Tom Diaz

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In Corruption, Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on March 28, 2009 at 7:59 pm

“These days the narcos think nothing of killing us for no reason other than marking their territory,” one police commander said after seeing fellow officers murdered.

Police Commander Murdered in Mexico City

Police Commander Murdered in Mexico City

From, “Firepower and Bloodshed: Houston’s Underworld Connection with Mexican Drug Cartels, ” by Clarence Walker, The New Criminologist.

In the end the war between civilization and gangsters comes down to one question.  Who rules?  Whose “marker” prevails?

I had occasion recently to hear the former governor of a Mexican state describe how the relationships among the drug trafficking criminal enterprises, the legitimate government of the state, and political geography had changed over the last decade or so.  He is a man with painfully earned insight.

In the old days, he explained, criminals only wanted safe passage to do whatever they did.  So corruption was pervasive but ephemeral.  The criminals would bribe as necessity dictated:  a customs officer here, a police chief there, another official elsewhere in order to make possible a specific transaction or set of events.  The corrupted officials would look the other way.  Drugs would move from point A to point B without hassle, and life went on.

The difference now, he explained, has several dimensions:

  • The criminals now want to contest the legitimate government for total control of territory.
  • Within that territory, they want to preempt the traditional roles of government and enterprise.  They want to tax, administer “justice,” take over profitable business enterprises, and control the people as their subjects.
  • Criminal factions — such as DTOs — battle with each other for control of territory, regardless of who or what is technically sovereign.

If the criminals can seize total or effective control of the law enforcement function (public safety, enforcement of the rules of civil society) the battle is over.  They win. There is a spectrum of ways and means in which the security/law enforcement function (if not the bureaucratic structure) can be co-opted to criminality.

One way is to seize physical control by corruption or intimidation — members of the criminal enterprise actually hold office, or they can pay or frighten legitimate office holders into acting as surrogates of the criminals.  The latter process is known as “plata o plomo” (silver or lead) in Mexico.  It is in effect the axis about which revolves President Felipe Calderon’s fight to destroy the power of the Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  Here is a succinct description from a longer pre-Calderon but informative discourse:

The necessary involvement of police officials at the local, state, and national levels, and the Mexican military, complicates the battle over turf. Corruption pollutes well-intentioned policemen and soldiers. The law of “plata o plomo,” a choice between accepting a job on a criminal payroll or accepting a bullet in the head, perennially compromises members of the Mexican security forces at all levels…Millions of dollars a year land in the hands of policemen, intelligence agents, mayors, port masters, pilots, and many other officials who face the infamous “plata o plomo” decision.

Mexican feathers are ruffled when the matter is put so bluntly.  It is what it is.  Some serious law enforcement officials in the U.S. worry that half of the equation — the plata — is already here.  If the plata is here, can the plomo be far behind?  Not yet.  And perhaps never on a significant scale.  Cop-killers in the United States tend to have short life expectancies.  But this germ may be incubating.  If the narcos win in Mexico, count on it — all aspects of their putrescence will ooze north, where they have already established substantial logistical and administrative operations in a number of cities.

"HXCXR" = "Harbor City Rifa (Rules)" According to This Source

"HXCXR" = "Harbor City Rifa (Rules)" According to This Source

Another way is to drive legitimate authority out of certain areas, establishing “no-go” zones where the state theoretically still rules, but the cops can or will enter only with a show of extraordinary force.

The final way is to establish a shadow government — let the pinche cops drive through and make an occasional sweep, but the people know that we’re always here, so we rule anyway.  The graffiti of Latino criminal street gangs often includes the letter “R” or the word “rifa” (“rules”) — a leg-lifting marker aimed at other gangs — and at least implicitly at legitimate sovereign authority.

In the United States, by the way, some gangs and gangsters have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams by NOT fighting the power.  They co-opted legitimate authority by conning government circles.  Chicago is famous for having provided a culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s in which its current “super-gangs” rooted, were nurtured with government cash. More recently, in Los Angeles Hector “Big Weasel” Marroquin represented himself as a “reformed” 18th Street gangster.  He established a group called “No Guns.” Its staff is said to have consisted mostly of his own family members.  Here is how the authoritative blog “In the Hat” sums up the effect of Marroquin‘s post-reformation career:

Marroquin has basically been shoved down the throats of gang cops by their commanders for years as a person they should work with to quell gang violence and divert young people from the life.

Hector "Big Weasel" Marroquin Back in the Slam After Conning L.A.'s Kumbaya Krowd

Hector "Big Weasel" Marroquin Back in the Slam After Conning L.A.'s Kumbaya Krowd

But it turns out Marroquin was not so reformed after all! Busted by ATF last year, “Big Weasel” pleaded  “no contest” to three counts of manufacture, distribution and transport for sale of an unlawful assault weapon.  He was sentenced to eight years in prison.  There is simply no telling what violence “No Guns” was responsible for.

An example of a gang shadow government was the area around MacArthur Park in Los Angeles that I write about in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press (June 2009),  No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement. Mexican Mafia gangster Francisco “Puppet” Martinez bossed the Columbia Lil Cycos clique of the 18th Street Gang from his federal prison cell in the 1990s until the FBI and federal prosecutor Bruce Riordan broke up the party.  But, like the poisonous Chinaberry tree, gangs “can form dense thickets that crowd out native vegetation.” They are “poisonous to humans and small mammals… [and] multiple treatments are usually necessary to successfully eradicate” them.  Some eradication is still going on, I am told.

Few gangs in the United States have succeeded in totally controlling territory.  But the Drew Street clica of the Avenues Gang came close.  An excellent NPR radio story linked here describes how bad things had gotten — it’s a little over four minutes long and well worth listening to.

Gangster Tools:  Table-O-Guns Seized in Joint Task Force Raid on Drew Street Clique

Gangster Tools: Table-O-Guns Seized in Joint Task Force Raid on Drew Street Clique

This excerpt from a federal RICO indictment  — in the case of United States v. Francisco (“Pancho”) Real, United States District Court for the Central District of California, docket no. CR08-00688, filed June 12, 2008 — handed down against Drew Street and its members provides basic information about the Avenues Gang and the Drew Street clique.  Note how the gang asserted “sovereign” control over territory and even plotted to violently confront law enforcement:

The Avenues gang is a multi-generational street gang that was formed in the 1940s and claims..[a defined area] as its “territory” in Northeast Los Angeles.  The Avenues Gang is divided into a number of smaller groups, or “cliques,” based on geography and associations in the neighborhood controlled by the gang…

The Avenues gang has been traditionally loyal and committed to “Mexican Mafia,” also known as “La Eme.”  Avenues leaders frequently extort money from local drug traffickers, members of other gangs, prostitutes, residents, and persons who maintain businesses in the area controlled by the gang.  Avenues gang members also frequently intimidate, threaten and assault persons in the area as a means to intimidate and control the people in their neighborhoods, including potential witnesses who would testify about their crimes.  Their crimes typically include acts of violence, ranging from battery to murder, drug-trafficking offenses, witness intimidation, alien smuggling, weapons-trafficking and, very frequently, hate crimes directed against African-American persons who might attempt to reside or be present in the ares controlled by the gang.  Members frequently conduct robberies to generate funds for the larger organization and Avenues hierarchy.

The Drew Street gang is a recently formed clique with the Avenues gang.  The Drew Street gang is part of the Avenues gang, and it authorized by the Avenues and the Mexican Mafia (aka, “La Eme”) to control the area of Northeast Los Angeles in the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Drew Street and Estara Avenue.
Members of the Drew Street gang enforce the authority of the gang to commit its crimes by directing acts of violence and retaliation against non-compliant drug-traffickers and rival gang members.  The organization also directs attacks against law enforcement officers and witnesses who would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement for the prosecution of the crimes committed by members of the Drew Street gang….The Drew Street gang ordinarily is vigilant to the presence of “outsiders,” or persons not immediately known to the gang, who may intentionally or inadvertently attempt to enter the territory controlled by the gang.  Gang members are likely to identify such persons and physically threaten or kill them.

Los Angeles city and law enforcement authorities finally had enough and moved in on the gangster empire with a “holistic” approaching, mobilizing a range of forces in a pincer movement and frontal assault to erase the gang’s dense thicket of poisonous power. 

Fairly Civil will describe that in the next posting about the Drew Street gang.



In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on March 27, 2009 at 4:03 pm
Mexikanemi Tattoo

Mexikanemi Tattoo

The Mexikanemi, or Texas Mafia, gang is a major player connected to the Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs).  In Part One of this series Fairly Civil gave an overview of this gang.  Part Two dug more into the gang’s ruthless violence, quoted its astonishing constitution — which commits the enterprise to “every thing[sic]…criminally imaginable” — and provided an example of the application of Mexikanemi “constitutional law” in a vile intra-gang prison murder.

This final part will examine a bit more of the gang’s organization, its role in the illicit drug trade, and the willingness of its gangsters, like most gangsters everywhere, to “flip” and become cooperators when it’s a choice between their ass and those of their carnales‘ (“brothers'”).

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

Today’s text begins with excerpts from the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) indictment in United States v. Jacinto Navajar (United States District Court for the Western District of Texas, docket no. SA08CR047XR, filed January 29, 2008).

The indictment first summarizes what makes the Texas Mafia a criminal enterprise, and thus subject to RICO’s harsh reach.  (The indictment uses the past tense throughout, I suppose because the crimes alleged were in the past. This style is a bit annoying, because everything alleged continues today, but we’ll go with the exact quotes for the record):

The Texas Mexican Mafia was an organization which was self-dedicated to organized criminal conduct in the principal forms of extortion, drug trafficking, robbery, assault, and murder. The Texas Mexican Mafia, including its leadership, membership, and associates, constituted an “enterprise” as that term is defined in Title 18, United States Code, Section 1961 (4), that is, a group of individuals associated in fact.

Not just a bunch of guys hanging out, but an organized criminal group doing bad things as its essence.  Next, the indictment provides a capsule history of Mexikanemi’s formation and growth:

The Texas Mexican Mafia was formed in the early 1980’s by inmates incarcerated in the Texas state prison system. Its original members banded together behind bars to protect one another from violence from incarcerated non-members and to engage more effectively in organized criminal activity. This criminal activity included drug trafficking in the prison system, assaults on fellow inmates, and extortion. The original members were largely from San Antonio, Texas and at some point the Texas Mexican Mafia drafted a “constitution” and declared San Antonio its “capital.” As its membership grew and individual members were released from prison, most of them settled in San Antonio, where they resumed their criminal conduct…The Texas Mexican Mafia maintained chapters in most of the large cities in Texas but San Antonio was by far the largest and most active chapter and its members who held rank were accorded special status.

The illegal traffic in drugs is the most lucrative of criminal enterprises, so it’s no surprise that’s the Mexikanemi’s main business.  Here’s what they do and how they do it:

One of the organization’s principal activities and sources of income was trafficking in illegal drugs. Its members obtained large quantities of narcotics and distributed them among its membership and non-members for sale, that is, conventional street drug distribution. The Texas Mexican Mafia also required non-members who distributed narcotics to pay a “tax” for the privilege of selling narcotics. This extortion payment or tax was known as “the dime” or “the ten percent” or by the informal Spanish term for “the dime”: “el daime.” The organization imposed and collected a ten percent tax on the proceeds of all illegal drug sales by non-members. Failure to pay the tax could result in serious bodily injury, robbery, or death. In exchange for paying the ten percent drug tax, the Texas Mexican Mafia provided the taxpayer protection from robbery, assistance in collecting drug debts, and a degree of protection from competing drug dealers. The illegal drugs distributed by the enterprise, which included heroin and cocaine, were purchased, sold and distributed in interstate and foreign commerce.

“Taxation” connected to asserted geographical control are key aspects of modern organized criminal groups.  They put street gangs and DTOs in competition with legitimate governments  for de facto “territorial sovereignty” — a competition which which has lead to direct confrontation in Mexico and elsewhere.  Another aspect of sovereignty is administration of justice, and “La Emi” (last letter “i,” distinguished from the Californian “La Eme”) has its own rules and merciless punishments for those who are found to have violated them:

The members of the Texas Mexican Mafia were governed by a strict code of conduct that was enforceable by death or serious injury. The code absolutely prohibited cooperation by any member with law enforcement officials.

Robert Perez Was Executed for Two Murders in Intra-Gang Struggle for Control -- Two of His Carnales Ratted Him Out

Robert Perez Was Executed for Two Murders in Intra-Gang Struggle for Control -- Two of His Carnales Ratted Him Out

In fact, according to news reports, about half of the co-conspirators in this case have already flipped and cooperated as part of their plea-bargains.  So much for absolute prohibitions of cooperation.  As the prison murder described in Part Two illustrates, these guys will kill their brothers (carnales) over petty intramural intrigue.  They are also happy to whack a blood brother in a fight for control after a leader dies or is otherwise hors de combat.  Mexikanemi leader Robert Anthony Martinez Perez, 48, was executed by lethal injection in Texas in March 2007 after having been convicted of two gang-succession murders.  He was largely sent over based on the testimony of flipped carnales.   I write at length about similar intra-mural murderous intrigue in the California Mexican Mafia in my forthcoming book No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement.  Greed is thicker than notional blood, homes.

San Antonio is still the capital of the Texas Mexican Mafia.  Both the city and the gang play key roles in the illicit drug trade, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center:

Several Mexican DTOs have recently relocated from the South Texas border area to San Antonio, facilitating the development of San Antonio as a national-level transshipment point for cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and heroin. Drug traffickers are also establishing numerous stash locations in the San Antonio area from which they can distribute wholesale quantities of illicit drugs throughout the country, particularly to central and eastern U.S. markets.

The Mexikanemi prison gang, which is based in San Antonio, controls a significant portion of wholesale and midlevel drug distribution in the city. The gang supplies many local street gangs in San Antonio and operates its own extensive retail distribution network. After selling illicit drugs to local gangs, Mexikanemi then collects a 10 percent “street tax” on the profits generated by the sale of these drugs. Mexikanemi operates throughout Texas and is actively recruiting members from small communities around San Antonio and throughout South Texas. Mexikanemi members have a propensity for violence and have been linked to numerous assaults, murders, and shootings.

Map of South Texas Border Shows Problem of Trafficking Graphically

Map of South Texas Border Shows Problem of Trafficking Graphically

Gangsters Favor Capital Punishment -- So Long As They Are The Executioners

Gangsters Favor Capital Punishment -- So Long As They Are The Executioners


In Corruption, Crime, Guns, Mexico, Terrorism, Terrorism and counter-terrorism, Transnational crime on March 25, 2009 at 1:22 pm
Snort Coke, Kill Babies:  World-Class Terrorist Group Hezbollah Has Been Linked To Drug Traffickers in Latin America

Snort Coke, Kill Babies: World-Class Terrorist Group Hezbollah Has Been Linked To Drug Traffickers in Latin America

Terrorist groups like Lebanon’s blood-drenched Hezbollah are exploiting the wretched of the earth — whom they claim to represent — through drug-trafficking for three main reasons:

  • The decline of state sponsorship for terrorist groups — the Soviet Union has collapsed, smaller players like Libya have been whipped into line (although Iran still deals blood cards to its friends like Hezbollah).
  • The success of government agencies — like the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence — in disrupting private funding for terrorist groups.
  • The fact that nothing brings in the cash like drug trafficking. It is simply the most lucrative criminal trade in the world.
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, right, U.S. DEA regional director David Gaddis, center, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief of operations Michael Braun, speak during a meeting in Managua, Monday, Feb. 4, 2008.

Odd Fellows: Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, right, U.S. DEA regional director David Gaddis, center, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief of operations Michael Braun, met in Managua, Feb. 4, 2008.

Michael Braun ought to know.  Then assistant administrator for operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Braun spoke at length last year on the relationship between terrorist groups and drug trafficking.  You can listen to his fascinating presentation here.  Among other interesting points, Braun told his audience that terrorist operations per se cost relatively little — the September 11th attacks, he said, are estimated to have cost about $500,000, which is less than the one year’s bonus of a middling officer in a failed financial insitution these days.  The big ticket is the quotidian daily cost of any group’s clandestine operations:  e.g., recruiting, training, procuring arms, corrupting public officals, obtaining documents, and transportation.

Braun — now a principal at the private security group Spectre Group International — more recently touched on the similarities and affinities of terrorist groups and drug-trafficking organizations in testimony before the Subcommittee on The Western Hemisphere of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee:

The cartels operate just like terrorist organizations, with extremely complex organizational structures, consisting of highly compartmentalized cells: distribution cells, transportation cells, money laundering cells, and in some cases assassination cells or ‘hit squads.’ Many experts believe Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations are far more sophisticated, operationally and organizationally, then Middle Eastern terrorist organizations. In fact, some experts believe that Middle Eastern terrorist organizations actually copied the drug trafficking cartels’ sophisticated organizational model for their advantage. This sophisticated organizational model continues to thwart law enforcement and security services around the globe. Cell members are so compartmentalized that they possess little, if any knowledge of the greater organizations that encircle and support their nodes; therefore, they can share little of value with law enforcement when apprehended.

The Mexican cartels rely heavily on three of their most important tradecraft tools to maintain power: corruption, intimidation and violence the ‘hallmarks of organized crime.’ If they can’t corrupt you, they will intimidate you; if that doesn’t work, they will turn to brutal violence. Without the hallmarks of organized crime, the cartels simply cannot effectively operate. The Mexican cartels spend hundreds of millions of dollars to corrupt each year, and they have succeeded in corrupting virtually every level of the Mexican government. If anyone believes for one minute that these powerful syndicates are not looking north into the United States to corrupt they’re obviously blind. We are already experiencing a spillover of drug related violence, and it’s not just in communities along our SWB. It’s also playing out in places like Atlanta, Chicago, Omaha, Seattle, Maui and Anchorage.

That’s a lot of information packed into two paragraphs.

Terrorist Attacks on September 11th Said to Cost About $500,000 -- Chump Change in the Wall Street Bonus World

Terrorist Attacks on September 11th Said to Cost About $500,000 -- Chump Change in the Wall Street Bonus World

Terrorist Bombing of Trains in Madrid Said to Have Been Financed By Sale of Hashish and MDMA

Terrorist Bombing of Trains in Madrid Said to Have Been Financed By Sale of Hashish and MDMA

Terrorist Groups in Criminal Enterprises Generally

Here is what terrorism-financing expert and former Treasury official Matt Levitt has written recently about the nexus between terrorist groups and drug trafficking in general:

While terrorist groups are involved in a wide variety of criminal activity, ranging from cigarette smuggling to selling counterfeit products, the nexus between drugs and terror is particularly strong. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 19 of the 43 U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations are definitively linked to the global drug trade, and up to 60 percent of terror organizations are suspected of having some ties with the illegal narcotics trade.

Terrorist groups are particularly attracted to the drug trade because of the potential profits. The United Nations estimates that the international drug trade generates $322 billion per year in revenue, making drugs by far the most lucrative illicit activity. Beyond just selling the product, drugs provide many different avenues of revenue, including taxing farmers and local cartels, and providing security needs for all aspects of production, trade, and distribution. Groups like the Afghan Taliban, the Columbian FARC, and the Lebanese Hezbollah generate significant resources from the extortion fees they collect from drug cartels and poppy or coca farmers operating in their “territory.”

Hezbollah and Other Middle Eastern Terrorist Groups Active in Latin American Drug Traffic

The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah has a long record of engaging in criminal enterprises to raise funds.  Barbara Newman and I wrote at length about this history of Hezbollah in our book Lightning Out of Lebanon:  Hezbollah Terrorists on American Soil.  We focused on the cigarette-trafficking operations of one cell in Charlotte, North Carolina, but also addressed the history of Hezbollah and its criminal and terror operations, including those in Latin America.

Wild West Tri-Border Region Is Ideal Interface for Terrorist Groups and Criminal Schemes, Including Drug Trafficking

Wild West Tri-Border Region Is Ideal Interface for Terrorist Groups and Criminal Schemes, Including Drug Trafficking

Hezbollah is among other terror groups on the bloody terror tit of Iran.  In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee in April 2008 then-Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey stated, “we have an estimate that Iran provides between $100 million and $200 million a year to Hezbollah alone.”  But $200 million doesn’t nearly meet Hezbollah’s needs.  So it operates as vast, world-wide criminal enterprise to raise funds.  One obvious place is the wild-west Tri-Border Region where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina come together.  Notorious for its lawlessness, the region has become a major interface between Andean cocaine Land and Middle Eastern Terror Land.

Here is Levitt on the point [he prefers the official spelling of Hizballah, I like Hezbollah.  You say, “tomato” . . . etc.]:

In South America, Hizballah operatives engage in a wide range of criminal enterprises, including mafia-style shakedowns of local Arab communities, sophisticated import-export scams involving traders from India and Hong Kong, and small companies that engage in only a few thousand dollars worth of actual business but help transfer tens of thousands of dollars around the globe. The Tri-Border Area is especially important to Hizballah; according to the U.S. Naval War College, the group raises nearly $10 million per year there.

And on the broader point of terrorists and drug traffickers, here is an excerpt from the “Posture Statement 2009” of Admiral James G. Stavridis, United States Navy Commander, United States Southern Command, given before House and Senate Armed Services Committees:

One specific area of increasing concern is the nexus of illicit drug trafficking — including routes, profits, and corruptive influence — and terrorism.  In the Western Hemisphere, the illicit drug trade historically has contributed, and continues to contribute, significant financial resources to known terrorist groups like the FARC in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru.  Another threat to the United States is the nexus within Islamic radical terrorism.  In August of last year, U.S. Southern Command supported a Drug Enforcement Administration operation, in coordination with host countries, that targeted a Hizballah-connected drug trafficking organization in the Tri-Border Area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay.  Last October, we supported another interagency operation that resulted in the arrests of a several dozen individuals in Colombia associated with a Hizballah-connected drug trafficking and money laundering ring.  Identifying, monitoring, and dismantling the financial, logistical, and communication linkages between the illicit trafficking groups and terrorist sponsors are critical to not only ensuring early indications and warnings of potential terrorist attacks directed at the United States and our partners, but also in generating a global appreciation and acceptance of this tremendous threat to security.


“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on March 24, 2009 at 1:15 pm

Mutilations have hallmarked this year’s slaughter, and Dr Hiram Munoz, chief forensic autopsy expert assigned to the homicide department in Tijuana, told me how “each different mutilation leaves a clear message. They have become a kind of folk tradition. If the tongue is cut out, it means they talked too much. A man who sneaked on the clan has his finger cut off and maybe put in his mouth [a snitch is known as a dedo, or finger]. If you are castrated, you may have slept with the woman of another man. Decapitation is another thing altogether: a statement of power, a warning to all, like public executions of old. The difference is that in normal times, the dead were ‘disappeared,’ buried or dumped in the desert. Now they are displayed for all to see, so that it becomes a war against the people.”

Ed Vulliamy, “Day of the Dead,” The Observer, Sunday 7 December 2008

"Calavera Huertista," Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913)

"Calavera Huertista," Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913)

This excerpt from Ed Vulliamy’s perceptive article about the drug violence in Mexico is a fine touchstone for the often-repeated assertion in the United States:  it can’t happen here.

Can it not?  That depends on what the meaning of “it” is.  If “it” means bold violence, heedless of authority, made possible by a parity of fire-power between criminals and law enforcement authorities, one could argue that it is already beginning to happen here.  Incubating.

“There just seems to be that there’s a greater willingness on the part of these bad guys to take out a police officer,” Miami Police Chief John Timoney told TIME. “I see that locally here. Then you look at it nationally, there’s [also] been a huge increase.”

Incubation:  Another Traffic Stop, Another AK, Another Dead Cop (Miami-Dade PD)

Incubation: Another Traffic Stop, Another AK, Another Dead Cop (Miami-Dade PD)

Go ahead, argue that the man who killed four Oakland, California cops in a few hour’s — nay, few minute’s — work was a bad man, a felon and parole-violator who broke existing laws.  The ineluctable fact remains that the ability of one man — much less powerful and ruthless transnational criminal organizations — to successfully confront armed law enforcement officers is made possible by the pollution of military-style firearms that is drowning civil society in the Western Hemisphere.

It is fair to say that a crucial difference yet remains between the violence in Mexico and that in the United States —  criminal organizations in the U.S. have not yet mounted organized assaults against security forces.  Still, in the latest of three year-long intensive studies of felonious assaults on law-enforcement officers, the FBI found that of 40 selected incidents involving 43 perpetrators, 13 perps — just about a third — admitted gang affiliation and involvement with drug-trafficking.  Incubating.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

Moreover, the point here is that the capability exists, transnational criminal organizations are integrating vertically — cartels to gangs to street corners — and spreading geographically.  The situation is not static.  There is no reason to believe that the United States can necessarily escape the operation of a stern lesson of history:  societies can and often do gradually come to accept present horrors unthinkable at one time as “normal” in another.   People forget the tranquility of their past civility.  Viz., a man takes a leisurely drive through southern Alabama and murders ten people shooting from his car?

It would be a mistake to depend on gangsters to draw their own lines of self-restraint.

On that question, consider the message inscribed in the constitution of the Mexikanemi — the Texas Mexican Mafia [read Part One of the inquiry into this group here and Part Three here].

In 2004 the Court of Appeals of Texas,  8th District, sitting in El Paso, decided the appeal of one Richard Morales Castillo in the case of Castillo V. Texas.  Castillo was convicted of capital murder, committed in the El Paso County Detention Facility.  The victim was another mafia member.

The appeals court reported that one of the witnesses in the trial of the case, Sgt. James Nance, a detention sergeant with the  El Paso County Sheriff’s Department and head of the facility’s Security Threat Group Intelligence Unit, gave expert testimony at trial about the Mexikanemi.  Among other things, Sgt. Nance testified that he had recovered from a cell a copy of the Mexikanemi constitution.   The court wrote that “in addition to describing the duties of each rank and decreeing that consequences that would follow violation of the rules by any member,” the constitution provides:

In being a criminal organization, we assume what-ever aspect of criminal practices for the benefit and advancement of the Mexikanemi. We deal in drugs, contracts of assassination, prostitution, robberies of the highest degree, gambling, extortion, weapons or any and every other thing criminally imaginable.

Ponder that, gentle reader.  “Everything criminally imaginable.”

The brutality of the Mexikanemi gangsters can be gleaned from the details of the crime of capital murder of which Castillo and others were convicted at trial.  It appears that the victim, one Richard Blacknell offended Castillo, who set about organizing Blacknell’s gang-inflicted capital punishment. [See, gangsters are OK with capital punishment as long as they are the ones dishing it out.]  Here is how it went down the morning of December 12, 1994, when Blacknell’s carnales killed him and tried to make it look like a suicide, meanwhile intimidating witnesses:

Bracknell had been standing by the cell door. All of the other Mexican Mafia members, except Romero, were in the cell and they grabbed Bracknell. Romero stood in the doorway with a shank. The Mexican Mafia members held Bracknell while Appellant wrapped a sock around his neck and choked him. Cazares heard Bracknell say in Spanish, “Give me a break, brothers”. Appellant replied, “It’s official, mother-f—-r.” Bracknell made gagging sounds for several seconds then dropped to the floor. Appellant immediately walked out of the cell and the other members began cleaning up the scene. Cazares could hear them flushing toilets and looking for rags to clean the floor. They were also looking for somewhere to hang Bracknell. He saw them walk past the cell carrying Bracknell’s body to the shower. Cazares then heard them turn on the shower and close the curtain. After the murder, Appellant and Romero threatened to kill the non-members or their families if they said anything about the murder. Consequently, Cazares initially told investigators that he had been asleep during the murder.

Mexikanemi Constitutional Law in action.  The point here is how cold-blooded these gangsters are, even when killing their “blood brothers.”  It’s just another day in Mexikanemi Land.

It Can't Happen Here?

It Can't Happen Here?

And some “experts” expect people like this to exercise restraint?


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on March 23, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Mexico’s ongoing wars — drug cartel against drug cartel, and drug cartels against government — have finally caught the attention of the United States.  Getting the attention of the media and the government is a good thing if it means that serious efforts will be made to stem the U.S. contribution to the hydra-headed complex of issues that have caused the eruptions of drug-related violence.  Not so good if we do nothing more than obsess about “border violence,” as if the southwestern states are the only place where the explosive combination of drugs, guns, and gangs is resulting in frightening violence.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

The border region is only one place, and a notionally defined one at that, where powerful, transnational forces are creating havoc. When cops get gunned down with assault weapons in Miami and San Francisco, and children are shot to death in the crossfire in Chicago or Portland or Miami or your town, it’s all part of the same evil brew.  Our bad gun control policy and bad drug war policy are home in the roost.

Mexikanemi Insignia

Mexikanemi Insignia

Mexikanemi Insignia's Incorporation of Mexican National Symbol of Eagle and Snake Evokes Pre-Conquest Theme

Mexikanemi Insignia's Incorporation of Mexican National Symbol of Eagle and Snake Evokes Pre-Conquest Theme

But, okay, I get it.  Right now our attention is on the border.  So Fairly Civil will look at Mexikanemi, one of several “Mexican Mafias” in the Southwest and a central player in the illicit drug trade and the violence it spawns.  [Read Part Two here and Part Three here.]

The Mexican Mafias

These mafias, powerful prison-spawned gangs, tend to get lumped together in the media and even among some law enforcement people.  But there are actually several different strains of the Mexican Mafia bacillus, independent of the original gang and of each other. What they all have in common is ruthless violence in pursuit of the business of drug-trafficking, accompanied by extortion, murder, theft, assaults, home invasions, and trafficking in guns and other contraband.

Al Capone -- Among the Original Mexican Mafia's Role Models

Al Capone -- Among the Original Mexican Mafia's Role Models

Mexican Mafia Adopted Black Hand Symbol of Sicilian Mafia

Mexican Mafia Adopted Black Hand Symbol of Sicilian Mafia

The original Mexican Mafia prison gang was created in the late 1950s by young Latino gangsters from Southern California incarcerated at the Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, California.  Also called “La Eme,” or simply “Eme” — Spanish for the 13th letter of the alphabet (“M”) and source of the many variations of the number “13” (e.g., XIII) that so-called “Sureno” (Southern) gangs use to signal their fealty to the prison gang — the Mexican Mafia relatively quickly became a powerful force within California’s prison system.  As Eme matured, it also seized control of most of the Southern California Latino gangs, forcing them to pay to the mafia a share of their profits from the lucrative drug business.  This led naturally to still-evolving alliances with Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).  It is no coincidence that the founding Eme gangsters adopted the black hand of the Sicilian mafia and the name “mafia” — they wanted to emulate the blood-drenched success of the Italian mob.

Gangs in the Southwest Border Region

The (FBI) National Gang Intelligence Center’s 2009 forecast reports that, “Approximately 5,297 gangs with nearly 111,000 members are criminally active in the Southwest Region…According to interviews with local law enforcement officers, gangs are responsible for as much as 60 percent of crime in some communities in the Southwest Region. The most significant gangs operating in the region are Barrio Azteca, Latin Kings, Mexikanemi, Tango Blast, and Texas Syndicate.”

Firearms Trafficking

Guns are demonstrably the tools of the gangs and the DTO’s — the real-life manifestation of Wayne Lapierre’s utterance that “the guys with the guns make the rules.” No military-style guns, no military-style power.  Lax U.S. gun laws and the American gun industry’s heavy marketing of military-style firearms have made the United States a convenient 7-11-style convenience store arsenal for U.S.-based gangs and transnational criminal organizations alike.  In its 2008 forecast, the National Drug Intelligence Center reported:

Mexican DTOs and their associated enforcement groups generally rely on firearms trafficking from the United States to Mexico to obtain weapons for their smuggling and enforcement operations. Drug traffickers, firearms smugglers, and independent criminals smuggle large quantities of firearms and ammunition from the United States to Mexico on behalf of Mexican DTOs, who then use these weapons to defend territory, eliminate rivals, enforce business dealings, control members, and challenge law enforcement. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) estimates that thousands of weapons are smuggled into Mexico every year. Firearms are typically purchased or stolen from gun stores, pawnshops, gun shows, and private residences prior to being smuggled into Mexico, where they are often sold for a markup of 300 to 400 percent. Moreover, large caches of firearms often are stored on both sides of the Southwest Border for use by Mexican DTOs and their enforcement groups.

Enter the Mexikanemi

gangunit-logoAccording to the National Drug Intelligence Center’s 2009 threat assessment, Mexikanemi is one of a score of U.S.-based gangs — criminal street gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs — that have links with Mexican DTOs.  Here is how the U.S. Department of Justice’s gang unit (the history and operations of which I write about in my forthcoming book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement) sums up Mexikanemi:

The Mexikanemi prison gang, also known as the Texas Mexican Mafia or Emi, was formed in the early 1980’s within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The Mexikanemi is highly structured and is estimated to have 2,000 members, most of whom are Mexican nationals or Mexican-American males living in Texas at the time of their incarceration. Mexikanemi poses a significant drug-trafficking threat to communities in the Southwestern U.S., particularly in Texas. Mexikanemi gang members reportedly traffic multi-kilogram quantities of powdered cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine; multi-ton quantities of marijuana; and thousand-tablet quantities of ecstasy from Mexico into the U.S. for distribution both inside and outside prison. Mexikanemi gang members obtain narcotics from associates or members of the Jaime Herrera-Herrera, Osiel Cardenas-Guillen, and/or the Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes Mexican DTOs. In addition, Mexikanemi members maintain a relationship with Los Zetas, a Mexican paramilitary/criminal organization employed by the Cardenas-Guillen DTO as its personal security force.

One comes across various explanations of the origins of the name “Mexicanemi,” including some just plain incorrect “Spanish” translations.  The best explanation Fairly Civil has seen comes from Wikipedia (much reviled in some quarters but not by Fairly Civil — our view is “trust but verify”), which traces the name to the Nahuatl language, a tongue that has a mystical attraction for the “Mexica Movement,” and for some Latino gangs.  It is used as a prison gang “code.” There is as well as an obvious pun on “Mexican Eme”:

Mexikanemi (Nahuatl for “Mexican Life”: Mexica[meshika]:One of the many Nahuatl speaking tribes/nations,within central Mexico, that was in dominance over an extended territory, the Triple-Alliance Empire, which was headed by the Culhua-Mexica of the city-state of Mexico-Tenochtitlan,before and during the arrival of the Europeans/Spanish into the Americas…[The] term is also used today to simply mean “Mexican”; Nemi[nemi]: This suffix ending might come from the word: Nemiliztli, which in Nahuatl means “Life”; Hence its combination having the meaning of: “Mexikanemi: Mexican Life: Vida Mexicana”) also known as the Texas Mexican Mafia. It functions separately from the original California Mexican Mafia (La eMe). Mexikanemi was formed as an offshoot from the Mexican Mafia in Texas by Heriberto “Herbie” Huerta in 1984.

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet Go the Songbords:  Mexikanemi Gangsters Are Emulating Record-Holding Mafia Flipster and Hit-Man Salvatore (Sammy the Bull Gravano), Whose Cooperation Brought Down NY Mafia Don John (The Teflon Don) Gotti

Tweet, Tweet, Tweet Go the Songbirds: Mexikanemi Gangsters Are Emulating Record-Holding Mafia Flipster and Hit-Man Salvatore (Sammy the Bull Gravano), Whose Cooperation Brought Down NY Mafia Don John (The Teflon Don) Gotti

So much for the introductory generalities.  In our next posting, Fairly Civil will glean specifics of Mexikanemi’s organized criminal operations from an ongoing case, one that has been dribbling off talkative “flippers” in a series of plea bargains.  (So much for the mafioso code of omertà.)


In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on March 2, 2009 at 1:37 am
Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting DEA Adminsitrator Michele Leonhart Announce Results of Operation Excellerator

Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart Announce Results of Operation Xcellerator

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Michele Leonhart announced last week “the arrest of more than 750 individuals on narcotics-related charges and the seizure of more than 23 tons of narcotics as part of a 21-month multi-agency law enforcement investigation known as ‘Operation Xcellerator,'” credit for a key law enforcement asset was buried in one sentence of boilerplate deep down in the press release:

The investigative efforts in Operation Xcellerator were coordinated by the multi-agency Special Operations Division, comprised of agents and analysts from the DEA, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshals Service, as well as attorneys from the Criminal Division’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.

Operation Xcellerator Logo

Operation Xcellerator Logo

The central role of the Special Operations Division (SOD) in Operation Xcellerator is graphically summed up in the logo of the  sprawling investigation, which features the name “Special Operations Division” as its rocker.  As I explain in my forthcoming book about Latino Street gangs — No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press: June 2009) — the SOD is one of those highly effective inter-agency government programs that everyone who needs to know about, knows about.  Management would prefer that the rest of us know as little as necessary about SOD — just enough to ensure its steady funding and continued successful operation.  When the Justice Department publicly describes SOD, which is administratively located in the DEA, it tends to use one or two boilerplate sentences like the one quoted above.  These driblets could just as well describe a pizza delivery dispatch center or an air traffic control tower.

Kinda, Sorta Hush-Hush Secret SOD Has Big Ears

Kinda, Sorta Hush-Hush Secret SOD Has Big Ears

The physical location of the SOD is supposed to be a top secret (and isn’t everything, these days?).  A few years ago Wolf Blitzer hyped a visit to the SOD by one of the newsbots for his signature show, The Situation Room, thusly:

WOLF BLITZER:  Just like us, just like those officials over at the White House, the Drug Enforcement Administration has its own situation room.

Our Brian Todd got some exclusive access. He’s joining us now live from the DEA secret location in Northern Virginia. Brian, we can’t tell our viewers where you are.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That’s absolutely right, Wolf. All we can say is that we are at a top-secret location in Northern Virginia.

Now, this is not the government’s biggest situation room by any means, but it’s certainly one of its most important. Right now we are inside the DEA’s Special Operations Division Command Center. This, as we said, top-secret location in northern Virginia. No one has ever been allowed to film in here before. But this is where they coordinate and command some of the most sophisticated and dangerous operations in law enforcement.

Undisclosed Location

Undisclosed Location

In fact, it appears that this “secret location” may not be so secret after all.  If the images from this website are accurate (and I have some reason to believe that they are based on my own interviews),  thousands of tourists unknowingly drive by SOD’s careful anonymity every week on their way to the collection of vintage aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.

In any case, if one pokes around enough with Google’s search engine, it is possible to get a more detailed picture of what SOD does and why it does it.  (The reader can draw his or her own more or less informed inferences about the specific details of the hows.  You know, big antennae on remote tropical mountain sides — or was that James Bond?)  For example, this paragraph from the DEA’s FY 2009 Performance Budget: Congressional Budget Submission provides a slightly more detailed picture of what SOD is all about:

DEA’s Special Operations Division (SOD) supports domestic enforcement by providing vital information for investigative and enforcement activity directed against major national or international trafficking organizations. Specifically, SOD manages special operations and projects within DEA that target trafficker command and control communications. Additionally, SOD manages and develops programs and procedures which ensure discrete and timely distribution of sensitive and vital intelligence data to DEA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) field units. SOD provides guidance and technical assistance to all divisions that have domestic Title III operations involving drug trafficking. SOD also coordinates international conspiracy investigations for the importation of narcotics to ensure that these cases result in suitable evidence presentation in court. The staff at SOD specializes in areas such as electronic surveillance and international criminal conspiracy laws, while responding to specialized linguistic needs for international cases.

Moving and Using A Bucket-O-Guns Requires Communications

Moving and Using A Bucket-O-Guns Requires Communications

Several words and phrases leap out from this paragraph of bland budgetese: (1) “trafficker command and control communications,” (2) “Title III operations” (i.e., wiretaps), (3) “sensitive and vital intelligence data,” and (4) “international conspiracy investigations.”  It seems from this description that one very important thing SOD does is get right into the knickers of major drug traffickers by breaking into one thing they cannot do without: communications.  Transnational criminal organizations — especially those tightly-wound around common ethnicity, regional origins, or family ties, with operational security ruthlessly disciplined by bloody violence — can be difficult or impossible to penetrate by conventional means.  But moving drugs, guns, money, human beings, stolen vehicles, and executing nefarious plots require communications to convey orders, settle accounts, monitor operations, and so forth.

This 2001 statement of former DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall before the House Crime Subcommittee tells more of the SOD story, translating the budget submission into plainer English, with a detectable pulse:

Electronic surveillance is critical to our success in combating the drug problem in the United States…Without this essential tool, we in drug law enforcement would be unable to prevent, investigate, and solve many of the crimes associated with the growing, manufacture, or distribution of illegal drugs. In order to meet the challenges presented by these sophisticated drug trafficking organizations, it is necessary for us to attack the command and control mechanisms of these organizations. Our center for targeting command and control is the Special Operations Division (SOD), a combined DEA, U.S. Customs, FBI, IRS/Criminal Investigations, and DOJ/Criminal Division effort that supports ongoing investigations by producing detailed and comprehensive analyses of data revealing the activities and organizational structures of major drug trafficking and drug-related money laundering organizations and identifying relationships among traffickers and their related enterprises.

Today’s international drug trafficking organizations are the wealthiest, most powerful, and most ruthless organized crime entities we have ever faced. We know from our investigations that they utilize their virtually unlimited wealth to purchase the most sophisticated electronic equipment available on the market to facilitate their illegal activities. The Special Operations Division has enabled us to build cases against the leaders of these powerful organizations by targeting their command and control communications with multi-jurisdictional criminal investigations based on state-of-the-art, court approved Title III electronic interceptions. We rely on the information and evidence gathered from these Title III interceptions of their communications to build a picture of the organizations, identify the individual members, and obtain evidence enabling us to make arrests and take apart whole sections of the criminal organizations at a time. The capability provided by SOD is at the core of our ability to make cases against the leadership and U.S.-based infrastructure of these powerful organizations that control the drug trade in our hemisphere.

There is another side to the SOD’s role: coordination.  Here is an explanation of how SOD can apply its resources to the investigation and prosecution of transnational gangs — like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang — taken from a U.S. Attorneys’ Bulletin devoted to the federal role in attacking gangs:

SOD serves as the center point of the operation. The division is tasked to balance, coordinate, and manage investigative actions that are planned and executed by multiple special agents and prosecutors in the field. Coordinating the steps of special agents and prosecutors who are targeting the cell of the network operating in their respective districts enables SOD to ensure that one district does not take actions that will undermine operations in the other districts. This approach often results in coordinated multidistrict operations that maximize the disruptive impact law enforcement has on the entire targeted criminal organization, from command-and-control elements to mid-level managers to street-level criminals.

This approach can be equally effective in the prosecution of multidistrict gang cases where portions of the gang’s criminal activities are carried out by different cells in separate federal judicial districts. In a typical narcotics-distribution conspiracy, it is frequently the case that law enforcement authorities in District A will plan to take investigative steps against their gang targets without consultation or coordination with Districts B, C, D, and E. The efforts of other law enforcement authorities against their related gang targets in these secondary districts (Districts B through E) might be compromised or undermined by the actions planned in District A. Agents and prosecutors should coordinate cases through SOD in order to avoid conflicts and coordinate with related active cases in other districts. This will ensure that the collective efforts of agents and prosecutors in all districts have the maximum impact of disrupting and dismantling the targeted criminal gang.

There you have it: DOJ’s Special Operations Division typically gets a one sentence reference in a press release.  But it is one of a handful of big and really important assets in our law enforcement’s fight against international organized crime.


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