-mile radius imposed by his parole, Loza was trafficking drugs, overseeing the extortion of dealers in Canta Ranas territory and ensuring the proceeds flowed to Gavaldon, according to evidence presented during his trial.

As one of a few Mexican Mafia members who lived outside of prison, Loza was expected to handle mafia business on the streets — including, in early 2016, the issue of Dominick “Solo” Gonzales, according to witnesses and evidence presented at trial.

Gonzales grew up in Pacoima, the stepson of Frank “Sapo” Fernandez, a Mexican Mafia member who is serving a life sentence at the federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo. Gonzales, who spent much of his life in prison, was inducted into the Mexican Mafia at the Colorado penitentiary and released in 2015.

Almost immediately, witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense said, Gonzales began trying to stake a claim in the San Fernando Valley, which was divided at the time primarily among four Mexican Mafia members. Members collect “taxes,” or extortionate cuts from the proceeds of criminal activity, in areas under their control.

Remarkably, Thomas “T-Bug” Moreno, an active member of the Mexican Mafia, testified in Loza’s defense and described this taxation system to the jury.

“Let’s just say, like, in my neighborhood, if somebody’s doing something there illegal, then I usually get something from whatever they’re doing, whatever it may be,” Moreno said, “Whether it’s credit card scams, whether it’s selling drugs, whatever, I get a percentage of it.”

If a Mexican Mafia member were to send an underling to collect from another made man’s territory, Moreno explained, “you tell him to, you know, get the hell out of there. You don’t belong there. Go. And usually, they go.”

And what would happen, a prosecutor asked, if they didn’t?

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“Oh, he’s going to leave,” Moreno said. “He leaves. There’s never been nobody that doesn’t leave.”

Mexican Mafia members fumed to one another that Gonzales was “toe-stepping,” or encroaching on their territory, a government witness testified. Eric Garcia, a Florencia-13 gang member, said he facilitated conference calls with dozens of Mexican Mafia members, who dialed in from prison cells on contraband phones, to discuss the matter. They came to an agreement, Garcia said: Gonzales had to go.

The evening of April 19, 2016, Loza testified, he met Gonzales at the El Jalisco restaurant in Bassett. Loza brought along a young Canta Ranas foot-soldier, Leonardo Antolin; Gonzales came with his right-hand man, Antonio “Droopy” Giron.

After talking over micheladas for about an hour, they paid the bill and shook hands. As they walked out the door, Loza pulled from his pocket a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson. Antolin produced a Luger.

Gonzales was hit, fatally, in the head and chest. Giron shot back. In the crossfire, a woman eating on the restaurant’s patio was hit six times. Loza, shot in the leg, stumbled to his Dodge Charger and sped off, flinging his revolver onto the 605 Freeway.

Loza insisted he was hit first and shot Gonzales only in self-defense. Carol Chen, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Loza, called the killing “a cold-blooded, calculated assassination,” one he committed out of “rabid insecurity and the need to prove himself.” Loza, among the most junior members of the Mexican Mafia, murdered Gonzalez to raise his standing in the organization, another prosecutor wrote in court papers, pointing to the black hand — one of the syndicate’s symbols — that was inked behind his left ear after Gonzales’ death.

Loza was arrested a month after the killing, the lead defendant in a 51-person racketeering indictment aimed at dismantling Canta Ranas. Over the next three years, agents would flip several of Loza’s associates, including Jorge “Bouncer” Grey, his close friend and cellmate, who testified that Loza bragged of putting a bullet in Gonzales’ head.

Loza declined to address the court Monday. His family wept quietly as Chief U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips sentenced him to life plus 30 years in prison. Loza nodded and appeared resigned to his fate, much as he had in a recorded phone call that Chen, the prosecutor, referenced at his trial.

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Chen asked Loza if he recalled saying, “It is what it is. I mean, at a young age, this is what I wanted. I didn’t want to be a doctor, I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be in the streets, and I stayed true.”

“You said that, right?”

“Yeah,” Loza said.


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