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Mexican Mafia: Brutal business

October 17, 2003

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Mexican Mafia: Brutal business

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By Guillermo Contreras, The San Antonio (Texas) Express-News

The executive board includes a president, a vice president and a council.
A strict constitution governs who is supposed to make critical decisions.

The organization's goal is to make money.

But the profit-and-loss statements of this enterprise are dominated by something more sinister than stocks, bonds or corporate statements.

For the Texas Mexican Mafia, also known as Mexikanemi, business is conducted in a brutal array of drug running, robbery, extortion and murder.

"Being a criminal organization, we work in any criminal aspect or interest for the benefit and advancement of Mexikanemi," states the Mexikanemi constitution, a set of by-laws and rules that surfaced in trials against gang figures in the 1990s. "We shall deal in drugs, contract killings, prostitution, large scale robbery, gambling, weapons and in everything imaginable."

The 20-year-old prison-based gang has been blamed for scores of murders — at least 91 in the early 1990s.

Two broad crackdowns in the 1990s sent more than 30 of the gang's leaders and soldiers to prison, but violent activity in recent months has renewed investigations into what has become the largest prison gang in Texas.

Last week, local and federal officers unearthed from a South Bexar County homestead the skeletal remains of a man that court records say was targeted by the gang. Another body possibly related to the gang was recovered last month from a grave in northern Atascosa County.

Authorities have given gruesome accounts of the vicious beatings and slayings at the hands of gang soldiers. That violent streak, illustrated by a recent daylight execution-style shooting, is what often drives gang members to turn on each other.

Culture or crime?

The gang's documented brutality contrasts with the picture painted by some of the gang's members.

Rather than a criminal enterprise, the group's founder, Heriberto "Herbie" Huerta, describes the Mexikanemi as something spiritual or cultural — a unity meant to liberate the minds of Mexican people and to seek the return of the land stolen from them by the U.S. government.

Law enforcement authorities, however, have described the Texas Mexican Mafia as the No. 1 crime organization in San Antonio.

The Texas Mexican Mafia is the largest of the 11 gangs in the state's prison system, with almost 1,500 confirmed members and 458 unconfirmed, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice says.

Thousands more are suspected in areas throughout Texas, including Austin, Houston, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.

The group — not officially linked to a larger California-based prison gang called the Mexican Mafia — started in the early 1980s as a rag-tag coalition of prisoners banding together to protect themselves from enemies, primarily the Texas Syndicate gang.

In a 1994 murder conspiracy and racketeering trial, Huerta said he was the spiritual leader of the Mexikanemi Science Temple of Aztlan, a group that worships an ancient pre-Hispanic creed.

The goal, he said, wasn't a gang or violence, but to "build character, so that (members) may learn to love, instead of hate."

One goal was to create a network of legitimate businesses, according to one member's testimony in a 1999 racketeering trial.

Not so, police and prosecutors say.

Strict hierarchy

The group's constitution calls for a strict hierarchy, with the president and vice president holding the highest posts.

Sgt. Mark Gibson, a gang intelligence officer with the Bexar County Sheriff's Department, said the chain of command depends on who's calling the shots.

"They usually have a general in the federal prison system and another general in the state system, who selects a committee," Gibson said. "Captains and lieutenants may then run prison units throughout the state."

Gang rankings fall along a paramilitary line, with generals, captains and lieutenants overseeing soldiers on the streets.

Law officers think Huerta remains its president, even though he is serving three life sentences at a federal prison in Colorado.

The most recent vice president was Carlos Rodriguez, who was shot to death in June as he sat in his Corvette on the city's far West Side. Two men opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles in a daring noontime slaying.

His death was just the latest for vice presidents.

Former vice president Doroteo "Teo" Torres Rangel was shot in 1993 in his West Side home's garage. According to court documents, he had fallen out of favor with Huerta.

The imprisoned boss isn't the only one making decisions, though.

A city can be divided into areas, with captains and lieutenants in charge, but sergeants also maintaining order. They get their new recruits from recent parolees, forced to join the Texas Mexican Mafia in prison for their own protection.

As the end of their sentences approach, the new members are given letters to take to gang leaders on the outside.

"The criminal activity has kind of blurred the lines between (prison) and the free world," said a state prison official who investigates gang crimes. "Some of the assassination orders come from within (prison). These guys can be very well-behaved inside the prison setting, but if they have to take care of business, as they say, they'll do it."

On the street level, the gang rules the drug trade in San Antonio. Gang members will extort money from others through the collection of "the dime" — a 10 percent tax imposed on drug dealers who sell in gang territory.

Witness statements about such tax levies were part of the evidence prosecutors used in a 1999 racketeering trial in which 10 Mexican Mafia figures were accused of participating in 22 crimes — including 15 murders — between 1994 and 1997. Some of the victims reportedly had been killed because they refused to pay the tax.

The men were all convicted.

Internal violence

One of the most brutal killings was the result of a botched robbery in August 1997. Five people were blindfolded, bound with duct tape and shot repeatedly on the 1100 block of West French Place.

Witnesses claimed Robert "Beaver" Perez, a gang general now on death row for separate murders, gave the orders for the robbery because he believed the house contained large quantities of cocaine and marijuana and a shoebox stuffed with cash. The robbery netted five pounds of marijuana.

Before they had arrested any suspects, police said the slayings had all the hallmarks of a Mexican Mafia hit.

Two of the men who participated in the French Place killings were themselves found dead shortly after, reportedly killed because they were talking too much.

It's that internal violence that has led to some of the gang's undoing.

Evidence developed against Perez and the other defendants reportedly came from statements from gang turncoats afraid for their lives.

Other soldiers or ranking members also have been killed for consuming drugs they were supposed to sell for the gang, or for keeping the 10 percent tax.

"They're pretty dangerous," the state prison official said. "They can turn on you for disrespect and disloyalty."

Authorities point out that the internal violence is envisioned in the gang's constitution:

"Any member of Mexikanemi, no matter if he be president, vice president, general, captain, lieutenant, sergeant or soldier, who violates the rules of Mexikanemi must pay and suffer the consequences."

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