Peter “Sana” Ojeda sat quietly, occasionally rubbing a hand over his wrinkled face, his cheeks drooping down and setting his mouth into a permanent frown. The 73-year-old looked more like a none too happy grandpa than who he was accused of being: the reputed godfather of the Mexican Mafia in Orange County.
The gray-haired defendant studied the jury. The 12 men and women seemed to be staring anywhere in the courtroom but at Ojeda.
Meanwhile, U.S. marshals in the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana this week kept an eye on the alleged “Eme” kingpin during the early part of a trial that could last about a month.
Ojeda is being tried on charges of racketeering and committing violent crimes to support a racketeering conspiracy — charges that were first filed in 2011 against him and dozens of other alleged Mexican Mafia members in a 40-page indictment.
Rules of the Eme — Spanish for the letter m — include not being a “rat,” not showing cowardice and not raising a hand to another member without sanction, according to the testimony of prosecution expert witness John Castanedo, a special agent in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Even acknowledging the existence of the Mexican Mafia was grounds for punishment.
“Your names will not be released at any point,” Judge James V. Selna assured the jury in response to an inquiry from one juror.
Ojeda was one of 28 people initially charged in the federal indictment. The defendants allegedly operated a racketeering organization that distributed narcotics, taxed other gang members and protected and expanded the power of their criminal enterprise through intimidation, violence, threats of violence, assaults, murders and conspiracies to commit murder.
Of the defendants initially charged, only two remain set for trial, Ojeda and Suzie Rodriguez. With the exception of two defendants who passed away, all of the other nonfugitive defendants have pleaded guilty, according to a prosecution trial brief.
In 2006, Ojeda was convicted on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act charges. Later he was transferred out of Orange County to serve his sentence in the federal Bureau of Prisons, according to the indictment. Although he was in prison outside California, Ojeda maintained his leadership position, according to the indictment.
In opening statements last week, prosecutors detailed Ojeda’s alleged involvement with the Mexican Mafia.
In the world of Southern California gangs, Orange County is Peter Ojeda’s county.
“In the world of Southern California gangs, Orange County is Peter Ojeda’s county,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph T. McNally told the jury, according to the Orange County Register. “He has refused to give up the power and control of the Orange County branch of the Mexican Mafia for more than 30 years.”
“He is charged not for what he has done, but for who he is,” Ojeda’s attorney, Craig Wilke, said, according to the Register. “Peter Ojeda is by no means a model citizen. He committed crimes in the past and he spent years in prison. But he didn’t do this.”
Castanedo, in testimony Tuesday, likened the Mexican Mafia’s model for exercising control to that of McDonald’s, which allows its restaurant franchise owners to operate independently within the organization.
“But at the same time, even though they may run it a little bit differently from another franchise, they’re still expected to follow the general model of the corporation,” Castanedo said.
He also went into some detail on the “hard candy” list, mentioned several times throughout the indictment, as a list of people targeted for death by the Eme.
Wilke questioned Castanedo’s experience, suggesting to the judge before Tuesday’s proceedings that Castanedo wasn’t qualified to talk about what goes on in federal prisons.
On Thursday, Cesar “Roach” Munguia was escorted into the courtroom in shackles and a tan prison uniform by U.S. marshals. Munguia kept his eyes strictly on federal prosecutor Robert Keenan as he was questioned about his criminal history and involvement with the Costa Mesa street gang Forming Kaos.
Munguia testified that, following a stint in jail, he was approached by members of the F-Troop gang, which he described as the top of the gang hierarchy in Orange County.
“They have a Mexican Mafia ‘made’ member,” Munguia testified, referring to Ojeda without looking at the defendant.
Munguia alleged that members of F-Troop brought him into the gang and made him a tax collector. They also asked if he was “with the old man,” Munguia said.
“Growing up how I grew up, where I grew up, you know these people,” he added. “You can’t say no to them. If you say no to them you’re going to pay a consequence.”
“Who are these people you’re describing?” Keenan asked Munguia.
“Mexican Mafia,” he said.