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Brutal Control: A Brief History of the Mexican Mafia

The Mexican Mafia, or la Eme, is at the top of a Hispanic organized crime hierarchy that includes both prison and street gangs in California. According to most accounts, the La Eme was formed in 1957 by Luis "Huero Buff" Flores. At the time, Flores was incarcerated at the Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) in Tracy, California. Flores and other founding members created La Eme as a both a "gang of gangs" and to protect Hispanics from other gangs within the California prison system.

La Eme quickly grew in size and strength. In the 1960s, the California Department of Corrections moved Eme members to other prisons such as San Quentin, in an effort to break up the gang activity at DVI. This effort served to spread La Eme's influence to other prisons. As La Eme expanded, the group saw the potential for profiting from drug sales, gambling and extortion rackets inside prison, so leaders placed taxes on these activities, forcing Latino inmates to hand over a small percentage of profits to the gang. In the 1980s, La Eme took this approach to the street. By joining forces with East Los Angeles street gang leaders, La Eme began to control activities like drug trafficking, extortion, contract killings, and debt collection from inside prison walls.

As prisons became more racially divided, rival race-based criminal organizations sprang up in the California prison system, including the Black Guerilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood. La Eme continued to thrive in the face of this opposition, and even grew more organized, drafting a set of gang rules or "commandments" and recruiting members from Latino street gangs in Southern California.

The Mexican Mafia enjoyed unchecked power in California prisons and streets until the 1990s, when a concentrated effort of police raids and subsequent federal indictments were intended to put a wrench in the wheels of the gang's machine. In 1995, 22 people were charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act with crimes including murder, extortion and kidnapping. When these 22 people were arrested in May of that year, justice system officials thought they'd finally ended La Eme's reign of terror. Debra Wang, the United States Attorney for the Central District of California, said, "We have effectively crippled the gang and put it out of business." United States Attorney Nora M. Manella told the New York Times, "This indictment and the arrests will significantly disable one of California's most violent gangs." History suggests the Mexican Mafia was not broken by these legal challenges. Although its power has diminished since the late 1990s, the group continues its criminal activities both in and outside of prisons all over California.