Gang Expert Tony Rafael Discusses Mexican Mafia Known as 'La Eme'

A respected writer spent five years studying the Mexican Mafia. What he discovered will shock even the most seasoned cop.

Whenever Tony Rafael leaves home, he carries a .45-caliber handgun nestled in a holster just below his armpit. A Cold Steel Recon-1 knife is stashed elsewhere on his person. Concealed weapons permits are hard to come by in Los Angeles County, but Rafael is a special case.

For the past five years, the respected writer and gang expert -- who uses only the name he writes under in public because of his dangerous work -- has been researching one of the deadliest gangs in America for a nonfiction book he's writing on the Mexican Mafia, or "La Eme" (the Spanish word for the letter 'M'), tentatively titled Southern Soldiers. His sources are of the "L.A. Confidential" variety: prison inmates, gang members past and present, homicide detectives, FBI agents and their informants. He has volunteered for the Los Angeles Police Department, conducting long-term surveillance outside gang hangouts, and has dug up the cases of hundreds of gang members from the county court system to document the bloody swath they've cut across Los Angeles.

One heart-arresting fact the streetwise investigator recently uncovered is that Mexican Mafia leaders have declared a "green light" on African Americans found in neighborhoods claimed by the powerful prison-based gang. This means that members of Latino street gangs affiliated with the La Eme are under orders to harass, assault, and even murder African-Americans, who Mexican Mafia leaders view as sub-human.

The reason for this, Rafael has found, is that a longstanding prison gang war between the Mexican Mafia and the African-American prison gang, Black Guerilla Family, has led to a deep racial loathing between the gangs that has spilled over into the streets of Los Angeles County.

Until now, media coverage of this issue has missed the Mexican Mafia connection by focusing narrowly on the convictions of four members of a single street gang, the Avenues, for violating federal hate crime laws by murdering blacks in the Highland Park neighborhood. According to Rafael and other gang experts, the problem is far more pervasive.

Rafael sat down with the Intelligence Report in his Los Angeles office in October to discuss the shocking truths he found about the Mexican Mafia and how its leaders have ordered Latino gangs outside the prisons to sow terror among African Americans.

INTELLIGENCE REPORT: How did you find out about the Mexican Mafia's policy of racist violence against blacks?

TONY RAFAEL: I've been researching for a book on the Mexican Mafia that will be published next year. I became aware of this as a result of that research, and it was a shock. I knew the Mexican Mafia collected taxes [from street gangs], but I didn't realize they had initiated a policy of ethnic cleansing. This comes from the top. This comes from the shot callers. The guy who issued the order to the Avenues [one of many Mexican Mafia-controlled street gangs] to get rid of all blacks was a guy by the name of Alex "Pee Wee" Aguirre. Aguirre is a made man in the Mexican Mafia, he came from the Avenues originally, and he's currently serving a life term at a federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill.

IR: And this truly amounts to a policy of "ethnic cleansing"?

RAFAEL: Absolutely. There's no doubt about it. These cases are scary. Take [Latino gang member] Frank Limón -- he shot a black male named Eric Green. Green and a friend of his were stopped at a stop sign on 11th Street and Pomona [in Pomona], and Limón just came up to him and shot him in the head, wounding him severely. Green is partially paralyzed, he's developed cognitive disorders, and he walks slowly, because the bullet is lodged in his brain and can't be removed.

Limón grew up next to black families in the neighborhood. He and Green knew each other and had no problems with each other personally. In fact, Limón used to go to Green's birthday parties when they were kids. But a week after Limón was jumped into the Pomona 12 [street gang], he started shooting at black kids because the Mexican Mafia had "green lighted" all blacks in the neighborhood. And when you click up with a gang that's loyal to the Mexican Mafia, the Mexican Mafia comes before God, your family, and your friends going all the way back to childhood. When they tell you to do something, you gotta do it.

IR: Why would the gangs take up this kind of race war?

RAFAEL: Well, to understand the background to these racial shootings and homicides you need to first understand some background on how the Mexican Mafia operates. They're primarily a prison gang, like the Black Guerilla Family and Aryan Brotherhood. What the Mexican Mafia has been able to do is project power outside of the prison system. There are only about 250 to 300 Mexican Mafia members in the California prison system that are fully validated ["made"] members, but what I compare them to are the generals and colonels of an army out on the streets. Everything south of Bakersfield is considered a Mexican Mafia stronghold, basically what you call sureños, or "south-siders."

Those sureños are obliged, whether they like it or not, to swear allegiance to the Mexican Mafia. If you're a little gang member in Avenues [the name of a Los Angeles neighborhood, as well as the gang that operates there] or Conoga Park and you're dealing in drugs, or some other illegal activity, you have to pay the Mexican Mafia a street tax. If you're dealing dope, you gotta buy your dope from the Mexican Mafia, you sell it and once you sell it you owe them a percentage of your profits.

In southern California, the Mexican Mafia and the [other] Hispanic street gangs have achieved what I call complete vertical integration. Say there's a little gang member who'll get arrested, he'll go to prison, and the minute he lands in prison they give him what they call the "X Files," the rules and regulations of the Mexican Mafia.

For example, one of those rules is that, if you're on a tier, if you're in the number one or the last cell in the tier, and you're celled up with another Mexican, one of you two has to stay awake at all times. That's the rules, so no one will sneak up on you. Also, the bloqueros, the guys in charge of the cell block, they have to collect from everyone on the tier and kick up to the Mexican Mafia leaders. They control the county jails and the state prison system. And because they control the jails and the prisons, they control the streets, because if you're an independent and you say, "Screw you. I don't wanna pay my taxes," they will either get you on the street -- they green light you and kill you, assault you, whatever they wanna do -- or they catch you when you enter the prison system.

You have to understand, these gang members are looking to go to jail or prison. They expect it. To them, it's just an extension of the streets. All their friends are there, their family's there, all their ol' homies from growing up in the 'hood, they're all there. But if they want to remain a part of that culture, and if they want to be under the Mexican Mafia's protection, they have to obey the Mexican Mafia's rules and follow their orders, inside and outside the penal system.