Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this in an American RadioWorks documentary: Gangster Confidential. I'm Stephen Smith.
Each year, thousands of gang members are shipped to off jails and prisons across America. Many are locked up for decades and some until they die. The idea is to break the gangs with long prison sentences. But for some inmates, time in prison only deepens their commitment to the gang. For many, prison is gangster graduate school.
The lives of these inmates are largely a mystery since prison life is shrouded from public view and gang members don't usually tell their organization's secrets. But over the past three years, American RadioWorks was able to gather a series of extraordinary recordings, interviews and audio diaries from a man whose ruthlessness and charm took him to the top of one of America's most violent gangs.
Eighteen years ago, Réne Enríquez went to prison in California for killing a man and ordering the death of a woman as a member of the Mexican Mafia. Behind bars, Enríquez climbed to a powerful position in the gang. Then something happened: Enríquez decided he wanted to shake off his violent past and to chart a new life. But what does that really mean when he's sentenced to spend the rest of that life in a maximum-security prison? Freedom is a faint hope. Over the next hour, Réne Enríquez explains that, at the least, he wants to reclaim some part of his humanity. Michael Montgomery has our story.
Michael Montgomery: Last year in a jail cell in California, Réne Enríquez began capturing his world for American RadioWorks. We loaned him a digital recorder and he kept an audio diary about his life in prison.
Réne Enríquez: Okay, today's date is 2/12/07. I'm in my cell with my cellie, Eric. That's all I'll identify him by. We're just testing this right now. This is a little toy we got. A digital recorder. It's kind of funny being taped. [Laughs] My cellie is not used to being recorded so he might be a little conscientious. Periodically I'll be popping in and out of my living area. I'll be popping in and out from my daily life and routine to give you little glimpses, or audio glimpses, of what life is about in a jail setting like this. I'll be back in short order.
Réne Enríquez also talked to us in a series of interviews.
Enríquez: I'm convicted of double Mexican Mafia murder execution-style, conspiracy to commit murder. In fact, all of my convictions are for the Mexican Mafia. Basically my whole life has been in prison. My whole adult life has been in continuous period of incarceration for the past 26 years with brief periods of parole, which add up collectively to about six, seven months. My arms are covered in tattoos, back, stomach, chest. I think the most prominent tattoo I have is the black hand on my chest. It's a symbol of the Mexican Mafia. We call it the black hand of death. It's got an "M" in the middle of it and two "E"s on either side. In Spanish it means EME, it stands for the letter "M." I'm not hard to look at. [Laughs] I look like a typical gang member. But I don't believe I'm a typical gang member. I believe I'm a cut above the rest. As a mafioso, you have to be an elitist. You have an elitist, arrogant mentality. That's how you carry yourself in the Mexican Mafia, that's how you project yourself. I mean, you walk into a room and everybody knows you're a leader.
Other prisoners feared Réne Enríquez. If they crossed him, he delivered retribution with homemade knives and even blow darts. But Enríquez can never walk through the yard of a normal prison again; He's become a government informant. Gang members will kill him if they see him. So authorities have hidden Enríquez in a local jail.
Enríquez: We're in my cell now. I'm looking at two bunks. There are two bunks in here. I house all my gear, my equipment in here. There's a sink with a toilet and a mirror and a light. ... There are two light fixtures, neon, and to the back bunker, towards the back of the cell [Knocks] there's a window right here. It's covered with an opaque film. So we can walk out in the middle of the night and watch TV if we want. At 1:00 in the morning, we can get up and come in the day room and watch TV. It's kind of like a module, or a dormitory, with individual rooms.
Cooperating with the government brings Réne Enríquez some benefits other prisoners don't have like video games and a razor to shave with. But it means living in hiding with no access to the outdoors.
Eric: In order to have this comfort, we have to sacrifice others.
Enríquez: There are sacrifices. That's a point my cellie just made. We sacrifice a lot to live like this. We see no outside sunlight at all. It's kind of like we're buried. We're subterranean. The only time that we have any environmental stimulation is when we go for a ride, like under the United States Attorney's Office, doctors' appointments, and then we go under the escort of the United States Marshall: special escort. I go under special escort with SWAT team members due to security breaches or security concerns.
Like a lot of gang members, Réne Enríquez expected he might wind up in prison, but when he goes back in time and asks why, he can't find an easy answer.
Enríquez: I come from a well-to-do family. My father owned multiple businesses. I had a good upbringing. I lived in upper-middle class areas: Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Sunset Hills, Cerritos, California. We always had nice two-story, three tri-level homes. It was a - I lived in a good environment. My dad, he made himself.
His father invited him into his business. Instead, Enríquez followed his older brother into the local gang.
Enríquez: And once we got into the gangs, we understood that the homeboys that got out of prison were well-respected. You go there and you learn prison. So we all wanted to go there. We wanted to get to prison somehow. And we were destined to get there.
Enríquez passed in and out of juvenile lock-up. When he was 19, he was sent to adult prison for robbery. And that's when he started doing things for Mexican Mafia members in San Quentin like passing knives and messages.
Enríquez: I do these favors for them. You know, just as a regular guy. I'm not looking to brown nose or anything. I'm not trying to make points. But I notice immediately my status goes up on the yard. That's how I ended up associating with them. I never aspired to be one of them.
Soon he was carrying out attacks for the Mexican Mafia. And he liked it.
Enríquez: But it's a high. You get strung out on that. You get as addicted to that as anything else. The violence - the more notches you have on your belt, the more ferocity people see you as possessing - the greater you become. But I remember as a pastime, we would sit back and ask each other, "Who's getting hit today?" "Oh the guy over there in the yellow slicker. Don't go by him because he's going to get stabbed right now." And we would all gather around and get our sodas and have our cigarettes and we'd watch that guy get killed. And it was a form of entertainment. As sick as that sounds, that was the brutality of life in the Mexican Mafia.
Enríquez impressed gang leaders with a series of brazen attacks. And in 1984, he was secretly inducted into the Mexican Mafia.
Enríquez: I can only equate it to an Olympic gold medalist, when they're on the podium receiving their gold medal. That's how I felt at that moment. I said, "Wow, I'm in the Mexican Mafia. I am a real mafioso."
To outsiders, prisons seem bastions of chaos. But prison gangs enforce complex codes on their members. They dispense brutal justice. They demand discipline and even self-education.
[Prison yard sounds]
A grainy surveillance tape shows a group of inmates lined up on a prison yard doing a series of punishing exercises. It's called the machina, Spanish for machine.
Enríquez: It's the mentality of the warrior. This is what we ingrained in our soldiers. To be prepared, to be physically prepared and mentally prepared to commit battle, and to commit any violent act that is necessitated by the Mafia. This is why they train so hard. This is why they endure what they do in their workouts. You have to understand that all the organizations: non-traditional prison, organized crime and prison gangs utilize this mentality ... cultural identity and the philosophy and the belief that they are elite warriors. And this is part of the indoctrination process, part of the brainwashing process. Make them believe that they're elite, ... lead them down the path that they are committing these acts for a greater cause.
The Mexican Mafia was formed in California prisons in the 1950s. Its members are Latinos tied to Southern California. In the 1980s, the group moved to tighten its grip on the streets where the cocaine and crack trade was booming, especially in East L.A.
Enríquez: The Mexican Mafia, contrary to popular belief, is not a prison gang. It's a legitimate criminal organization. You see yourself in this light that you are this Senator for your barrio, your gang. You are the righteous representative.
Réne Enríquez hasn't seen his old haunts in East L.A. for years, but he can still imagine them vividly. Years of living in prison have made him good at traveling in his mind.
Enríquez: You walk into Boyle Heights. This is a notorious neighborhood called White Fence and it's a gang area. You can look at the dilapidated houses, kids running in the streets, dilapidated automobiles. And you can look at the gang graffiti on the walls. There's alleys. It's a classic barrio for East Los Angeles. This was the hub of my criminal activity during my last period of freedom. This is where I really established myself as a Mexican Mafia member as well.
Chris Blatchford: He was really running a reign of terror in East Los Angeles and other parts of L.A., primarily the East Side where he had relatives.
Chris Blatchford is a television reporter who's writing a book about Enríquez called The Black Hand.
Blatchford: Both the sheriff's deputies and LAPD were after Réne. They knew that he was doing a lot of shakedowns of drug dealers in East L.A. In fact, he drove a car around, a black car that they had absconded from some other drug dealer, and when that black car would come down the street, you could see the drug dealers scatter. He was more ruthless than they were, he was greedier than they were and he was smarter than they were.
Blatchford (newscast): This is Réne Enríquez, nicknamed "Boxer." ... Gang sources tell Channel 2 Boxer Enríquez came out of Folsem Prison in late 1989 with Mexican Mafia orders to kill. In this East L.A. neighborhood dominated by a street gang called White Fence, Boxer's target was David Gallegos, a Renegade Mexican Mafia member who was not kicking back money or drugs to his Mafia brothers. Boxer allegedly put five bullets in Gallegos' head, execution style. A week earlier, the body of Cynthia Gaveldan was found dumped in an alley. Detectives believe Boxer arranged the hit because of her involvement with Gallegos. It was two days before Christmas.
Enríquez: That's when I made my bones, truly. It requires spilling blood for the organization, usually killing people. That's what it means to be initiated; you've made your bones. You got made. This comes back from the old Italian mob.
Enríquez was arrested and charged with murder. Chris Blatchford covered his court case.
Blatchford: And when you see him sitting there in court and he turns around, I think it was to his brother in the audience and whispers, "All lies," and then starts chuckling, I mean you're thinking, "This is really a cold guy."
The prosecutor wanted the death penalty, but Enríquez pleaded guilty in exchange for two life sentences. In 1993, the state sent him to a super-high-security lock up: Pelican Bay State Prison. Because he was a gang member, he was locked in an isolation cell in the Security Housing Unit, or SHU.
Enríquez: I just wanted to write to tell you about Pelican Bay.
Enríquez recorded his memories of the SHU on a tape he sent to a friend.
Enríquez: I remember the scenery on the way up. The north coast, it was beautiful: redwoods, sequoias, raw ocean beach front. It was nice, like going to a national park. What impacts me immediately as soon as I walk in, is the smell. It's a different smell. I just stepped outside from the bus and you smell the pines, the redwoods, the forest, these earthy, loamy smells. But as soon as you step into the SHU, it hits you like a wave. It's the smell of despair, depression, desperation. Like I said, I think that the subconscious thought is that this is a place where people come to die.
At Pelican Bay Enríquez spent 24 hours a day locked in a windowless isolation unit. To cope with the isolation, he learned mental tricks - tricks he still uses today.
Enríquez: Good morning, it's Réne, it's Sunday morning and I think I'm going to do some jogging or something, or some walking. You know when I do this, when I jog, I look to familiar places.
[Heavy breathing. Music]
Enríquez: This is the place where I grew up. I'm going to hook a right up here at the corner. Here's a little Shell station. I used to buy my first cigarettes there. I can run past the park, City Park East. I can hear kids yelling in the schoolyard. I can see where I'm running to. I'm not here. I'm not in prison for this minute. But when I stop, and my workout's done and my shower's over with, I'm right back here in prison. The truth is, I've just been running in circles in a little cell. I'll be back.
Locked down in isolation, gang members still find ways to operate. They use secret codes, subterfuge and violence to run drug and extortion rings. They're lifers. The prison can't do much more to punish them, and lifers have time to think and scheme.
Enríquez: We had a thing called "the thousand concepts." A few of us did up in Pelican Bay. We'd spin off a thousand ideas. And if only one of them was profitable, we were succeeding. So we'd do this every day up in Pelican Bay, a thousand miles from our base of power, spinning off ideas that paid money.
[Prison cell door opens]
Robert Marquez: We're walking down C-7 through 12.
Enríquez: That's Robert Marquez. He's an investigator for the Special Services unit in the California Department of Corrections. I first met up with Mr. Marquez in Pelican Bay State Prison when he sent his staff to search my cell. I remember that the search was extensive; it took all day. They stripped everything from my cell, everything, and left me in the cell completely bare. And I think it was a message [chuckles], from them to me, that we're aware of your activities.
Marquez: He was probably the most articulate individual I've ever met in the prison system, and very charismatic. The guy had a level of sophistication in conducting his business that it was almost impossible to pin-point and nail down exactly, everything that he was doing.
Enríquez: That's why we took pride in not breaking. We took pride in saying, "You know what, I'm going to die here. And this is my home." And we took pride when we did our hits. We didn't care about these residual effects, the consequences. Give me the death penalty. I'm dying for the cause. You kill not for money. You don't kill for status. You kill for the glory of killing for the organization.
Enríquez says the group's greatest feat was consolidating control over Latino street gangs in Los Angeles by enforcing a cease-fire.
Enríquez: In the early '90s, we came up with a concept of stopping drive-by shootings.
Blatchford (newscast): The Mexican Mafia, using as many as twenty EME operatives, have called gang members to meetings like this one. The message always the same: kill a fellow Hispanic gang member, and you die. In short, a forced peace treaty between Hispanic street gangs.
Blatchford: Réne and his cohorts at the time felt - if they could control the drive-by shootings, and they could control the gangs in Los Angeles which number in the hundreds - if they could control them from stopping drive-bys, they could control them in every way possible.
Enríquez: Our true motivation for stopping the drive-bys was to infiltrate the street gangs and place representatives in each gang. Representatives which then, in turn, tax illicit activities in the areas. And we already had it planned out that California would be divvied up much like a pie, as carved up into slices with each respective member receiving an organizational turf. And for the most part, this occurred. ... Tens of thousands of gang members adhered to what we said. ... And it was then that we realized the true potential of the Mexican Mafia. It was then that the light bulbs came on above our heads and says, "Oh my God. We're sitting on a gold mine. ... We can make astronomical amounts of money without ever having to touch drugs or do anything again ourselves." We could do all this; we could become a true powerhouse, because of the finances generated by taxation: taxation, extortion, protection - they all fall under the same umbrella.
Drug profits flowed to prison. Associates on the street sent checks and money orders to gang leaders. Prison employees didn't realize where the money was coming from and deposited the checks for the inmates. Enríquez invested in bank CDs and even government bonds.
Enríquez: I was rather proud of being a Mexican Mafia member. I did things in the organization that some people had never done. We pushed this towards being a financial success. We started thinking about intellectual progress, business progress, infiltration of society.
The gang's exploits even impressed law enforcement agents. Richard Valdemar is a retired sheriff's sergeant who tried to dismantle Enríquez's street empire.
Richard Valdemar: I marvel at their organization. I marvel at their resiliency. I marvel at their ability and daring and courage in the face of overwhelming odds sometimes to do the things that they do. But we just have different purposes.
And a different code of conduct. But in 2002, Réne Enríquez saw the gang's code begin to break down. Greed and paranoia were sparking violent feuds among Mexican Mafia members. Some started plotting to kill the families of rivals in the gang.
Enríquez: The killing of women and children, these are innocent people that have no participation in the organizational activities. For us to do that would lower us to the levels of the other gangs. We had a sense of honor among us, that we wouldn't do that. I'll admit that some women got killed by the Mexican Mafia throughout the history of the organization, many of them. Because they participated in our activities, they were in the loop. If you're in the loop, you're subject to being killed. But this arbitrary targeting of families because I am your adversary, takes you to a whole different realm of violence. This was not part of the bargain. This is not the Mexican Mafia that I joined.
Réne Enríquez was growing disillusioned, and he was being ground down by isolation as he describes in this tape to a friend.
Enríquez: I've been in some of the toughest prisons in California. But I've never been to one like this. I'd previously read some literature by a doctor by the name of Stuart Grassian. He's a psychologist. And he had a theory that individuals exposed to long-term isolation went through a process called SHU syndrome, or reduced environmental stimulation. And he identified two types of personalities: One was the weaker type of personality, the individuals who degraded rapidly psychologically, that became psychotic, hallucinated, depressed, violent. They suffered greatly. But he also identified another personality, the more resilient type of personality, the individual that can endure long-term incarceration, long-term isolation. That can do so with minimal degradation to their psyche.
Enríquez: I've seen individuals that I've known, strong warriors in the sense that we consider ourselves warriors, just degrade, stand around the cell naked, yelling, screaming, babbling. ... The isolation created this environment where a lot of individuals suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, that this is such a traumatic experience. I've noticed the effects on myself. I remember the first time I had an anxiety attack. I felt like I was going to die, impending doom. That was the first sign I had that something was going wrong with me, that it was time for me to get out of this.
[Prison door closes]
Special agent Robert Marquez says Enríquez was a gangster facing a mid-life crisis.
Marquez: Generally when people get to their 40s, mid-40s, 50s, there begins this whole process of introspection of what have I done with my life, what have I accomplished, where am I going, what has been the fruit of my labors? And I think in Réne's case, he had accomplished everything that he wanted to accomplish as far as being a Mexican Mafia member. However I think in his case, he finally saw that, "Hey, you know what? I've reached the pinnacle of everything that I'm doing here, and yet at the same time, I'm still locked up. I don't have contact visits with my family. And is this the rest of my life? Being in this concrete cell, this concrete unit, and is this how I'm going to end my life?"
Enríquez: They call it mob fatigue. Everybody goes through it.
Enríquez thought about dropping out, but doing so would violate his lifetime commitment to the group and put him on the hit list. He hesitated.
Enríquez: You've taken 20 years of your life to create the persona that you are. I mean, this is your image, this is who you are. So in a sense, it's like committing suicide. I couldn't take the step. I couldn't envision myself doing that. I didn't know how to do it. I remember one day I was talking to a visitor about the decision, and I said, "You know, what if I left? So what if I wasn't anybody anymore?" And it didn't matter to her ... Well some guy was monitoring all my visits ... some investigator. He hears the tape two days after it's recorded. I'm going to medical ... and he pulls me in the office. He says, "Hey!" He's a little a short guy about five feet tall, he's got a big old chaw in his mouth, it's a Copenhagen. He talks like a little cowboy. "Hey Boxer, I know you're from the EME." You know, he's got this funny twang, country twang to him, you know. "What the hell are you talking about?" And he busts out this recording. He says, "I know you're thinking of leaving. Let me take you out of this." I tell him, "No, you're crazy, man. You're misinterpreting what's going on there." But I'm shaking already, because I know this is my opportunity right here. He came to me. And I made the decision right then after about a half hour of talking with him. And it was the longest walk. It was about 100 feet towards that C-12, that PC block, protective custody. You go into this specific debriefing unit where all ex-gang members go when they drop out. It was the longest walk in the world, because I didn't want anybody to see me. I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I'm leaving the organization; something I've killed for, that I've dedicated my life for, 20 years of my adult life, 18 years as a member. And I'm walking away from it. I'm a disgrace to everybody now.
Smith: This is Stephen Smith. You're listening to Gangster Confidential. To see a video confession by Réne Enríquez and learn more about the complex world of criminal gangs, visit our Web site at AmericanRadioWorks.org. You can download this and many other American RadioWorks programs at AmericanRadioWorks.org. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Gangster Confidential continues in just a moment from American Public Media.
Smith: You're listening to Gangster Confidential, an American RadioWorks documentary from American Public Media. I'm Stephen Smith. When Réne Enríquez decided to quit the Mexican Mafia, it caused a sensation among gang investigators. Here was a top insider, stepping out of the gang after 20 years of conspiracies and violence, including two murders and many assaults. When Enríquez defected from the Mexican Mafia, it got him out of the Prison Isolation Unit, but also put him on the gang's hit list. He's left wondering: If he's no longer a feared gang leader, what is he? What does he live for? Enríquez says he wants to be a new man, but a lot of inmates claim that. And it's obviously hard for a mafioso to start over when he's still locked up. What's more, Enríquez now has to reveal the gang's secrets. Michael Montgomery picks up our story.
Montgomery: The scene is a small interview room in one of America's top security prisons. Pelican Bay State prison is where gang leaders live out a bleak life, locked down around the clock in isolation units. To get out of solitary, Réne Enríquez is betraying his gang brothers.
Corrections Officer: I'm with the California Department of Corrections. I'm here with inmate Réne Enríquez to do a videotaped interview. Réne, would you introduce yourself for the camera?
Enríquez: My name is Réne Enríquez. I have been involved in organized crime for 20 years and I've been a Mexican Mafia member for over 17 years.
Enríquez: I'd never been on these videos before for anyone, never cooperated with the officials before in terms of divulging information.
Corrections Officer: Let's talk a little bit about the nature of the violence of the Mexican Mafia.
Enríquez: I made a list of all the murders that I was aware of, and there were over 70 murders that I was aware of, and I'm positive I'm forgetting a couple dozen, at least, just in my career that I was told about, that I knew about. There have been murders of such magnitude that they've even shocked me. Recently there was a family murdered, including a 6-month-old baby.
Enríquez: After we get done shooting the video, I get up and I look at this little monitor where they're doing it and it just struck me as: You're squealing. You know, you're squealing. And I've seen myself on film, squealing. I got a lump in my throat like, you know, I never thought I'd do this.
Réne Enríquez's confession was a coup for the cops because he knew so much. Robert Marquez is a Special Agent with California's Corrections Department.
Marquez: For the first time, we had a Mexican Mafia member defect that was really able to lay out for us how the organization works, the organizational structure.
Enríquez explained how gang leaders in prison sent orders to the outside world. They passed coded messages to visitors. They sent messages hidden in legal mail. Mail prison officials aren't allowed to read.
Marquez: As gang investigators, we kind of understood yeah, they have incredible influence within the Department of Corrections and in the county jails. Now we understood that their level of influence was with outside organizations, their level of influence on the streets, how that whole thing worked. I was amazed.
Enríquez led investigators down a money trail. Richard Valdemar is a retired sheriff's sergeant who led a gang task force in Los Angeles.
Valdemar: Here's a guy who was on that other arm, the money-making arm, the organizational arm defecting. And to me, it presented a great opportunity for us to attack the structure and financial ability of the Mexican Mafia.
Investigators learned that Mexican Mafia leaders in prison taxed drug sales on the street. Robert Marquez says the street dealers were like owners of a fast food franchise, they could use the Mexican Mafia name in return for part of their profits, and they were intimidated into paying.
Marquez: A street gang southern Hispanic, or a sureños, knows that if he's engaged in a criminal activity on the streets, at some point he's going to go to jail, or going to go to prison. Well because the Mexican Mafia has such influence within the prisons and the jails, that street gang member knows, "If I don't do what I'm told to do on the streets, that when I hit the jail, or when I hit the prisons, there are those who are so loyal to the Mexican Mafia that they're going to assault me." So you're going to do exactly what you're told, when you're told to do it and how you're told to do it, and not ask any questions about it.
After Réne Enríquez confessed, many gang members' bank accounts were frozen, and Enríquez became a marked man. Other gang members will kill him if they get the chance. So for his safety, he was transferred to a prison in Lancaster, on the western fringe of the Mojave Desert, where there's a special unit for gang dropouts. When Enríquez arrived here in 2004, he hadn't seen the night sky for 10 years; he'd been in isolation in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit, or SHU.
[Sounds of prison yard]
Enríquez: You hear all that? You don't hear that in the SHU. That's the differentiation between the SHU and here. There's ambient noise. It's like life here. There's life here. In the SHU there's no life. It's a dead, still environment. But you hear that? That's activity, that's life right there.
Montgomery: So tell me where we are. What are we looking at?
Enríquez: It's a prison yard, a regular prison yard. It looks like prison, a drab environment. But to me it's beautiful. I see mountains. I see a city out there. I see people interacting together.
The other inmates on the yards are prisoners who would be targets of violence elsewhere in the system. Men other prisoners consider scum: pedophiles, child murderers and gang dropouts. Enríquez is dressed in standard prison garb: blue work shirt and jeans. His short hair is slicked back and his gang tattoos creep out from his shirt.
Male Inmate: Nice glasses!
Enríquez: I know I'm looking sharp, huh?
Male Inmate: Yeah, you just got those, huh?
An inmate approaches Enríquez. His body is covered with tattoos of the Aryan Brotherhood, or AB, a notorious white gang.
Enríquez: He's ex-AB. I've known that guy for over 20 years. ... Usually I just hang out with ex-mobsters because you understand who they are. You've known these guys for 10, 20 or 30 years, you know. I mean I find myself gravitating towards these people. Maybe it's a deficiency of mine. But I know who they are. You know, I know, like Bob there. He's killed a few people. And I know what he's killed for. I know what he's stood for. I know what he's about. There are still men here that adhere to their sense of morals and ethics. You know, they won't degrade themselves, they won't lie to you, they keep their word. And those are the kinds of individuals I associate with. Individuals like me, I guess.
At Lancaster, Enríquez seemed liberated.
Enríquez: I can come out here and walk without my shoes, with my feet in the grass now. I can come out and see the mountains every morning when I come to breakfast. I can come to yard and bask in the sun and get a tan. Do you know how pale I was when I came down from Pelican Bay? We looked like vampires. That's what we call each other, "You look like a darned vampire," because you have no exposure to the sun at all. You have no direct exposure to the sun.
He sounded happy, but Enríquez wasn't telling the whole story. It turns out that he was high on heroin during our interview. And he was high because he was miserable. It's part of a darker story, one that Enríquez reveals later, in an audio letter to a friend.
Enríquez: I've been sitting here thinking about this interview with Michael Montgomery from San Francisco. I made it seem as if everything was perfect, that I was on a new path towards a new life, but that didn't even scratch the surface of the reality here. I feel like I'm in a pit of despair here sometimes. Sometimes I feel like tossing it all away and showing the one drunken bum or the one little coward or the one little kid that's trying to call me out and challenge me, just smash them. Sometimes I feel like doing that, but I know that I can't anymore. So I walk away. I walk away. I go back to my cell and I get high.
He's not just doing drugs. He's dealing drugs in a network of gang dropouts. He's quit the gang, but he hasn't quit committing crimes.
Enríquez: Sometimes I regret leaving the organization. It's hard to adjust out here. It's hard to walk around saying, "Yes sir, no sir." It's hard not to meet a challenge when somebody calls me out. So for me to walk around and bow my head, bite my tongue and not lash out when I want to, is so difficult for me. I know I'm making a transition in life. I don't want to be a violent person. But I don't want to bow down to anybody. [Heavy sigh].
Enríquez feels trapped. If he reverts to violence, he might be sent back to solitary. But he's also beginning to doubt his hopes for a new life.
Enríquez: I'm supposed to meet all these criterias that they want me to meet for parole, for a chance at life in the future and being a constructive individual ... and I go through all these steps to meet their expectations. I want to do better, but the programs don't exist. I can't participate in vocation or education; they don't have those programs for me here.
But then Réne Enríquez is approached by a young sheriff's detective named Jeff Bosket. Bosket offers a deal. He'll move Enríquez out of the dismal prison in Lancaster. In return, Enríquez will help Bosket work on a gang investigation in L.A. But Bosket gives him a blunt warning.
Jeff Bosket: I had told him that "you have to be honest and truthful with me, and if you're not, I will cut ties immediately." ... So he knows that if he messes up, I will shake his hand, thank him very much and send him back on his way. And he's going to go back to a lifestyle that he's been trying so desperately to get away from.
Bosket flies Enríquez in a sheriff's helicopter to a Los Angeles jail where he'll be closer to his family.
Bosket: I didn't trust him completely because this guy is a huge mafioso. You know, he's killed people, he's had people killed. All the stigma and you know, imaginations that you have from the Mexican Mafia.
Here Enríquez records diary entries for American RadioWorks.
Enríquez: This is Réne. It's Friday morning about 7:00. I had a difficult week. I think one of the last tapes I made, I mentioned my brother being ill. Well he finally died Monday the 12th. He was detached from life support and he died soon thereafter.
Enríquez's brother was in prison when he died of AIDS.
Enríquez: My whole family came and visited me here. One of my sisters I hadn't seen in 18 years. And as soon as I'd seen her, I cried like a baby. We have this non-contact visiting area where they sit on one side of a partition and you sit on the other; typical jail visiting room. But adjacent to that, there's a bail window. There's kind of like a banker's drawer, you know when you pull up to the drive-thru teller and they push out that drawer and you put in your documents or your money or your withdrawal slip? Well I managed to stick my hand in the drawer and open it half-way and they could stick their hand in the drawer and we'd hold hands. It was wonderful to hold my mom's hand.
Enríquez's family members declined to talk with us due to concerns about their safety. But Enríquez says his connection with them is a big reason he wants to change his life. At the jail in Los Angeles, he begins to find a new purpose and a new way to be important. He's working for the government as a witness and gang expert; in other words, an informant. He meets regularly with detective Jeff Bosket.
Enríquez: Want some pictures, some of the heavies?
Enríquez: Do you know who this guy is? Let me show you. The guy on the left, think Godfather.
Bosket: It's not Joe is it?
Enríquez: Joe Morgan! That's Joe Morgan dude. My guy Sosa.
Bosket: I've been in law enforcement for 12 years. I've been working gangs for eight. And every gang member I've ever talked to refuses to give up information. You know, they're not a snitch, they're not a rat. They look down on those. They will kill their own kind for giving information to the law enforcement. He hates desperately when I call him an informant. He is a "law enforcement consultant," is the new term that he likes to be referred to.
Enríquez: I know this guy's dead, Oniko. That's my crime partner, Benjamin Peters.
Bosket: Mmm hmm.
Enríquez : He's dead now too. Oh Rock'n Lou, he's dead now. Tati's dead too. They killed him up in Florence. I know a bunch of these guys.
Enríquez produces a wealth of valuable intelligence. His reputation as an informant is growing.
Male voice: Can we take our seats please?
He now finds himself advising agents on investigations and speaking at training seminars like this one in a high-security Federal building.
Enríquez: As you all know, my name is Réne Enríquez. Excuse me, I have to straighten out these leg irons. My name is Réne Enríquez. I was a Mexican Mafia member for 17 years and I became part of the upper echelon of that organization. I was one of the individuals who pushed this prison gang, which was a prison gang, into contemporary organized crime.
Enríquez: I've become the de facto Mexican Mafia expert for numerous agencies. So there are contributions that I can make. Whether they mitigate, reduce or absolve me of responsibility; no they don't. Nothing can do that. Nothing can erase the past. But I can move towards the future.
Enríquez wonders: Could freedom be in his future? Although he's called a lifer, he's actually serving a 20 to life sentence. In theory, that gives him a shot at parole. And that, of course raises a question: Is he cooperating with law enforcement only to look good the parole board? Has he simply changed sides without really changing?
Enríquez: I know to the outsider, in these events, they'll see this as an attempt to gain my freedom. And in a sense, I really do, I want to go home. I want to go home. And I hope this leads to that. There have been no promises. There is no deal. I am doing this solely for the purposes of redemption, in a sense. I've done so much negative. I've found what I can do that's constructive and positive.
Enríquez: Every man is more than the worst thing he's ever done. There has to be something more than the worst thing you've ever done; that doesn't define every person. I think really I'm a man in his nascency. I'm learning how to become a man again, because I've never really learned that aspect of life. I've always been incarcerated.
James Spertus: Réne's change came from deep within himself.
James Spertus is Enríquez's lawyer and a former Federal prosecutor.
Spertus: There was no opportunity provided to him through the prison system that brought about the change. Once he decided he wanted to change who he was, there were people in law enforcement along the way who listened to him and ultimately tested his commitments and ultimately became believers in his pure motives. But the system doesn't really change people; in fact, it often hardens people.
And the system is full of temptations like drugs and violence. Through glass doors in the front of his jail cell, Enríquez watches a procession of prisoners: street drunks, prostitutes and illegal immigrants. They get on his nerves.
Enríquez: There's a guy over here standing at his door. He's right across from us. He's been here for like three days. I think he's getting transferred this morning. But he's bothering the hell out of me. Every time we get up, every time we eat, he's at the door staring at us. It's bothersome to be stared at for long periods of time. You want to react. It's almost a daily temptation to want to roar up or have it your way, or you know, be that guy again.
[Prison door closes]
Enriquez: It's hard for me. I have to deal with individuals. Whereas before, these small slights, they would be dealt with immediately - immediate reprisals. Boom. Without hesitation. Now an individual that is on the tier that is drunk and pops off at the mouth, I look at them, in the back of my head I think, "I could hurt this guy." But I'm just a regular Joe now and I can't do that anymore.
These days, Enríquez has more reason than ever to try to repress his violent impulses and find a path out of prison. On a bright winter day, Enríquez puts on a suit and tie for the first time since his murder trial 18 years ago. Then he rides with heavily-armed U.S. marshals to Federal court.
[Voice hums "Here Comes the Bride"]
Male voice: You're a beautiful bride.
Enríquez: I'm downtown. I'm in downtown Los Angeles in the Federal court building at 312. I'm in judges chambers. And I'm getting married to a woman that I love. I look pretty sharp, I believe. I look not like a prisoner. I'm dressed in these civilian clothes. I'm dressed really nice. For all intents and purposes, I look like a regular Joe. Just before I step in, they take off my waist chains, so anybody looking from the waist up, I look normal. I'm dressed in this nice dress shirt, I'm dressed really nice. But on my ankles I'm wearing leg irons.
Montgomery: How do you feel?
Enríquez: How do I feel? Elated. I think how I feel is ineffable: emotional, happy. I feel good. I feel like this is where I'm supposed to be at this moment in life. I am happy.
Enríquez: In the room with me are: Martha - my wife, my handlers and Father Gregory Boyle is here to marry us.
Father Boyle: You have come together so that the Lord may seal and strengthen your love.
Enríquez: I was happy to finally be marrying a woman that I had known for a very long time, from even before my incarceration. And I realize that society may view our wedding and our marriage as something less than a marriage. But to us, it's everything. It's what we live by. It's what we've committed to. I feel that I've finally found my place. I've finally found where I'm supposed to be, with the person I'm supposed to be with.
Enríquez's wife asked that we not use her name or voice out of safety concerns. But she told us she believes her husband has changed. And Réne Enríquez says sometimes, talking with her changes the way he sees things. In his diary, he recalls an argument they had when he referred to a person he killed, another gang member, as a "nobody."
Enríquez: Criminals talk about crimes they do it in offhanded ways. This way that dehumanizes people, and she became angry with me. She said, "Réne, you impacted so many people. The people that you're convicted of killing were somebody's son, or somebody's father, or somebody's mother or somebody's daughter. They were a friend, they were a brother or sister. And you took that person away from them. You had no right to do that." And it really struck me. It really struck me then, that I impacted so many people. There's nothing that I could say that can diminish my responsibility for what happened. I'm aware of what I did. I wish that I could take it back a thousand times over.
Enríquez: Hi this is Réne. It's been a while since I've been able to record. ... It's a couple days before Christmas. I'm over here doing something very important. Actually, it's radically altered my life.
Late in 2007, Enríquez reluctantly took a step that sealed his reputation as a government witness. He testified against his former comrades in the gang. The case was a large Federal trial in San Diego. Television reporter Chris Blatchford:
Blatchford: Since the time he started cooperating from the government I don't think he really ever wanted to testify against anybody. And when he came to that point where he finally did, it was very, very difficult for him. The result was convictions, convictions of a half-dozen or more Mexican Mafia members.
Enríquez: If anybody's ever doubted my sincerity in what I was doing, they don't now. They can never question the integrity of what I'm doing.
A host of law enforcement officers say Réne Enríquez should be rewarded for his work. But not everyone agrees that his reward should be freedom. Frank Johnson prosecuted Enríquez for murder years ago. Johnson is now a judge. He still remembers how the grandfather of one of Enríquez's murder victims came to court every day. Back then, Johnson wanted Enríquez to get the death penalty.
Frank Johnson: I don't know if you can ever earn your way back from a double murder. And those are the only two murders I know about. I just don't know if you can ever climb out of that hole. And I don't know how you test someone's sincerity when they come back from such a bad place.
The man who works most closely with Enríquez, his handler Jeff Bosket, thinks he does deserve a shot at parole. But Bosket says it will be a hard decision for the parole board.
Bosket: They have to ultimately decide: Are we really ready to let this guy out and take the chance of him actually living a constructive life for society? Or is he going to waver back and become the mastermind criminal that he was previously.
Enríquez: This is Réne and I'm in L.A. at this undisclosed location where I'm being housed and I'm with my handler. Can I ask you a serious question?
Enríquez: I know you're law enforcement, you can't tell me anything that sounds like a promise or anything, but what do you think the likelihood is that one day I'll go fishing again? I'll be a free man, I'll be able to pet my dog and be with my wife.
Handler: You know, I've said it from the very beginning that the more visibility you have, the more involvement you have to show that you've rectified your existence of not being a criminal, then that will definitely help and waiver in your behalf.
Enríquez: Do you think the possibility exists?
Handler: Sure, the possibility exists. I mean otherwise, why would we be having this discussion?
Enríquez: On the flip side of that, do you think the possibility exists of my dying in prison as well?
Handler: Well of course. I mean, that's always a possibility. ... It just depends on the timing. ... How things are put together. ... And did the judge have a good golf game? You know? [Laughs]
Enríquez: But for 17 years I've been on this. On this plateau of just, this is it for me. And now, I have my wife. I've got all these blessings all of a sudden: this beautiful wife, these aspirations, these people in support of me. And I build them up and it's like almost a trepidation, this foreboding feeling of: What if they say no? What if they deny me? You know, how is that going to crush me? I've got to start this whole thing over again. And it would be like starting a whole new life sentence.
Handler: Mmm hmm.
Enríquez: So it's very scary for me. I just wanted to ask that question, to hear it from somebody I trust, you know?
Enríquez: This is Réne. I'm here sitting watching the Sopranos. It's Sopranos night. And me and my wife go through this ritual of watching this program. Oh they're going to do a hit right now. They just shot this guy in the back of the head. ... But me and my wife, we go through this ritual. We see this program and we watch it and we talk about it the next day on the phone. And it's one of those things we do. It's one of the few things that we share together, that she can do at her house and I can do here in my cell. ... And now the crew's all messed up. They had to kill one of their own. Anyways I find it ironic that what I tried to get away from, I'm drawn to. You know it's like art imitating life. Maybe it's because I understand it. It's something I know intimately. Maybe it's because it used to be my life.
[Dean Martin song on the television]
Enríquez: Tony Soprano is eating a bowl of ice cream. In fact, I have a half-gallon of Breyers ice cream in the refrigerator that my wife got me, and a pound of strawberries. I think I'm going to have some. I'm going to enjoy some ice cream with Tony Soprano. So it's going to be life imitating art [laughs]. These are my days in prison. Not so bad really. Not good but not so bad. Life could be worse. I'm breathing. I'm alive.
Smith: Réne Enríquez is cooperating with several law enforcement agencies from a secret location in southern California. When that work is done, Enríquez might get transferred to a Federal prison. It may be safer there than in California's prisons. But it could also mean being far away from his new wife. She sees Enríquez often, through a glass partition. Parole for Enríquez is a distant possibility, but there's no date for a hearing. And the parole board would have to decide that it's safe to let Réne Enríquez out on the streets, that he is a changed man. How could the parole board know for certain? Would Réne Enríquez know, himself?
Gangster Confidential was produced by Michael Montgomery. Editor, Catherine Winter. The American RadioWorks team includes: Ellen Guettler, Sasha Aslanian, Ochen Kaylan, Craig Thorson and Johnny Vince Evans. At American Public Media, Bryan Munsell and Anne Breckbill. I'm Stephen Smith.
To see photographs and video of Réne Enríquez and the Mexican Mafia, visit our Web site at AmericanRadioWorks.org. There you can listen again to Gangster Confidential and our nearly 100 other documentaries. That's AmericanRadioWorks.org. Major funding for American RadioWorks comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.