A ‘calculated business decision’: Mexican Mafia member convicted of murder in Paramount
Around noon one day in May 2016, Hector Velasquez walked over to the passenger side of a black Chrysler 300 sedan and leaned into the open window. A crack rang out, and Velasquez staggered backward, saying, “He shot me. He shot me.”
Someone in the Mexican Mafia had wanted Velasquez dead. Who or why has never been made clear, but a jury this week found the car’s driver guilty of killing him.
Robert Hinojos, 41, was convicted of murdering Velasquez at the end of a monthlong trial that shed light on the workings of the Mexican Mafia, a group of about 140 men who wield enormous influence in the prisons where most of them live and over street gangs across Southern California.
For gunning down Velasquez, prosecutors argued, Hinojos earned a place in the Mexican Mafia, giving him the authority to collect money from drug dealers and gang members on the street and behind bars.
“The worst thing about it was, this wasn’t even personal,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Amy Murphy told jurors. There was no indication the men had ever met before the day of the murder. To Hinojos, Murphy said, killing Velasquez was “a cold, calculated business decision.”
Hinojos, who is known as “Dopey,” went to prison at 19, when he was sentenced to 12 years for an armed robbery. He ended up doing 15 years in all after getting caught smuggling drugs into a Monterey County prison, according to a spokesperson for the state prison system.
A member of Brown Nation, a small Latino gang in Paramount, Hinojos gained a reputation in prison as a reliable, efficient moneymaker for several Mexican Mafia members, according to testimony and a former associate of Hinojos who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Hinojos was one of five camaradas — high-ranking associates of the Mexican Mafia — who ran a collection racket known as “la clica,” Spanish for “the clique,” according to testimony. The clica system arose after a Mexican Mafia member from Rancho Cucamonga, Arthur “Turi” Estrada, fell out of favor with others in the organization and was stripped of a vast racket that was bringing in money from nearly every California prison, according to testimony and sources.
Hinojos and the other associates — men who were just short of being full-fledged members — took over Estrada’s operation, collecting the money that had once flowed to him and dividing it among various Mexican Mafia members in state and federal prison, according to testimony and sources.
“Okay, whatever Turi had, whatever neighborhoods he had, they became the clica, holmes, that means all the carnales” — Mexican Mafia members — “are gonna eat from that,” one Mexican Mafia associate explained to another in a recorded call that was transcribed and filed in federal court.
The clica system ended in 2015 when Mexican Mafia members who had been held for years in isolation in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit were reassigned to other prisons around the state. With access to cellphones smuggled into prison, Mafia members set about laying claim to territory and settling old scores.
It was into this tumult that on Dec. 27, 2015, Hinojos, then 34, was released from state prison.
About five months later, a girlfriend called Hinojos from Los Angeles County Jail. The call was recorded and played for the jury.
“They actually offered me, uh, that promotion,” Hinojos said. “I just got to, like, kind of, f—, uh, stack the cabinets a little bit quicker, you know.”
To interpret Hinojos’ words, prosecutors called to the witness stand Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, a Mexican Mafia member who defected in 2002. He has since testified in dozens of prosecutions of his former confederates, specializing in deciphering coded or veiled messages in phone calls, letters, notes and other communications.
When Hinojos said “promotion,” he meant that he’d been offered membership in the Mexican Mafia, Enriquez testified. Needing to “stack the cabinets a little bit quicker” meant that before he was inducted, he’d have to take care of something, he said.
The following morning, May 13, 2016, Hinojos met a group of men for breakfast at Denny’s. One of them was Velasquez, who was described at trial as being affiliated with Compton’s 155th Street gang. Hinojos said he was there to help Velasquez collect a $10,000 drug debt from a leader of Paramount’s Dog Patch gang, Mario “Snaps” Chavarria, according to a witness who was at the breakfast.
They left the Denny’s to look for Chavarria. Hinojos drove alone in a black Chrysler 300, the witness said. Velasquez was standing near a street curb in Paramount when the Chrysler pulled up. He walked toward the car and leaned into the passenger-side window. Then a shot rang out.
The sedan sped off. As he lay dying, Velasquez told a sheriff’s deputy that a Hispanic man in a black Chrysler had shot him, the deputy testified.
Prosecutors did not say anything at trial about who may have ordered Hinojos to kill Velasquez.
Six hours after the shooting, Hinojos’ girlfriend called his mother from jail, complaining that she’d been “calling him all day and nothing. It’s not ringing.”
“Um, he got that promotion,” Hinojos’ mother said, “so he’s gonna be offline for like a week.”
Three days later, the girlfriend called Hinojos from jail and asked: “Congratulations or what?”
He told her he “got the job.”
“I finished the project myself,” he said. “And, um, I’m — now I just got to wait ‘til, like, all the paperwork, basically, to be filed.”
Enriquez, the former Mexican Mafia member, interpreted this to mean that Hinojos had personally carried out the task he’d been ordered to do, that he had been sponsored for membership in the Mexican Mafia and that he was now awaiting the results of the vote.
Witnesses for both the prosecution and the defense agreed that Hinojos is now a Mexican Mafia member, and Enriquez testified that some of its most influential figures had pushed for Hinojos to be admitted. They included Jose “Joker” Gonzales from the Eastside’s Big Hazard gang and Michael “Mosca” Torres, whom law enforcement officials consider the organization’s dominant member in the San Fernando Valley.
Hinojos’ lawyer, Marvin Vallejo, acknowledged that his client was a gangster and a drug dealer, but disputed the idea he killed Velasquez to gain entrance into the Mexican Mafia. “Point me in the direction of the evidence that says it’s because he killed Perico,” he said, referring to Velasquez by his nickname.
Vallejo criticized Enriquez, whom he dismissed as “the rapist, the killer, the sex offender, the robber, a prisoner with an agenda,” and his interpretation of his client’s words. The former Mexican Mafia member testifies “as if he’s the oracle of Delphi,” Vallejo said — the only one who can find sinister meaning in innocuous conversation.
Every morning, as he was led into the courtroom by the bailiff, Hinojos — sporting a goatee and shaved head and wearing a dress shirt, tie and slacks — blew a kiss to his relatives in the audience, who had not been able to see him since he was jailed.
A judge had barred Hinojos from receiving visits, mail or phone calls from anyone but his attorney. In a petition seeking relief from the restrictions, Hinojos said he was confined to a one-man cell, 5 feet by 7 feet, except for when he takes a shower or goes to the exercise yard. Even then, the petition said, he was locked in a “steel cage” by himself.
County lawyers said the strict confinement was necessary. As one of several Mexican Mafia members controlling the Los Angeles County jail system, they argued, Hinojos had used other inmates’ PINs to make phone calls and had them send and receive mail on his behalf. Hinojos, they said, is the “prime suspect” in “several ongoing investigations into other serious and violent crimes.”
Looming over the trial was another murder, one committed after Hinojos had been jailed on suspicion of killing Velasquez.
Enriquez analyzed for the jury a video of a jail visit between Hinojos and a different girlfriend, Patricia Aragon. He interpreted a snapping gesture Aragon made to mean she was discussing Chavarria, the gang member whose nickname was “Snaps.” And when she formed her hand in the shape of a mouth, Enriquez said, she was raising the possibility that Chavarria was talking to the police.
“Nah,” Hinojos said in the visit. “Don’t trip.” Enriquez took this to mean that Hinojos did not believe Chavarria could be cooperating with the authorities.
But later in the conversation, Aragon told him, “I don’t care about it. It’s just going to be, ‘bam.’”
Still later, she told Hinojos, “Don’t act surprised when it happens.”
An attorney for Aragon, who has been indicted with Hinojos in federal court on charges of trafficking methamphetamine, did not return a request for comment. Aragon has pleaded not guilty to the drug charges.
Amid the possibly illicit exchanges about Chavarria, the couple talked of how Hinojos’ incarceration would affect their relationship and his hope that she was pregnant with his child. A witness who testified on behalf of Hinojos said he believed the whole conversation had been about their personal lives — “trust issues that they may be feeling as a couple.”
But then there is the fact of what happened to Chavarria. Hours after Aragon visited Hinojos in jail, Chavarria was gunned down outside his home in Paramount.
Prosecutors said they have no reason to believe that Hinojos ordered the murder. Nonetheless, he was recorded in his jail cell whispering to another Mexican Mafia member, Daniel “Danny Boy” Pina, that his girlfriend had told him someone had been killed.
“I think — I’m thinking that’s a good thing,” Hinojos said. “I’m thinking things just got more interesting.”
His apparent relief at the death of Chavarria — whom his girlfriend, at least according to Enriquez, had identified as an informant — was evidence he had killed Velasquez, prosecutors argued to the jury.
Chavarria probably knew of the plot to kill Velasquez, authorities said, but he was not an informant. The detective who investigated Velasquez’s murder, Dean Camarillo, testified that he had never spoken with Chavarria.
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