The Mexican Mafia was formed in 1957 by Michael Cardiel and 13 Hispanic street gang members from different Los Angeles neighborhoods that were all incarcerated at the Deuel Vocational Institution, a California Youth Authority facility, which is now an adult state prison in Tracy, California. They formed in order to protect themselves from other prison gangs at the time. The founder of La eMe is Luis "Huero Buff" Flores who was an active member of the Hawaiian Gardens gang in Hawaiian Gardens, California. Gang warfare between Hispanic neighborhoods was the norm during the 1950s and 60s so the fact that Luis Flores was able to get established enemies to set aside their rivalries upon entry into the prison system was something that was not thought possible. This requirement exists to the present day. Hispanic street gangs like White Fence, The Avenues, Clanton 14, San Fer, and Varrio Nuevo Estrada were already into their second decade and firmly established as self-sustaining entities. Luis Flores initially recruited violent members to the gang in an attempt to create a highly feared organization which could control the black market activities of the Deuel prison facilities. La eMe member Ramon "Mundo" Mendoza claims that in the beginning the overall goal was to terrorize the prison system and enjoy prison comforts while doing time. It is said that the name "Mexican Mafia" was to show respect towards a powerful criminal organization such as the American Mafia and to install fear in individuals.
By 1961 violence got so bad at the Deuel Vocational Institution that administrators transferred a number of the charter La Eme members to San Quentin Penitentiary in the hopes of discouraging their violent behavior. This tactic failed. Cheyenne Cadena arrived on the lower yard of San Quentin and was met by a six-foot-five, 300-pound black inmate. Cadena returned a short time later, walked up to the unsuspecting predator, and stabbed him to death with a jailhouse knife, or shank. There were more than a thousand inmates on the yard and no witnesses stepped forward. A string of other slayings soon followed as La eMe members sought to establish a reputation among the inmates of San Quentin. The Mexican Mafia's quest for complete control alienated many other Mexican-American inmates who were fed up with Mexican Mafia stabbing, killing, and stealing their watches, rings, cigarettes and anything else of value. Some of them secretly founded a new prison gang called La Nuestra Familia (NF) or "Our Family." It was first established in the mid-1960s at the California Correctional Training Facility in Soledad. Some of the early members were from the Los Angeles area, but NF soon drew inmates primarily from rural communities in Northern California. The Mexican Mafia saw Nuestra Familia as inferior and "just a bunch of farmers", or farmeros. However, in 1968 at San Quentin, a full-scale riot broke out after a Mexican Mafia soldier, or soldado, stole a pair of shoes from a Nuestra Familia sympathizer. Nineteen inmates were stabbed and one La eMe associate ended up dead. The battle became known as the "Shoe War" and it established Nuestra Familia as the major La eMe rival.
La eMe should not be confused with the New Mexican Mafia. Around 1974, a group of Hispanic inmates at Arizona State Prison, Florence, formed a prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia. Arizona Department of Corrections officials at that time obtained information that this group patterned themselves after the California Mexican Mafia which had been in existence for several years. Several Hispanics who came into the Arizona Prison System brought the concept and philosophy of the California Mexican Mafia. In 1978 the Mexican Mafia split into two organizations. One kept the original philosophy and structure and currently refer to themselves as the Original Mexican Mafia, "Califas Faction", "EME". The other, which came into prominence in 1984 and refer to themselves as the New Mexican Mafia. Many assaults and murders of members of both groups have occurred as a result of each organization claiming the title of "Mexican Mafia" within the Arizona prison system. They have created their own rules and regulations and have established an organizational structure. Each member is allowed to vote on issues regarding membership and leadership. The leader, approved by the members, has the power to solely decide important issues. Some of their members were previous La eMe members.
Law enforcement believes that La eMe presently is not presided over by a single leader. Many Mexican Mafia members have the authority to order murders and oversee various other criminal activities. They have almost a thousand associates that help carry out those orders and have the theoretical control of all Sureño gang members. Members are expected to engage in tests of their loyalty to La eMe, which may include theft or murder. The penalty for refusing orders or failing to complete an assigned task is often death. According to the gang's constitution, members may also be punished or murdered if they commit any of four major infractions. These include becoming an informant, acts of homosexuality, acts of cowardice, and showing disrespect against fellow gang members. According to gang policy, a member of the Mexican Mafia may not be murdered without prior approval by a vote of three members, yet the murder of non-members requires no formal approval.
During the early 1960s at San Quentin Prison, Luis Flores and Rudy "Cheyenne" Cadena established a blood oath for members of the Mexican Mafia. Prior to the establishment of the oath, members of the Mexican Mafia were allowed to return to their street gangs after incarceration. The new oath stipulated that the only way for a member to leave the Mexican Mafia was to be killed. Flores and Cadena also established a set of gang commandments. These included policies such as: a new member must be sponsored by an existing member, unanimous approval from all existing members to join (no longer policy), prioritizing the gang over one's family, denial of the existence of the Mexican Mafia to law enforcement or non-members, respect of other members, and forgiving street conflicts which existed before incarceration. Execution of a member of the gang for policy violation must be committed by the gang member who sponsored him. La eMe has a blood in blood out credo: Murder or drawing of blood is a prerequisite for membership and anyone trying to get out will be killed.
The rules of conduct are:
- A member may not be an informant, or rat.
- A member may not be a coward.
- "A member may not raise a hand against another member without approval.
- "A member must not show disrespect for any member's family, including sex with another member's wife, or girlfriend.
- "A member must not steal from another member.
- "A member may not be homosexual.
- "A member must not politic against another member or cause dissension within the organization.
- "Membership is for life.
- "It's mandatory to assault/kill all dropouts.
- "The eMe comes first. Even before your own family.
- A member must not interfere with another member's business activities.
The Mexican Mafia is the controlling organization for almost every Hispanic gang in Southern California. Members of almost all Hispanic gangs in Southern California are obliged under the threat of death to carry out any and all orders from made Mexican Mafia members. The Mexican Mafia also holds a loose alliance with the Aryan Brotherhood, mainly due to their common rivals within the prison system. The primary rivals of the Mexican Mafia are Nuestra Familia. The Mexican Mafia is also a rival of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, which holds a loose alliance with La Nuestra Familia. Bloods and Crips are the new enemies.
Mexican Mafia symbols include images of a black hand. The gang's primary symbol, which is often used in tattoos by members, is the national symbol of Mexico (eagle and a snake) atop a flaming circle over crossed knives. Street gangs that are aligned with the Mexican Mafia often use the number 13 as a gang identifier, as the letter "M" is the 13th letter of the modern Latin-derived alphabet.
The Mexican Mafia received mainstream notoriety after being featured in the 1992 movie American Me. The film was co-produced, directed and starred in by actor Edward James Olmos, who allegedly received death threats by members of the Mexican Mafia for what they considered an unflattering depiction of the gang. Two consultants for the film were murdered shortly after the film's release, though it is unclear whether the murders were tied to the Mexican Mafia or to recent layoffs that had provoked death threats. The Mexican Mafia was allegedly displeased with the portrayal of the murder of Rodolfo Cadena (who was the basis for Olmos' character Santana) as being committed by his fellow gang members. Mexican Mafia members were also allegedly offended by the portrayal of homosexual rape committed by Puppet, a Mexican Mafia character in the film who in the latter part of the movie murders his own brother, Li'l Puppet, for disrespecting La eMe. Olmos subsequently applied for a concealed handgun permit, which was denied to him. Joe Morgan, while serving a life sentence for murder at Pelican Bay State Prison, filed a $500,000 lawsuit against Olmos, Universal Studios, and other producers of the film. Morgan claimed that one of the principal characters in the film was based on him without obtaining his permission.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Mexican Mafia had arranged for contract killings to be carried out by the Aryan Brotherhood, a white prison gang. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood are mutual enemies of the African-American gang Black Guerrilla Family. Even though homosexuals are barred from entry into La eMe, they are engaged heavily in homosexual prostitution in the prison system. Many of the street level homicides in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles committed by the Avenues gang were done on orders issued by the Mexican Mafia. The Mexican Mafia is involved in a variety of criminal activities both inside and outside the prison system, but its main source of income is extorting drug distributors outside prison and distributing various narcotics within and outside the prison system. In 1992, an example of La eMe's influence and power over Sureños was made clear to law enforcement. Joe Morgan, a prominent Mexican Mafia leader, ordered that no more drive-by shootings and violence was to take place by Sureños. Between April, when the edict was announced, and September 1992 there were no drive-by shootings in East Los Angeles and this area was notorious for violence and drive-bys.
The first murder outside of prison that was ordered by La eMe occurred in 1971 when Mexican Mafia member Alfonso "Pachie" Alvarez was found shot twice in the head in a secluded area of Monterey Park. His offense: collecting taxes on narcotics dealers without kicking up the profits to eMe leaders behind bars, known in the gang as "Big Homies" or Emeros. The person responsible for the murder was Joe "Pegleg" Morgan—the notorious white godfather of La eMe who had ascended by then to become one of the highest-ranking bosses of the entire eMe organization, even with no "official" Mexican blood himself. His connections with cocaine and heroin suppliers in Mexico helped pave the foundation for the Mexican Mafia's narcotics distribution throughout California. During the 1970s, while under the control of Morgan's protégé Rodolfo Cadena, the Mexican Mafia often took control over various community groups. The gang was able to filter money from alcohol and drug prevention programs to finance their criminal activities. The Mexican Mafia and the Italian-American Los Angeles crime family collaborated in skimming money from Get Going, a taxpayer-funded drug treatment program. By 1977, Get Going founder Ellen Delia was determined to expose the infiltration of her beloved program. Shortly before an appointment with the California State Secretary of Health and Welfare Services, Delia was murdered. Her collection of evidence on Italian and Mexican Mafia infiltration of the Get Going program was never recovered.
Alfred Arthur Sandoval a.k.a. Chato (Arizona Maravilla), a high ranking eMe member, shot and killed Gilbert Martinez and Anthony Aceves; a third victim Manuel Torres survived the attack. Ray and Marlene Wells were also shot execution style in their home in Belvedere Park. Alfred Sandoval was also charged in these murders. Finally in 2000, Alfred Arthur Sandoval, the highest ranking Eme member (now) in California, had his death sentence for the murder of Marlene Wells overturned by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In 1998, United States federal authorities indicted 22 members and associates of the Mexican Mafia, charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act with crimes which included extortion, murder, and kidnapping. One of the arrested members, Benjamin "Topo" Peters (Arizona Maravilla), was allegedly the Mexican Mafia's highest-ranking member at the time, and was engaged in a power struggle with fellow member Ruben "Tupi" Hernandez (OVS). Another indicted member was accused of having plotted the death of an anti-gang activist who served as a consultant for the film American Me. The indictments marked a two-year investigation by federal, local, and state law enforcement officials.
In 2006, a 36-count federal indictment was brought against members of the Mexican Mafia. The arrests were made for alleged acts of violence, drug dealing, and extortion against smaller Latino street gangs. According to the federal indictment, Mexican Mafia members exert their influence in both federal and state prison systems through either violence or the threat of violence. Members and associates of the gang remain fiercely loyal to the criminal organization both in and outside of prison, particularly in Southern California cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego. The gang asserts its influence over Chicano gangs throughout Southern California by threatening violence against their members should they ever become incarcerated. Gangs and drug dealers who refuse to pay a protection "tax" to the Mexican Mafia are often murdered or threatened with murder. High-ranking members of the Mexican Mafia who are locked in private cells for 23 hours of each day are still able to communicate with their associates, through methods which range from tapping in code on prison plumbing pipes to smuggled letters. The primary goal of the Mexican Mafia is to control all drug trafficking in all areas that they have been established.
In early 2012 there was a federal indictment of 119 San Diego County gang members, including a Mexican Mafia boss that was arrested in a 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 was in control of the Hispanic gangs in the area and forced drug dealers to pay taxes in tribute to La eMe or face the consequences. The local gangs were smuggling narcotics into the Vista Detention Center in order to sell them for the Mexican Mafia. On North County streets la eMe ordered Surenos to obtain taxes from the local drug dealers. Members of the Azusa 13 gang, associated with the Mexican Mafia, were indicted in 2011 for harassing and intimidating black people in Southern California.