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Monday, January 30, 2012

CALIFORNIA - EXCLUSIVE: Gang bust gives rare glimpse of Mexican Mafia's grip on North County

North County Times

A federal indictment of 119 San Diego County gang members, including a Mexican Mafia boss arrested in a pre-dawn raid of his San Marcos home, portrays a sprawling, well-organized criminal network that ran drug dealing on the streets of North County and even extended inside the Vista jail.
Rudy Espudo, 39, controlled Latino gangs in North County and demanded "taxes" from drug dealers and gang members as tribute to "La Eme" ---- Spanish for "The M" and a nickname for the Mexican Mafia, according to the indictment.
Authorities also said that gang members smuggled drugs into the county-run Vista Detention Center and sold them for the Mexican Mafia, punished opponents and relayed orders with ease to and from the outside.
The indictment, which contains prosecutors' reasons for arresting and charging 51 North County gang members, describes the money-driven politics and inner workings of several local Latino gangs.
Some of the gangs have rivalries, but their leaders all obey and make payments to La Eme, a relatively small and powerful cabal of about 200 people spread out over several states.
They operate in state prisons and county jails. In the Vista jail, they smuggled drugs and conducted gang business, the indictment said.
On North County streets, the mafia and gangs under its control, or "surenos," also shook down drug dealers and robbers, demanding a share of their ill-gotten gains, according to the indictment.
Sureno, Spanish for "southerner," is a term that describes a gang member who is loyal to the Mexican Mafia but not a member.
Law enforcement agencies involved in the raids have declined to give details about the criminal organization beyond those in the indictment. They have also refused to release photos of any of the arrested.
Several of those arrested were expected to appear next week in federal court.
Paying 'taxes'
The indictment is replete with discussions about "taxes" or "rent" paid to Espudo.
In some cases, Espudo's associates were demanding monthly tribute from local gangs: the Westside and Diablos of Escondido, Varrio San Marcos and Varrio Fallbrook Locos. The gangs, like anyone else, were reminded and threatened about due dates and assessed late fees for tardy payments.
On Jan. 15, 2011, the Westside gang fell $2,000 behind on payments, the indictment says. A sureno in Vista jail told the then-leader of the Westside gang, also in jail at the time, that Espudo was going to put a "green light" on Westside ---- the Mexican Mafia's blessing and encouragement to attack the gang's members, according to the indictment.
He said Westside gang members arrested from Dec. 25, 2010, onward would be attacked in jail.
The sureno told the Westside leader "to smuggle drugs into the facility and (the sureno) would oversee their distribution in order to fulfill the Westside gang's tax payment," the indictment says.
On Feb. 4, the sureno notified a Westside member that the green light had been lifted.
Authorities say that on Aug. 23, 2011, Gregorio Puebla, a sureno, laid down La Eme's law for a drug dealer. He told her she would "have to pay taxes. ... It doesn't matter if it's your (expletive). You're slinging in the city, anyone slinging in the city has to pay taxes ... whether you like it or not," the indictment says.
"If you get caught lying, you know, or try to dodge, dodge that kind of (expletive), you're going to get into some serious (expletive)," the indictment says.
Typically, "serious" trouble involved being beaten and robbed, the indictment says.
Jails under mafia control
The document hints at one of the most troubling aspects of the Mexican Mafia, described in North County Times interviews with gang experts and current and former gang members: Juvenile hall, jails and prisons don't hinder its criminal operations.
In fact, La Eme counts on them.
The Mexican Mafia formed within the California Department of Corrections in the late 1950s, and uses the institutions to educate and indoctrinate its members and foot soldiers.
La Eme also doesn't tend to include Mexican citizens, typically preferring Chicanos (Mexican-Americans), and is fiercely anti-black. In state prisons, it has alliances with white supremacist groups.
Espudo appears to be a product of La Eme's system.
He was born and raised in Escondido and joined the Diablos street gang about the age of 11, according to a former friend.
Before long, Espudo was arrested as a juvenile. That's when his true education most likely began.
"Their grammar school is juvenile hall," said Richard Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff's gang investigator who spent much of his 30-year career investigating the Mexican Mafia.
"Their high school is jail, and prison is their college. They graduate sophisticated in criminal behavior ---- they come out thoroughly brainwashed, physically fit, clever manipulators of the system."
In juvenile halls ---- institutions run by the California Youth Authority ---- street gang allegiances remain strong. Kids belonging to rival Latino gangs carry their rivalries with them and fight one another while in custody.
Management by obscurity
Most of the kids know little or nothing about the Mexican Mafia, Valdemar said, and probably are oblivious to the fact that their gangs kick drugs and money up to a La Eme boss, and current and former gang members.
Any adult who is arrested and put behind bars in San Diego County will spend time in a county jail. Those convicted of serious or violent crimes are eventually sent to state prison.
In county jail, individual street gang affiliations begin to soften as racial solidarity becomes more important. Latino gangs band together in alliance against black gangs.
This is where the Mexican Mafia's influence begins to take hold. Inmates learn that even their gangs answer to someone higher, and the most dedicated could be named a sureno ---- a foot soldier of the Mexican Mafia, Valdemar said.
Surenos retain their street gang affiliations but pledge their true loyalty to La Eme, he said. Once the surenos get out of jail, they impose La Eme's rules on their own gangs.
Those gangs become known as sureno gangs, loyal to La Eme. The most trusted members become associates of the Mexican Mafia, and some rise to become candidates for membership, the highest rank in the Mexican Mafia, he said.
It's a democratic organization. There is no official hierarchy among its members, or "carnales," and major decisions, such as inducting a new member, require a vote, according to the indictment and Valdemar.
In prison, the real laws are written by La Eme. Some mafia members or associates serving long sentences claim a prison and rule it from within.
Latinos must ask the mafia boss's permission to fight one another and must follow any orders he hands down ---- whether it's smuggling drugs, relaying messages or killing another inmate.
'Crazy' from early age
Espudo, known as "Crazy" or "Crazyboy," had risen to power through this system. He was a carnal, the indictment said.
He wasn't physically imposing; he wore glasses, but even as a teen, was known for his willingness for violence, according to someone familiar with him who asked not to be named.
In June 1996, when he was 24, Espudo and another gang member used a gun to carjack a person who was passing out fliers for a high school's anti-gang event at Washington Park, according to past North County Times reports.
Espudo accepted a plea deal: He pleaded guilty to one count of carjacking and one count of having a prior assault conviction.
In return, prosecutors dropped charges of robbery, evading a police officer with reckless driving, receiving stolen property, possessing a concealable firearm and resisting a police officer ---- crimes that would have doubled his sentence if he were convicted at trial.
He was sentenced to more than a decade in prison. It was not clear when he was released, but he had been a carnal in Escondido for two to three years after his release, according to the source familiar with Espudo.
Still, older gang members tend to be wiser, more deliberate and more motivated by cash than blood lust, gang experts have told the North County Times.
Espudo appeared to reflect that.
Low profile in North County
He lived in relatively quiet neighborhoods not associated with gang activity ---- an apartment on Nordahl Road in San Marcos, not far from Walmart and Costco, and a condo in the Cape Concord neighborhood on Escondido's east side, a cozy area with an active homeowners association.
On Aug. 15, he ordered his associates to remove graffiti from a tree near his home. And, in a move that seemed contrary to gang life in general, he ordered gang members in San Marcos and Escondido to stop tagging entirely about a month later.
Valdemar said this probably wasn't a benevolent act.
Mexican Mafia members have also been known to order an end to drive-by shootings. But it isn't just to be nice, he said.
The aim is to lower the gangs' profiles and to prevent intergang violence that doesn't result in profit. Tagging wars between rival gangs can lead to intergang conflict and violence, which Espudo was probably trying to stop in order to focus on making money, Valedmar said.
Violence amid power vacuum?
Espudo was being held in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, a federal prison, and is scheduled to appear in federal court at 9 a.m. Monday, said U.S. Attorney spokeswoman Debra Hartman.
Valdemar said the indictments and arrests represented impressive work by law enforcement agencies.
"It'll take a while for the Mexican Mafia to get back in place after this," he said. "I would say it would be several months before they find themselves a leader again and try to reorganize the group."
While the arrest was a good thing, it's a mixed blessing, Valdemar said ---- it leaves a power vacuum.
The Latino gangs and unaffiliated thugs and drug dealers might clash over territory until another Mexican Mafia member rises to power to take charge of North County's criminal activity once more.
Call staff writer Brandon Lowrey at 760-740-3517 or follow him on Twitter @NCTLowrey.
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North County Times |
EDITORIAL: A threat in our midst..
Law enforcement teams executing warrants in three investigations Wednesday have made, in our estimation, the biggest strike ever against a growing criminal threat in San Diego County.
After 18 months of investigation, federal, state and local officers ---- including the North County Regional Gang Task Force ---- arrested countywide more than 100 suspects linked to Latino street gangs, including two men authorities said were members of "La Eme," for "M," the 13th letter of the alphabet, otherwise known as the Mexican Mafia.
The North County piece, dubbed "Operation Notorious County," resulted in eight indictments and other criminal complaints charging 51 people, including many from Escondido. One of the indictments charged 40 defendants with racketeering involving the commission of attempted murder, kidnapping, robbery, extortion, money laundering and drug trafficking.
For this work, we thank these officers and investigators and wish them good luck in speedy and effective prosecutions of those arrested.
No longer are North County gangs ---- in this case, specifically gangs in Escondido, San Marcos and Fallbrook ---- merely misguided, home-grown social gangs, young men pursuing their macho act. La Eme's presence changes the threat and means the drug violence of California prisons and Mexican drug cartels is in our midst.
The chief change is that the Mexican Mafia, which is reportedly only about 200 strong, is organized as a criminal syndicate, with bosses exacting taxes or tribute from sycophant lesser gangs on pain of violence, including threats of murder.
Consider this allegation from the indictment: At the direction of Mexican Mafia member and Escondido resident Rudy Espudo, aka "Crazy," members of the city's Westside gang (which reportedly claims the city's core, bounded by Interstate 15, Juniper, Grand Avenue and Felicita as its territory) were ordered to pay "taxes" monthly for the right to sell drugs. When gang members failed to pay a $2,000 tax bill promptly, they were "green-lighted." That means as Westsiders, if they were caught out on the street or in the Vista jail, they were to be beaten and robbed as punishment.
How was the "green light" lifted? By gang members smuggling heroin to inmates inside the Vista jail. The indictment quotes a gang member signaling success: "They say everything is okay; they send their hello to yourself and the camarada to send all our love those from the West Side."
This Mexican Mafia and its spread into our midst is a disease, one that must be rooted out if we are to retain our reasonably safe communities.
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