Federal prosecutors scored a major victory over the Mexican Mafia this month when a judge sentenced 10 of the prison gang's soldiers to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
Now authorities face the vexing question of how to continue the crackdown against the group, which is believed to be responsible for more than 700 slayings over four decades--ranging from brutal hits inside prison walls to the murder of an Eastside anti-gang crusader.
Although the crime syndicate has been weakened by the racketeering and conspiracy trial in Los Angeles federal court, prison gang experts and others say little has changed for the Eme (Spanish for the letter M), as the Mexican Mafia is commonly called.
"It's still business as usual on the streets," said Ramon "Mundo" Mendoza, a onetime Eme hit man who left the group after he became a government informant. "You have other guys doing the [killings], other guys getting recruited, other illegal activities continuing."
Prosecutors, however, consider the case a landmark because it resulted in prison terms for 19 Eme members. In addition to the 10 sentenced to life after the six-month trial ended in May, two others were given 32-year terms. Seven others pleaded guilty to lesser charges before the trial began and got varying sentences.
"Those Mexican Mafia members who were operating from within the California prison system will be removed from their power base, and those principals who were on the streets will spend their adult lives in federal prison," said U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella. "I can think of few people who deserved these sentences more."
Yet, some streetwise law enforcement officials wonder if the effort will have a lasting effect. For one thing, they say, other Eme soldiers have stepped in to replace their comrades put away through the case. These members, the officials say, are still carrying on illicit activities--killings, drug dealing, extortion and intimidation--that were targeted during the recent trial.
Second, the investigators say, most of the Eme members sentenced will be sent from California prisons, where the gang is entrenched, to the federal prison system, which declared the Eme a security threat in 1992 because of the problems it posed for authorities there.
"They'll be welcomed with open arms in federal prisons," predicted Mendoza, who keeps his whereabouts a secret to avoid reprisals by the gang.
Of the 10 defendants receiving life terms, at least four were shipped out immediately to the maximum-security federal prison in Marion, Ill. Most of the others will be assigned elsewhere.
Two of them, Benjamin "Topo" Peters, a reputed Eme godfather, and Ruben "Tupi" Hernandez, may never get to federal prison because they are already serving life terms for murder in California.
In separate interviews, Manella and Timothy P. McNally, the special agent in charge of the FBI office in Los Angeles, did not directly respond to questions about whether more racketeering cases are planned against the Eme. The prosecutors relied on the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act--or RICO, as it is commonly known--to wage their battle in court.
"We will use every tool in our federal arsenal," Manella said.
"We're not going to go away," added McNally.
But other sources confirm that federal authorities are indeed planning another RICO prosecution against the Mexican Mafia.
Just as the court injunction has become the favored tool to fight the 18th Street gang in Los Angeles, insiders say the RICO law is becoming the Feds' best weapon against the Eme. Federal prosecutors can use past crimes, already adjudicated in state courts, against defendants in a RICO case to prove that the Eme is a criminal enterprise.
But to get another successful RICO case, prosecutors will most likely need another Ernest "Chuco" Castro.
As the government's key witness, Castro, 39, a former Eme leader, not only provided vital testimony during 6 1/2 weeks on the stand but also gave authorities the means to secretly videotape Eme meetings and record other conversations. The recordings were instrumental in the convictions.
Until Castro agreed to cooperate with authorities in late 1993, the government's task force on the Mexican Mafia found it difficult to develop the case, one investigator said. Castro helped turn the tide, said the investigator, who like some others interviewed for this story asked not to be identified publicly.
Castro is now in hiding. The Eme has put a "green light" on him, signifying the gang's go-ahead to kill someone who breaks the code of silence.
In addition to Castro, McNally said the RICO case's success was ensured--during more than two years of investigating--by cooperation among the FBI, California penal officials, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and Los Angeles police.