June 16, 2006


SAN DIEGO – Federal prosecutors here announced the indictment Friday of a San Diego gang founder and other leaders of the Mexican Mafia prison gang on charges of running a massive crime syndicate in Southern California.

Authorities said the notorious prison gang ran organized crime out of the state's highest-security prison, ordered murders, dealt drugs and demanded money from Latino street gangs, including many in San Diego, in return for protection and guidance.

The local U.S. Attorney's Office is using anti-racketeering laws to go after 22 members, associates and affiliates of the prison gang.

An additional 14 people were indicted on drug conspiracy charges, but not racketeering.

Of those indicted, 16 were already in prison, and federal agents and local law enforcement officers arrested all but about four or five of the others Friday morning, officials said.

San Diego anti-gang task forces led the investigation into how the Mexican Mafia, one of the largest and most established prison gangs in the United States, has muscled in on San Diego County gangs and drug dealers.

The charges in the indictment include the murders of two people: a San Diego man shot at close range in the Alta Vista neighborhood last year, and a prison inmate in Susanville in 2002.

Leading the conspiracy, according to court papers, is Raul Leon, 41, a Mexican Mafia leader imprisoned at Pelican Bay, the high-security prison 300 miles north of San Francisco.

Leon founded a San Diego street gang before he was jailed for life on a murder charge as a teenager and assaulted a San Quentin prison guard with a home-made knife, or a shank, in 1986.

Asked if he was a Mexican Mafia member by a reporter for American Public Media, Leon deflected the question.

“That's what they say,” he told the reporter, in an interview broadcast this year. “According to us, we're pacifists. We don't believe in that."

He and other Mexican Mafia leaders at Pelican Bay profited from drug dealing in San Diego County and elsewhere by having cash from drug sales deposited into their prison accounts, prosecutors said.

Although Mexican Mafia leaders are in prison, they are able to issue orders through letters and to have drugs smuggled into their lockups, according to prosecutors.

The conspiracy laid out in the indictments reads like a business plan:

Mexican Mafia members exert their influence inside federal and state prisons through violence and the threat of violence.

Members and their associates remain loyal to the gang whether in or out of prison, and have tried to organize Hispanic street gangs throughout Southern California, particularly San Diego County.

Gang members outside prison have an incentive to cooperate, because if they don't, they risk assault, and they do not want members of their gang inside the prison to be assaulted.

Gang members and drug dealers who cooperate with the Mexican Mafia pay a “tax” to members of the prison gang. Those who refuse to pay are threatened with murder.

Federal and California officials have announced crackdowns on the Mexican Mafia before.

This is first time they are using organized crime provisions of federal law to go after the notorious gang in San Diego. A similar case in Los Angeles led to 39 convictions. Two people were acquitted in that case in 2001.

Racketeering charges have been used against the state's other prison gangs as well, said former San Quentin warden and prison consultant Dan Vasquez.

“It's been successful in the past, they've gone after Nuestra Familia, they've gone after the Aryan Brotherhood.”

The problem, however, is that there is only so much punishment, short of the death penalty, that prosecutors can seek against criminals who are already in prison.

“They get transferred to other federal penitentiaries,” Vasquez said, “all it seems to do is spread the seed