In a major victory for federal prosecutors, 12 members of the Mexican Mafia were convicted Friday of racketeering and conspiracy charges, including murder and extortion carried out in a ruthless bid to extend the group's influence beyond California's prisons.
The seven-man, five-woman jury, however, acquitted one defendant, Victor "Victorio" Murrillo, 51, of Visalia, of charges of conspiring to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) and conspiracy to murder an associate of the prison gang.
The verdicts capped a costly government effort to strike a blow against the group--commonly known as La Eme, the Spanish pronunciation for the letter M. Federal authorities financed an 18-month investigation and collected more than 300 secret videotapes and audio recordings.
The six-month trial marked the first time that federal authorities in Los Angeles have used the RICO statute against a gang. Originally, the RICO law was created to fight organized crime.
The importance the government put on the case was underscored by the presence in court Friday of U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella.
"I am very pleased with today's verdicts," Manella said in a statement, taking note of the efforts of the FBI, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the California Department of Corrections in the case.
In all, 12 defendants were convicted of violating RICO and conspiracy to violate RICO. Most were found guilty of murdering seven people, including three advisors on Edward James Olmos' movie about the Mexican Mafia, "American Me."
Ten were convicted of conspiracy to aid and abet in the distribution of cocaine and other illegal drugs by extorting "taxes" from Los Angeles street gangs.
That means two of the major figures in the case, reputed Eme godfather Benjamin "Topo" Peters, 56, and reported rival leader Ruben "Tupi" Hernandez, 37, face life sentences in federal prison. The two are already serving life terms at Pelican Bay State Prison, the toughest of California's penal facilities.
The verdicts were lauded by a former Mexican Mafia member who left the group to aid law enforcement.
"The verdicts don't surprise me because I know of no other deadly group like the Eme," said former Mexican Mafia member Ramon "Mundo" Mendoza, who keeps his whereabouts a secret to avoid Eme reprisals. "They are capable of killing people without a second's thought about it."
While the government scored the court victory over the Eme, the actual effect of the convictions on the streets is questionable, according to law enforcement experts who monitor the prison gang.
In recent months, while the case against the 13 defendants dragged on in the Roybal Federal Building downtown, Eme leaders have continued to meet with local street gangs, "tax" their profits from drug sales and issue orders to carry out Mexican Mafia wishes, they say.
"I don't think the mob's going to shut down because of this," said a veteran state corrections official, who asked not to be identified. "They've come too far, and it's been too many years. I think it's [still] going to be business as usual."
One investigator who worked on the case called the verdict a "double-edged sword." Even though some of the Eme's major leaders, who ruthlessly controlled street gangs, were convicted, a greater potential of violence exists because gang members may not be reined in as tightly when h these leaders are dispersed across the federal prison system.
Other than Manella's statement, the prosecutors had no comment, leaving unanswered the question of whether federal officials plan more efforts against the Mexican Mafia.
Three of the defendants, David "Smilon" Gallardo, 37, Alex "Pee Wee" Aguirre, 32, and Randy "Cowboy" Therrien, 36, were found guilty of killing Eme member Manuel "Rocky" Luna, an unpaid advisor on Olmos' 1992 movie.
Gallardo and Therrien were found guilty of killing Charles "Charlie Brown" Manriquez, another Eme member who also was an unpaid advisor on the movie.
Gallardo also was found liable for the death of Eastside anti-gang activist Ana Lizarraga, another film advisor.
Also convicted of racketeering and other charges were Juan "China Boy" Arias, 27; Daniel "Black Dan" Barela, 51; Ruben "Nite Owl" Castro, 36; Raymond "Champ" Mendez, 46; Jesse "Pelon" Moreno, 58; Raymond "Huero Shy" Shryock, 45; and Joe "Shakey Joe" Hernandez, 42.
The reading of the verdicts Friday afternoon, culminating 10 days of jury deliberations, was delayed as more than two dozen reporters and family members tried to get into the high-security courtroom. Only a few managed to gain entry.
The courtroom was silent as Juror 19, a woman, handed in the verdicts. The defendants showed little emotion as the guilty verdicts were read.
When it was clear that Murrillo was acquitted, several other defendants shouted their joy to him or shook his hand.