Part one of a two-part series.

Sunday, March 15, 2009 |The drug dealer thought he was getting a second chance to pay off a debt to the Mexican Mafia prison gang. When he was led into the garage of a National City house to get the drugs he was to sell, the floors and walls were covered in plastic.

Not a good sign.

Two enforcers with aluminum bats started whacking. It’s a wonder the dealer lived to tell. He managed to stop the attack by promising to pay in seven days and by turning over his Lincoln Navigator.

Although disturbing, this is not exactly an uncommon tale in the violent battle for control of the Southern California drug-trafficking corridor raging among Mexican cartels.

But what’s got law enforcement officials concerned is this incident — part of a federal complaint filed in December — is evidence of a merger between criminal enterprises in San Diego and Mexico. The men who were in the National City garage are believed to be members of Hispanic street gangs in San Diego with suspected ties to both the notorious Mexican Mafia prison gang, also known as “Eme,” and the Arellano Felix drug cartel.

“There’s not a big distinction anymore between Mexican cartels and U.S. street gangs. It’s hard to tell where one begins and another ends,” said Geoffrey Morrison, a San Diego criminal defense lawyer who has represented numerous clients accused of drug trafficking. “There’s a bridge that’s developed between Eme and the actual drug cartels south of the border, and it’s being strengthened.”

The liaisons are nothing new; they date back to the early 1990s. What’s changed is the depth of the penetration by the cartels and the Mexican Mafia into local gangs, and the almost-corporate hierarchy that has been established in recent years.

Most importantly, violence that used to remain on the south side of the international border is increasingly making its way into American cities. And authorities from here to Washington are scrambling to respond.

Officials have dedicated more resources to the potential spillover of drug-related violence to San Diego. The Department of Homeland Security has even created a contingency plan that involves local law enforcement and the military should the violence escalate. That plan, initiated by the Bush Administration, is still in place under President Obama, a Homeland Security Department spokeswoman said.

The matter of cross-border violence, and whether the military should be used to protect the border, is getting a lot of attention lately on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers this week called for better coordination, stepped up efforts and more money to quell the raging border violence and keep it from moving into the U.S.

Four congressional committees held separate hearings on Mexico and drug-related violence last week. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano testified last month on Capitol Hill that the problem is so overwhelming it will require more than the efforts of her department of some 200,000 employees.

“We are reaching out to the national security adviser, to the attorney general and others about how we within the United States make sure we are doing all we can in a coordinated way to support the president of Mexico” in the fight against drug cartels and the exportation of violence, Napolitano told members of one Congressional committee.

Likewise, CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told reporters last month that Mexico was a “priority” for the agency.

Location, Location, Location

There were an estimated 6,000-plus drug-related murders in Mexico in 2008 — with 800 of those in Tijuana. There were more than 350 kidnappings-for-ransom reported in Phoenix, and authorities believe most are cartel-related. In San Diego, four murders since 2007 are blamed on cartel violence, plus 26 kidnappings-for-ransom of U.S. citizens in 2008 in both San Diego and Tijuana.

In the December case and related cases filed in February, 40 suspected members or associates of 14 San Diego street gangs and the Mexican Mafia, including the alleged bat-wielders, were charged with crimes ranging from racketeering, firearms and drug offenses to attempted murder, kidnapping, assault and extortion.

It is the third large-scale federal prosecution of Mexican Mafia figures in San Diego in 18 months. In all, the feds have a 100 percent success rate in convicting more than 100 Mexican Mafia members and underlings, including local gang members.

There are 92 street gangs in the city of San Diego — with an estimated 4,000 members — and about three-quarters of those are believed to be Hispanic, police said. And most of the Hispanic gangs are in bed with Eme and the cartels.

San Diego’s gang population is small compared to places like Los Angeles, home to more than 100,000 gang members, and Fresno, which has about 24,000. But San Diego has the distinction of being on the Mexican border, which has made the local gangs very attractive to the cartels as soldiers and drug distributors. The Mexican Mafia and the Arellanos have compelled thousands of Southern California gang members to act as enforcers, bodyguards, kidnappers, even assassins.

The federal charging documents in the case filed last month involving the beating in National City mention numerous incidences of violence by local street gang members on the north side of the border who were acting at the behest of Mexican Mafia bosses, who in turn were working with Arellano Felix associates:

  • In August, gunmen forced their way into a home in Coronado to confront a gang member who supposedly failed to pay his drug partners $50,000. The victim was abducted, and his family members were corralled at gunpoint and threatened with death if they called police. “We are an army,” one of the gunmen told the family. The kidnappers took two Dodge trucks, a Land Rover, a Mercedes Benz, $2,000 in cash, two laptops, several watches and jewelry from the house. The victim was taken to another location where he was confronted about the drug debt. Officials did not describe the outcome in court records.
  • In September, a man was abducted at gunpoint from a McDonald’s parking lot in San Diego. The man was forced into the back seat of his own car and driven to a location in Chula Vista, where the kidnappers attempted to transfer him to another vehicle. The man broke free and serendipitously tripped as a kidnapper fired shots at him; he managed to dodge the bullet and escape.
  • Also in September, a pregnant woman was kidnapped from her Lemon Grove home and choked unconscious for supposedly invoking the name of a Mexican Mafia member to “garner protection” for her unspecified activities. Her attackers — including a Mexican Mafia member who’d once been romantically involved with the victim — also hit her about the head and shaved part of her scalp with electric clippers. She was then allowed to leave.

Not Your Average Gang Member

Among street gang members listed in the charging documents with nicknames like “Shaggy” and “Psycho” is the most unlikely of defendants. Kevin Smith, a 39-year-old project manager for Harper Construction with an annual six-figure salary and no criminal background, was charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

Even U.S. Magistrate Judge Anthony Battaglia commented at a bond hearing last month on the apparent dichotomy. On one hand is a law-abiding U.S. citizen with the same high-paying job for more than 20 years and no arrests. On the other is the government’s description of Smith as a methamphetamine distributor who hangs out at Tijuana nightclubs with Arellano Felix and Mexican Mafia associates.

During the bond hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Parmley told the judge the government has audiotapes of Smith accepting $1,500 as down payment to smuggle 20 pounds of methamphetamine for a person he believed was associated with the Mexican Mafia.

“During recorded meetings Smith admitted to moving large amounts of narcotics across the country in a private plane” for a codefendant, Jose “Shaggy” Flores, who the government says is associated with both the Mexican Mafia and an unidentified Mexican drug trafficking organization, presumably the Arellanos, according to court documents.

During a search of Smith’s home, federal agents found guns, some registered and some not, including a .50-caliber handgun, Parmley told the court.

Officials from Harper Construction attended the hearing, offering a check for $300,000 as bond. Battaglia instead required a $450,000 bond to be posted by a family member. He allowed Smith’s parents to put up their house, valued at $350,000.

Smith’s lawyer, Shaun Khojayan, declined to comment outside court beyond this: “Mr. Smith is a hard-working young man with no criminal history whatsoever and any other comment I have I would make once I have a chance to look at the evidence.” Smith has pleaded not guilty and is free on bond.

It was Smith’s co-defendant, Flores, who lured the drug dealer into the plastic-covered garage on September 4, according to the government. Also there was a large bag with zip ties. “These materials are consistent with a gang-style execution as they are used to minimize possible forensic evidence and to aid in the disposal of a body,” the federal complaint said.

One defendant stood by the door aiming a gun at the victim, who is never identified in the complaint, while the men with bats swung, hitting the victim repeatedly in the head, upper body and legs.

According to court documents, Flores appears to be a central character linking the Mexican Mafia and the Arellanos.

The complaint also alleges that Flores sought permission from the Mexican Mafia to kidnap and murder a rival in October because the intended victim had been using one of Flores’ men to commit armed robberies. The documents said Flores took steps to commit the murder, but it never took place. The complaint does provide additional details.

The case presented unique challenges for members of the multiagency San Diego Violent Crimes Task Force-Gang Group, which investigated the case and through informants became aware of impending murders such as this and had to carefully intervene to prevent violence without jeopardizing the case. Authorities managed to prevent about 30 murders, kidnappings and assaults during the course of the investigation, officials said.

Where It All Started

The Mexican Mafia was started in the 1950s by Mexican-American inmates at a California youth offender facility. The ranks and influence of the gang known as La Eme, which rules prisons with violence and intimidation, has increased over the years as members got out of prison and returned to their street gangs with greater stature and power.

As a result, the Mexican Mafia today essentially runs the drug dealing in most Southern California neighborhoods dominated by Hispanic street gangs, from San Ysidro to Fresno and San Bernadino to Ventura.

The local street gangs, with members as young as 12, can go tagging and do robberies and drive-by shootings at will, but when it comes to drugs, they must abide by rules of the Mexican Mafia, which has only about 300 members but thousands of associates.

The person who runs each neighborhood on behalf of La Eme is said to be the keyholder, or the “llavero” who makes the calls in that designated area, deciding who can (or cannot) deal drugs and what it will cost them.

Law enforcement believes the Mexican Mafia first joined forces with the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO) — at the time Mexico’s most powerful and feared drug cartel — in 1992 through David Barron Corona. Corona, a Barrio Logan street gang member, joined the Mexican Mafia in prison, and then became an assassin for the Arellanos when he got out.

The liaison made sense: The AFO is made up of Mexican nationals trafficking drugs from Mexico and points further south into the U.S. Eme is an American organization with members of Hispanic heritage who deal drugs on the U.S. side. The common ancestry, language and proximity to the border made it convenient for the groups to work together.

Barron, known as “Popeye,” became an enforcer for the AFO and was able to recruit fellow street gang members, like Alberto “Bat” Marquez, a U.S. citizen, to do hits in Tijuana, Guadalajara, Mazatlan and elsewhere, authorities said.

Authorities have said Barron, Marquez and others were involved in the 1993 botched shooting of Cardinal Jesus Posadas Ocampo in the Guadalajara airport. The bullets were meant for a rival cartel leader. The Cardinal’s death marked the beginning of a symbiotic relationship between the Mexican Mafia and AFO that endures today.

Barron was killed in a shootout with Mexican authorities in 1997 as he tried to assassinate Mexican newspaper editor Juan Blancornelas. Since then, other Mexican Mafia leaders kept the relationship with the cartel strong — in particular “Bat” Marquez, who was a member of the Del Sol street gang in San Diego.

Marquez was captured by Mexican authorities in 2003, was extradited to the U.S. in 2006 and awaits trial in San Diego federal court. Authorities allege that for years Marquez headed a group of killers that settled scores for the Arellanos. The victims often were members of rival drug gangs, or people who owed money or drugs to the cartel.

But the AFO has been crippled in recent years by the deaths or arrests and extraditions of the brothers Arellano. Most recently, Francisco Javier Arellano Felix, who was captured in international waters off Baja in 2006, pleaded guilty in federal court in San Diego and is serving a life sentence. Another brother, Ramón was killed in a gun battle with police in Mazatlan in 2002.

Timothy Coughlin, head of the U.S. Attorney’s drug unit, said the relationships between gangs and cartels are tight but not impenetrable.

“There are tiny threads running through these organizations in Mexico and gangs that are here,” Coughlin said. The latest prosecution “doesn’t eliminate the violence in Mexico but it begins to address the power of the Mexican Mafia in San Diego as well as in Mexico.”

Kelly Thornton is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at kellythornton7407@yahoo.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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