More than 30 suspected gang members or associates were arrested Wednesday in a sweep that targeted the notorious Mexican Mafia prison gang and its alleged control of drug smuggling, narcotics sales and the extortion of prisoners inside the Los Angeles County jail system.
Hundreds of personnel from the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, including six SWAT teams, used a processing area set up in centrally located Whittier Narrows Recreation Area to execute takedowns primarily in the San Gabriel Valley, taking into custody 32 defendants charged in two federal racketeering indictments, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
A total of 35 defendants were already in custody in state prison or county jail facilities and authorities are searching for 16 fugitives, prosecutors said.
“These cases have delivered a significant blow to a cold-blooded prison gang and its associates,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna. “By taking out the gang members who control the jails, and by disrupting their communications network, we undermined the Mexican Mafia’s ability to coordinate street gang activity.”
The indictments — which charge a total of 83 defendants with a host of criminal violations, including conspiracies to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — detail the power structure of the Mexican Mafia and its exercise of authority over Latino street gangs in the Southland and inside the sprawling jail system, known as the biggest jail system in the nation with more than 17,000 inmates.
Members of the Mexican Mafia maintained control and authority over criminal activity in Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles, including drug smuggling and sales, extortion, assaults and money laundering.
No jail guards were investigated in the case, officials said.
The three-year investigation “focused on players at all levels for their roles in the conspiracy — from the shot-caller, to the secretary, to the dealer, to the smuggler,” said Paul Delacourt, the assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
The jails indictment — a second indictment focuses on a Pomona-based conspiracy — describes a period when Mexican Mafia member Jose Landa-Rodriguez and two now-deceased members of the prison gang allegedly controlled the criminal enterprise in Men’s Central Jail.
The indictment details how Landa-Rodriguez, 55, and other gang leaders worked together to “function as an illegal government within (jail) custody facilities,” according to the document.
Landa-Rodriquez, from behind bars, orchestrated murders, assaults and the kidnapping and planned murder of a relative of a gang member who had defied him, according to the indictment. Another Mexican Mafia member, Luis Vega, 33, is named as the No. 2 defendant for allegedly ordering a murder and directing assaults against those who showed disrespect or failed to follow Mexican Mafia rules.
An alleged key facilitator for Landa-Rodriguez was attorney Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, who was arrested Wednesday. Attorneys were particularly valued members of the operation because attorney-client privilege can serve as a shield to conceal criminal activity from law enforcement, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors allege that Zendejas-Chavez conveyed messages and orders from prisoners in state and federal prisons to each other and to those on the outside, and at one point facilitated a plot to extort $100,000 from the Mongols outlaw motorcycle gang.
The second racketeering indictment unsealed Wednesday in Los Angeles federal court focuses on a criminal enterprise that allegedly was run by a third imprisoned Mexican Mafia member, Michael “Pomona Mike” Lerma.
Lerma, 61, exercised control over, and extorted drug proceeds from, Latino street gangs in and around Pomona, as well as from incarcerated Latinos in Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County, the indictment alleges.
Members of Lerma’s group also allegedly engaged in robberies, identity theft and fraud, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and other acts of violence. He profited when top-level female associates deposited proceeds into his prison account, according to the indictment.
“The Pomona community certainly suffered from the criminal acts of those indicted,” said Pomona police Chief Michael Olivieri. “I am very pleased with the success of this long-term investigation, and I am looking forward to more collaboration with our law enforcement partners in future investigations.”
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