Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas looks at some of the weapons seized… (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles…)
A violent prison gang ran drugs in Orange County's jails, ordered brutal beatings of inmates, collected tariffs from neighborhood gangs and issued so-called hard candy lists that marked disobedient members for death, according to indictments made public Tuesday
In what authorities described as a major blow to the Mexican Mafia, 129 people were indicted by federal and state authorities on racketeering and other charges related to a criminal enterprise that engaged in murder, extortion and drug-dealing.
The 21/2-year probe was dubbed Operation Smokin' Aces and was conducted by FBI agents, Santa Ana police officers, Orange County sheriff's detectives, and members of the Orange County district attorney's office and other agencies.
A raid early Tuesday resulted in 55 arrests. An additional 51 suspects were already in state or federal prison and 21 remain at large. One of those named in the federal indictment is dead and another was deported.
More than 60 weapons, 22 pounds of methamphetamine, 11/2 pounds of heroin and three pounds of cocaine were seized during the course of the investigation. Two of the weapons have been linked to slayings in Santa Ana, investigators said.
"Federal and local law enforcement here in Orange County joined forces to surgically target the leaders and operatives of the Mexican Mafia and sever their influence over street gangs responsible for far too much menace and mayhem in our neighborhoods," said Andre Birotte Jr., U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
The indictment describes violent gangsters operating on the streets and in the jail in the heart of Orange County.
The operation, the indictment says, was carried out by a crew of ranking gang members with names such as "Lil Bogart," "Creeper," "Big Shotgun" and "Bugsy."
A district attorney investigation said the beatings administered to gang inmates resulted in bruises and head injuries so severe that in one case, 20 staples were required to close the wound. The indictment details more than a dozen jail beatings in 2011 and 2012.
In one case, a 39-year-old woman who was deemed to be an enemy was killed in a Tijuana hotel room where she was lured under the pretense of discussing gang business, authorities said. Her body was later burned and dumped in a remote area of Mexico, where it was discovered days later, authorities said.
One of those named in the federal indictment was a 28-year-old Santa Ana woman who was found shot to death under a Newport Bay bridge on Labor Day. Nancy Hammour had supplied about 13 grams of methamphetamine to a confidential informant and ordered drugs from another defendant, the indictment says.
Authorities said agents intercepted dozens of conversations about gang activity, the arrival of heroin shipments in greeting cards and "green light" communications that ordered beatings of inmates whose gangs had failed to pay "rent."
Smokin' Aces is the latest law enforcement operation targeting the Mexican Mafia in Orange County and its affiliated gangs, particularly in Santa Ana.
In 2011, Operation Black Flag resulted in charges against 99 suspected gang members from Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties. So far two-thirds of those have been convicted in state and federal court, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman with the U.S. attorney's office.
Peter "Sana" Ojeda, who is accused of ordering killings on behalf of the Mexican Mafia from federal prison, was among those charged in 2011, Mrozek said. The trial of Ojeda, believed to be a member of the gang since the 1960s, is set for March 2014.
The reputed Mexican Mafia godfather of Orange County is credited with extending the gang's influential reach from prisons to the streets, according to a 2005 Times story. Although not charged in the latest indictment, Ojeda's name comes up repeatedly in it in connection with defendants being ordered to carry out assaults and strong-arm gang members to pay "taxes."
The indictments are crucial, said Richard Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's investigator who was on the first task force that targeted the Mexican Mafia.
"But it's like the Italian Mafia," Valdemar said. "We hurt them, but they don't stop functioning."
Times staff writers Robert Lopez and Richard Winton contributed to this report.