Money trumps all, even Mexican Mafia edicts
Investigators allege that orders issued from prison include killing blacks and taxing drug dealers -- commands that Latino gangs willingly carry out until 'the color green comes into play.'
By Sam Quinones
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

November 8, 2007

Under orders from the Mexican Mafia, Florencia 13 gang members allegedly patrolled their neighborhood to "cleanse" it by assaulting and killing members of rival black gangs.

At the same time, the Latino gang also allegedly sold large quantities of drugs, and in some cases, guns, to blacks, including Crips gang members.

This complex and contradictory picture of underworld life in which race, drugs and gangs collide emerges from four federal indictments announced last month against Florencia 13. It also highlights a basic principle of the street: Money trumps all.

"Gang boundaries fade when the color green comes into play," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Peter Hernandez, who is prosecuting what is believed to be the largest federal case ever against a Southern California gang.

In all, 102 people -- mostly members of Florencia 13, based in Huntington Park and the Florence-Firestone neighborhood -- are charged with illegal drug and weapons sales as well as conspiracy and racketeering.

Also among those indicted, prosecutors said, are 13 black men believed to be Crips who are alleged to have regularly bought large quantities of drugs from Florencia dealers.

The case illustrates the influence of the Mexican Mafia prison gang -- also known as Eme, the letter M in Spanish -- on Latino street gangs and race relations in some of the Southern California neighborhoods they terrorize.

Although most Eme members have been locked away in maximum security in Pelican Bay State Prison for decades, they remain feared and admired by many Latino gangs. They order younger gang members to do their bidding or face reprisals if they go to prison, authorities said. The edicts include murder, extortion, taxing drug dealers and warring with blacks, violence that has often spilled over gang lines and taken the lives of innocent victims.

The federal indictments also display the limits of Eme influence. Orders allegedly issued by an Eme member in prison were at times trumped by the greed of drug dealers and the personal relationships they have with customers, according to authorities and court documents.

Many of the Latino and black gang members indicted had grown up together in the Florence-Firestone area.

"They'd played sports with them and went to school" together, said John Torres, head of the Los Angeles office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose agents led the investigation. "They'd ignore the Eme orders because of the relationships."

The indictment alleges that an Eme member identified as "unindicted co-conspirator AC" had set out orders for Florencia 13.

Sources close to the investigation said AC referred to Arturo Castellanos, a reputed Eme member housed in Pelican Bay who many in law enforcement believe controls Florencia 13 activities.

Castellanos, 47, went to prison for murder in 1980, long before many Florencia gang members were born, prosecutors said. The indictment alleges that Castellanos communicated with the gang through smuggled letters.

In 2004, Florencia 13 was ordered to control the neighborhood drug trade and tax drug dealers, prostitutes, ice cream vendors, pirate taxi operators and peddlers of phony green cards, Hernandez said. The gang was to turn 40% of the proceeds over to Castellanos and his associates.

There was another order, according to the indictment: Rid the neighborhood of black gangs, primarily East Coast Crips. Once predominantly black, the unincorporated Florence-Firestone neighborhood north of Watts has undergone a dramatic demographic shift in the last two decades and is now mostly Latino.

For the next two years, Florencia 13 and the East Coast Crips were at war, with homicides skyrocketing in the community of 60,000. In 2005, there were 41 homicides, surpassing the homicide rate in some of the nation's most dangerous big cities.

Homicides dropped to 19 last year after a major law enforcement crackdown, but the level of violence remains high.

Hernandez said investigators have wiretaps of Florence gang members talking about patrolling to shoot blacks whom they perceived as East Coast Crips and whom at times they called "ducks."

In one, "a Florencia member says, 'I got a duck. We got one, many more to go,' " Hernandez said.

East Coast Crips also killed Latinos with no gang affiliation. In fact, county prosecutors say many victims of the gang war were blacks and Latinos with no gang connection.

In one 2004 case, three Florencia gang members shot two black men as they stood in front of a liquor store, killing one, because they could find no Crips gang members, according to court documents. Neither victim had gang ties.

In another case, Marlon Miller, 28, a Jamaican immigrant and waiter, was shot to death as he stopped at a gas station for some cigarettes by two Florencia gang members looking for Crips to shoot, authorities said. Miller was not from the area and had no gang affiliation.

The random killings have terrified residents and corroded relations between neighborhood blacks and Latinos.

Still, the lure of money also seems to have tempered the ardor with which Florencia 13 follows Eme edicts. The indictment lists instances in which Florencia members allegedly sold weapons, as well as drugs, to Crips.

"It's not that they're ingrained to hate a group from birth," Hernandez said. "It happens because of the orders from leaders of these gangs in prison."

Indeed, Latino drug dealers and gang members may be given orders by Eme members, but they are also trying to expand their drug business, said Richard Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant and Latino gang investigator.

"If they exclude a category of clients, then they won't be that big," he said.

In some cases, there are longtime personal relationships among gang members who are supposed to be archrivals, he said.

"Your mother and your next-door neighbor's mother go to the same church," he said. "You have to tell Mrs. Johnson good morning every day. It's not easy to go to war."

Also, Eme members isolated in Pelican Bay don't know the day-to-day operations they presume to control, Valdemar said. This allows gang members on the street wide latitude in following orders, he said.

The U.S. attorney's indictments against Florencia 13 brings to a close a two-year investigation. Castellanos, who is not among those indicted, is already serving a life sentence.