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
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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.
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.
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.”
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
According 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.
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.)