Throughout the continent, the debate on whether or not the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang is working with or for drug traffickers continues. In this investigation, journalist Carlos García tells the story of how a member of the MS13 entered the methamphetamine distribution business under the powerful auspices of the Mexican Mafia, only to see his network unravel just as quickly.
It was an historic moment for the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). In April 2011, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Luis Gerardo Vega, alias “Little One,” of the MS13 closed a deal with the Knights Templar, a cartel that had helped plunge that area into a near constant state of fear. Between April 3 and April 6, Little One, who was accompanied by a blood brother known as “Fast Freddy,” helped solidify a transnational drug trafficking business with the cartel’s leader, Servando Gómez Martínez, better known to the drug trafficking world as “La Tuta.”
The news quickly spread through the prisons and the streets of the United States. Héctor García, alias “Tramposo,” an ex-gang member from the Francis Loco clique of the MS13 in California, received a phone call from a Los Angeles prison in which a “green liner” — a retired gang member — told him the news. He was especially proud. Tramposo is a Mexican who belongs to the MS13’s Hollywood Locos clique and comes from a Mexican family originally from Michoacán, and he had presented Little One to the members of the eMe in prison.
Others got messages and phone calls. The California members of the MS13 had been waiting for this for years. It was historic: Little One was running with the “señores,” and was on his way to becoming a “carnal” — or blood brother — a full fledged member of the Mexican Mafia.
Two months later it was official. On June 8, 2011, for the first time in their almost three decades of existence, the gang had secured a place in the so-called eMe. According to a US government investigation against Little One and others, the official ceremony happened in the city of Fresno, California, during a meeting with the Mexican Mafia, in which Little One got the tripartite endorsement to become a full blood brother.
Getting Little One a seat at the table was part of a larger plan. The motivation of the eMe to adopt this gang member was rooted in a negotiation that transcended borders and opened doors for the Mexican Mafia. But what was not clear was what this meant for the MS13 and their own criminal possibilities.
In the United States, one of the most powerful gangs sits behind bars in several California prisons. Those who know their members often prefer to avoid speaking about them, and when they do, they give them respect that is not typical between gang members. They call them “los señores” or the “politicians.” They are so revered that even inquiring as to their existence on the streets of Los Angeles could get you a death threat.
This group controlled from within prison cells and that few dare name is called the Mexican Mafia, and the most common way of referring to it is using the Spanish pronunciation of the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, “la eMe.” Their power dates back to 1955, when they established rules both inside and outside of the prisons. Entrance to their inner circle comes from showing a cold-blooded character, and then being approved by three members who endorse you to become a “carnal” (“blood brother”), or what they call “emero.”
Since 1968, all Latino gangs established in the southern cities of California from Bakersfield and El Sereno to San Diego have been subsumed under the jurisdiction of the eMe. They are called Sureños (Southerners). It is through this regional amalgamation that the ranks of eMe are filled with members of different Sureño gangs, almost all of whom are mortal enemies outside of prison. This includes the MS13, the 18th Street (Barrio 18), the White Fence 13 and the Wanderers 13. If these gangs meet on the street, they kill each other.
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In other words, the Mexican Mafia is like the national soccer team made up of all the best players from each club. In the eMe confederation, all the Sureños have only one color, blue, and only one number, 13. In the prison system registry, it does not distinguish between gangs; it only says the word “sur,” or “south.” Inside those prison walls, the eMe is the group that maintains a pact of non-aggression between Latino gangs and offers a form of protection against African-American and white nationalist gangs.
Given its powerful and diverse set of soldiers, the eMe is also able to exert extensive control over the California streets where the number 13 holds sway. According to Al Valdez, a professor and gang specialist, there are 40,000 Sureños at the beck and call of the eMe, all of whom periodically pay dues to the group. The Barrio 18 was the first to pay this tax to the eMe, and it continues to do so to this day.
However, long ago the eMe went beyond being the “gang of gangs” that protected Latino inmates and became the criminal organization it is today, maintaining relationships with the Arellano Félix family (Tijuana Cartel); Joaquín Guzmán, alias “El Chapo,” and the Sinaloa Cartel; and the Familia Michoacana, which later became the Knights Templar.
Everything began on January 25, 2011. That day José Rodríguez Landa, a 47-year-old Michoacán native better known to the world of the Mexican Mafia as “Fox,” received a phone call from Pelican Bay prison from Sonia Apodaca, who was one of the few women members accepted into the eMe. These women took on roles as secretaries or messengers.
In the conversation, which was full of coded language like many of the conversations that would follow, Fox spoke with Sonia about helping three brothers with the last name Montes: Freddie, H., and C. Montes, according to the US government investigation. The brothers, all Michoacán natives living in the United States, were deeply involved in the drug world, and knew Fox.
Together they were part of one of Mexico’s most feared criminal organizations, the Knights Templar, a derivative of the Familia Michoacana. The Familia Michoacana was rooted in religion and specialized in synthetic drugs. The Knights Templar would follow the same path once they broke from their progenitors.
Two days after that phone call, Sonia got in touch with Pelican Bay to forward a call from H. Montes to Fox. They both spoke of a “very long-term” plan that would benefit everyone. It would be led by Servando Gómez Martínez, alias “La Tuta,” a top member of the Knights Templar.
The essence of the plan was an alliance between the Mexican Mafia and the Knights Templar, which became known as “The Project.” The two groups would share the profits of their drug trafficking partnership. Fox accepted the ambitious business proposal, and the alliance had the stamp of approval of all the blood brothers from “the Bay,” the name they used for the maximum-security prison located in northeast California.
Fox recommended the ex-convict blood brother Michael Moreno, alias “Boo Boo,” from the Norwalk gang as the point of contact for The Project outside of the prison. The Knights Templar sent $1,500 to Fox’s prison account to seal the deal. Later, La Tuta sent another $100,000.
A month passed, and soon it was clear that the negotiations needed to go beyond formal phone calls. So on February 21, somewhere in California, Freddie Montes, his brother H. Montes, and Efraín Isak Rosales, alias “Tucan,” met with a blood brother recommended by Boo Boo to finalize the deal. That day they decided who amongst the cartel would be the point of contact in the US, and that Fox, who they had all known since 1992, would be the leader of The Project simply because of his Michoacán roots.
The Project, it was decided, would work as follows: the Familia Michoacana would pay the Mexican Mafia, who would use the thousands of Sureños dispersed throughout California to protect and sell the shipments of the cartel’s methamphetamine. They would also give the Mexican Mafia money to help them collect debts and to protect their members who had been arrested and were being held in Californian prisons, especially C. Montes, who had already been captured.
The eMe also promised that the Sureños would not collect taxes and would give them “free rein.” For their part, the eMe not only benefitted monetarily but were also given methamphetamine and discounts on other drugs they could sell for themselves.
The Mexicans told them someone from the eMe would have to travel at some point to Michoacán to meet with La Tuta to finalize the deal. Freddie Montes was very clear that he didn’t want any “publicity” for The Project, because if any one of them was caught they would be “screwed by the RICO law,” the US code covering organized crime conspiracies.
Nevertheless, neither the leaders of the Mexican Mafia nor the Familia Michoacana knew that the eMe member with whom they were dealing was a US justice informant who was feeding information about The Project to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). I will call him “Anonymous eMe,” since his identity is not revealed in the indictment that was filed.
The day following that meeting in California, Fox contacted the Montes brothers to confirm the plan, and to assure them that C. Montes was safely under the protection of the eMe in prison. But there were already problems. Fox began to suspect Anonymous eMe of ratting out the operation. He told the Montes brothers not to trust him but to use his point of contact, Boo Boo. He specifically stated that Anonymous eMe should not be involved in part of The Project. However, while he was talking, the phone call dropped since Fox’s phone bank at the jail ran out of money. He would have to communicate, he told the brothers, through his cellmate and fellow blood brother, Raymond Lozano, who would be his messenger in case of any new developments.
The plans were unraveling on various other fronts as well. The Montes brothers, for instance, were fine with having Fox as the leader of The Project, but only when he was out of prison. At the same time, despite Fox’s orders to exclude him, Anonymous eMe continued to participate in The Project, and to feed information to the federal authorities.
Within a few days, more eMe ex-convicts joined the business with the Knights Templar. One of them, Fred Anthony Montoya, alias “Fast Freddy,” ordered Anonymous eMe to send The Project’s profits to 40 different accounts of blood brothers in prison. Fast Freddy was also the first to fly to Michoacán. A transfer of $24,000 on March 9 by Freddie Montes on behalf of the Knights Templar to Anonymous eMe was the first sum of money to be monitored by the US justice system.
It was not until April 1 that the MS13’s Little One would even become part of the conversation. But the MS13 was still a long way away from getting a seat at the table with Los Señores.
An MS13 Member in the eMe
During the MS13’s early years, the eMe was the gang’s worst nightmare. The MS13 had no codes of conduct, limited English and were considered such a nuisance that the eMe gave a blanket “green light” to kill them at any time. The eMe order extended to the prisons, where members of what was then known as the Mara Salvatrucha were beaten and murdered. Other gangs, such as the Barrio 18, were part of the Mexican Mafia and did not have to face these threats.
The green light lasted until 1993, when the Mara Salvatrucha became part of the Sureños family, adding the 13 to its name as part of the new tribute it would pay to its nominal masters. Nevertheless, this did not mean that they had any input in or gain any benefit from eMe activities. It did not matter that by the early 2000s, the MS13 had extended its tentacles throughout the entire northern part of Central America, the south of Mexico and into 48 states of the United States. The only thing that mattered was that, in 2011, Little One began to collaborate with The Project.
One MS13 member, who I will call “Mafia” to protect his identity, described for us the benefit of having a gang member inside the ranks of the eMe: “You have more opportunities here inside [the prison] and in the streets when you’re more connected to the cartels. It’s [also] not as easy to put a green light on someone because we have a blood brother and he can lobby the other blood brothers.”
Specifically, The Project represented a huge opportunity for the MS to solidify their payments to the eMe. In his first meeting, for example, Little One discussed the shipment of 100 kilos of methamphetamine. He also tagged along on a trip to Michoacán, his homeland, alongside the Montes brothers and Fast Freddy, who removed his electronic bracelet he was wearing at the time. Anonymous eMe was conspicuously absent.
From April 3 to April 6, Little One and Fast Freddy made contacts in Michoacán. The Knights Templar seemed grateful and expressed their desire to work with the eMe in the United States. La Tuta told Little One what he needed to do to protect their drug network. He also made a very specific request: that one of the Knights Templar be accepted into the eMe. In return, he would provide them with a lot of drugs and “many keys” to other parts of the business. The request was out of the question for the eMe, and their leaders ignored it.
Little One left, but Fast Freddy stayed in Mexico and set up shop at a resort. From there, he contacted Anonymous eMe and told him that the drug traffickers had demanded that they take charge of the US-based Knights Templar bank accounts. He also told Anonymous eMe that the traffickers had promised that if the drugs that were handed over were low quality, they could be returned without any problems.
Over time, suspicion of Anonymous eMe intensified, and on April 20, Fox and the ruling council of the Mexican Mafia decreed that the “rat” would not take part in any more of the negotiations. What they did not know is that Anonymous eMe had already caught them hook, line, and sinker.
Meanwhile, Little One waded deeper into the world of drugs. He bragged to Freddie Montes that he had thousands of members of the MS13 throughout the United States ready to distribute drugs for The Project. He later took between five and ten pounds of methamphetamine from Montes to sell. For his part, Fast Freddy had distanced the eMe from this part of the business and made clear that the blood brothers were not drug dealers but rather wholesale distributors.
Soon, Little One’s ambition caught up to him. Ignoring Freddie’s words and the huge implication of his actions, Little One asked the Knights Templar for more methamphetamine. Despite the orders from Pelican Bay from over a month and a half earlier, Anonymous eMe also continued to be involved in the business and continued handing over more evidence to US investigators.
On June 8, 2011, blood brothers Boo Boo, Fast Freddy, Anonymous eMe and Little One met in Boo Boo’s house to divide the $59,000 that Freddie Montes had paid them to distribute among the eMe leaders in prison. It was there that the three of them decided to let Little One into the Mexican Mafia.
Fox, meanwhile, was fuming. Everything was slipping through his fingers, and so he sent a letter to H. Montes saying that Anonymous eMe was not the leader of the plan and that The Project belonged to him as well as the prisoners of Pelican Bay.
Over the next several months, they tried to hash these problems out. Blood brothers and Knights Templar members met on different occasions with Sureños to discuss the logistics of The Project. But a lot of the leaders were working at cross-purposes, including Little One. “He always went about trying to benefit financially from the barrio,” Tramposo, the original go-between, would later explain.
To be sure, Little One is all over the US indictment, selling, purchasing and moving the most drugs through California of anyone else in the scheme. An example of this came on October 11, 2011, when Little One asked for 136 kilos of marijuana to sell with his partners. This was the beginning of the end for one of the newest blood brothers.
Towards the end of 2012, the US Department of Justice began to put the squeeze on The Project. During November or December — the exact date remains unclear — Boo Boo was arrested. In January and February of 2012, Freddie Montes also realized that he was under investigation and told Anonymous eMe. Nevertheless, he did not leave the country. The blood brothers had ordered more methamphetamine to sell stateside.
Around the same time, Sonia, Fox’s secretary in Pelican Bay, confronted Anonymous eMe about his snitching on Fox’s behalf. Anonymous eMe snapped back, asserting that he was part of The Project and that he had his hand in all of the money transfers to prisoners.
Deliveries were also moving slowly, and the more that the Knights Templar delayed the delivery of merchandise the more furious Fast Freddy became. “We’ll make this shit work one way or another,” he said.
For his part, Little One suggested they return to Michoacán to re-establish order.
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On March 22, a message was forwarded to the famous San Quentin prison from the blood brothers of Pelican Bay, which seemed to indicate that everything was on track again. The message said that the blood brothers of Pelican Bay — Fox, Boo Boo, Fast Freddy and Little One — were involved in an alliance with the Knights Templar.
At the time, their street presence was weak, but they had orders to participate in the business that Fox had set up over a year-and-a-half earlier. Around this time, they asked Jimmy Rubén Soto, alias “Old Man,” a 76 year-old Mexican Mafia member, to take command. One of his first instructions was to tell the man who had been making fools of them, Anonymous eMe, that he was no longer part of The Project.
Old Man then called a meeting with the Montes brothers in Santa Clarita, California. There they discussed The Project once more, this time without Anonymous eMe’s listening devices helping authorities track the business dealings between the criminal groups. They were, in essence, no longer traceable. The DEA profiles, the tails, the transcriptions and other investigations ceased. The wire tapping stopped and the whereabouts of the criminals were no longer known.
And nothing was known again until a year later, on August 6, 2013, when a DEA bulletin announced the results of Operation La Jale. Blood brothers Old Man, Boo Boo and another known as “Cricket” were arrested, along with secretaries Sonia and another named Claudia. Knights Templar members Freddie Montes, Adam Ríos and Hugo Robles were also arrested. Little One, it was announced, was already in custody. “Tucan” was the only one to escape.
Little One was eventually accused of distributing 135 kilos of marijuana and was held in a Los Angeles County prison. His dreams were temporarily squashed, but the MS13 had made the leap to the main table and the gang has not stopped thinking of what they can achieve from within the eMe.