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Feature Articles


August 2008
Mexican Mafias

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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     The term Mexican mafias refers generally to criminal gangs operating in the United States, Mexico, and Central America. What the gangs have in common is an Hispanic heritage that drives a spirit of comradeship and loyalty to the body or association (brotherhood) to which one belongs—an animating spirit of a collective body and devotion to its honor and interests.

MEXAMERICAN MAFIA. In 1973, the U.S. Department of Justice defined the Mexamerican mafias as being comprised of convicts and ex-convicts from the barrios of East Los Angeles, who had banded together into powerful prison gangs to prey on susceptible inmates. By the late 1960s, the gangs evolved into organized crime associations with a formal leadership structure (more or less) both within the prison system and on the street. Leadership, the report noted, was difficult to pinpoint because of the great deal of mobility demonstrated by the members. A major source of income was through narcotrafficking.

     The Nuestra Familia (New Family) was founded in Southern California in the 1960s. This was the first splintering of the Mexamerican criminal movement. The gangs began to take on notable identities, distinguishing themselves as either Nortenos (Northerners) or Sureno (Southerners). Each closed ranks against the other and claimed exclusive turf, resulting in a fracture in the ideal notion of a unified racial brotherhood. Close contact of the opposing groups would often lead to blows.

     Since those early years the gangs have multiplied and spread beyond Los Angeles infesting several cities and alarming the authorities. Recently a number of gang leaders were indicted in San Antonio, Texas, for violating RICO, the organized crime federal statute. San Diego has also engaged in a major crackdown, detaining a number of illegal aliens, who are known mafia associates and subject to deportation by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

     A penchant for violence to settle even minor disputes is a major gang characteristic. Most murders in the City of Angels can be attributed to shootouts by rival gangs, with innocent citizens occasionally victims of collateral damage.

     The Mexamerican gangs reach back at least three generations. The point of origin has been said to be in the mid-1950s at the Deuel Vocational Institute for delinquents in Tracy, CA. Today, a gang’s strength can number in the hundreds, including leaders, associates and soldiers. The organizational structure, to the extent that there is a working hierarchy, is horizontal with vague guidelines as to command or reporting. To the outside observer, the gang might appear more a rabble than an organized entity. Yet, the informal structure allows for leaders to emerge, disputes to be settled amicably, and orders dutifully executed. What becomes clear is that a criminal subculture does exist: Organized criminal activities take place, a code of honor exists, and secrecy is practiced. Most significantly, the members are bonded together in blood through an intense ethnic/racial pride. This Brotherhood solidarity—one for all and all for one—never allows an insult or assault against "brothers" to go unanswered.

     The Mexamerican mafia has been known variously as El Eme, La Eme, Eme, La Mafia. The first use of El Eme was purportedly by FBI agent Jeff Jamar, in 1993. "Eme" is the Spanish phonetic for the letter "m." As new clans were formed outside the Eme base of Southern California in other parts of the southwest the movement began to mature as strong and charismatic leaders emerged. One example is the Texas chapter founded in prison in 1984 by Heriberto "Herbie" Huerta. Once given permission by the Californians, Huerta went about building a criminal association with a decided organized structure, going well beyond the informality of the unwieldy and often unpredictable earlier forms.

     "General" Huerta was one of the first leaders to visualize a paramilitary mafia. The hierarchy of command included high-ranking officers, carnales, or soldiers, at lower rank and support groups of associates and suppliers.

     The General framed the "Constitution of the Mexican Mafia of Texas," which projected an association along the lines of a true criminal enterprise, taking inspiration from his understanding of the Sicilian mafia, the mafia of mafias. Among other rules and stipulations, membership was for life, with secrecy, integrity and discipline foremost. The concept of brotherhood would be the glue that would hold the members to their oath of a life of crime. The purpose of the chapter was to become "a criminal organization and therefore participate in all aspects of criminal interest," including, but not restricted to, robbery, contract killings, prostitution, large-scale theft, gambling and all manner of trafficking.

MAFIA MEXICANA. The Mexican mafia clans are formed into a loosely-structured syndicate, the so-called "Federation," which waxes and wanes contingent on circumstances and prevailing clan interests. There has been a history of frequent and bloody encounters over territory and criminal enterprises, and shifting loyalties. At present among the many documented clans there are four that have demonstrated a certain staying power.

     The Tijuana clan has enjoyed the most violent reputation. Among its victims was the Cardinal Juan Jesu Posadas-Ocampo, who was gunned down at the Guadalajara Airport in 1993. In that same year a war broke out north of the border in San Diego over control of the methamphetamine market resulting in more than two dozen deaths.

     The Sonora cartel’s domain includes the territories of Hermosillo, Aqua Prieta, Guadalajara and Culiacan. A DEA special agent was tortured and killed by Sonora gunmen. The clan’s zone of influence extends north of the border in California, Arizona, Texas and Nevada. The cartel has maintained strong ties with Colombian narcotraffickers.

     The Juarez cartel is said to be the most powerful Mexican drug trafficking association. The Juarez clans specialize in transporting narcotics to gangs in the United States. The DEA has arrested many drug couriers, in one instance seizing twenty-one tons of cocaine in Sylmar, CA.

     The Gulfo family has its base in Matamoros from which the clans direct their narcotrade to the big markets in the States as far north as New Jersey and New York.

     In the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia’s Cali cartel, which controlled the Colombian cocaine trade, was successfully destroyed. Contrary to expectations, this triumph did not cause a significant dent in cocaine importation to the U.S. because new Mexican organizations rose to fill the Cali vacuum. There has been a notable expansion of Mexico’s narcotrafficking. Large sums of narco-dollars from Mexico and Columbia are moved north across the border to be laundered, reports the Justice Department’s National Intelligence Center. As trans-border commerce has increased so has the volume of border crossings, making border security increasingly difficult. The situation has been advantageous to smugglers. Using a mix of sophisticated technologies and more effective networks, criminals have been able to emphasize cooperative alliances over territorial squabbles while decreasing visibility.

     As one trafficking route closes another surfaces. On 16 July 2008, Mexico’s navy seized off the Pacific coast a homemade 30-foot submarine carrying a drug shipment. The four-man crew was arrested after finding the vessel contained six tons of cocaine bound for the Mexican shore. Similar cocaine-laden vessels have been discovered off Columbia and Central America.

     Cross-border human smuggling is big business, second only to drug trafficking. Since the passage of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade agreement, the number of undocumented aliens has increased along the U.S.-Mexican border. There are as many of 300 cross-border human cargo smuggling groups in Mexico (often comprised of a few individuals), many of which have forged extensive transnational contacts in order to facilitate the movement of illegal migrants on smuggling routes from Latin American countries into the United States. As soon as one alien crossing point is discovered by the authorities (such as under-border tunnels or the bribing of border guards to look the other way) another is developed.

TRANSNATIONAL MAFIAS. Investigations have revealed that Mexico hosts Russian, Ukrainian and Asian transnational criminal organizations. In addition there are several polydrug trafficking organizations, northern border smuggling groups and human trafficking networks. Mexico’s intelligence service claims that there are at least one-hundred alien smuggling rings all linked to six core networks presently operating in Central America and parts of South America.

     Human smuggling occurs on a global level. Smugglers facilitate the movement of illegal migrants across regions and continents. Local agents recruit people and bring them together. Travel processors arrange for identification cards and any necessary travel documents. International "brokers" along the way arrange intermediate passages and arrival at final destinations. Mexico’s smuggling networks consist of a number of task specialists: escorts, safe house keepers, corrupt airline and bus company employees, and corrupt officials. Smuggling networks communicate with field operatives about the movements of the Border Control. Ranches in Mexico serve as staging areas where hundreds of immigrants can be housed and fed until ready to be transported northward. Once in the U.S. the aliens are kept in drop houses until they depart for their final destinations and once their relatives or friends pay off the balance of their fees.

MARA SALVATRUCHA. El Salvador, the smallest Latin American republic and most densely populated, with a population of 3.5 million, is located in Central America on the Pacific coast. The nation has spawned reportedly one of the most dangerous and well-organized gangs with bases in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Canada and thirteen U.S. states. The criminal association is known as Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13. "Mara" indicates a voracious ant and Salvatrucha refers to fighting youth. The number "13" represents the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, M, associated with eMe, the mafia mexicana, with which it collaborates.

     The Mara gangs specialize in trafficking in drugs, arms and humans. Most of the youth who join MS-13 have little hope for a conventional life, having been marginalized by society. According to Ernesto Miranda, an MS-13 veteran, "As long as lack of jobs and education opportunity are lacking for lower-class youth, the gangs, with promises of respect and wealth, will continue to attract recruits. MS-13 was not initially a criminal organization—it was the lack of a future that brought the members to extreme violence and drugs." The former American politician Tom Hayden, who has studied Mexican gangs holds that, "In Central America and the United States, the majority of gang members have joined a gang in order to have a family, to get girls, and for mutual protection. They live in a violent world and they are devoured by poverty. It is racism, in the form of police brutality and the prison experience that has hardened and transformed them into ferocious beasts."

     MS-13 gangs are found in forty-three states. Most are concentrated in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New York and Boston, with smaller numbers in Texas, California and Florida. Customs and Border Protection now calls MS-13 America’s "most dangerous gang."

     MS-13 was founded in the Rampart area of Los Angeles in the late 1980s. After a civil war in El Salvador displaced a fifth of that country’s inhabitants, of those who fled some relocated to Los Angeles. Later, American authorities deported many of the gang members. Back in the home country, the gang spirit spread quickly among the disenchanted. When El Salvador cracked down on MS-13, some of the deportees returned to the U.S., bringing with them newly recruited members.

     Presently, MS-13 boasts as many as 10,000 affiliates in the United States. The membership in Central America may range as high as 100,000. More than half of MS-13 gangsters are El Salvadorans. The others hail from Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. Salvadoran police estimate that a full 90 percent of gang members that are deported from the States are successful in reentering through the smuggling system. The experience of this deportation-and-return cycle has been turned to good use: MS-13 now controls many of the "coyote" services that bring undocumented migrants up from Central America into the United States.


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