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.

(Todd Bigelow)

IR: And why do those orders include terrorizing and killing blacks?

RAFAEL: They don't want blacks in their neighborhoods. They say it makes their neighborhood look bad.

It started with the Mexican Mafia ordering street gangs to cleanse themselves of black members, before they moved on to cleansing neighborhoods. For example, the 18th Street gang, this was a [MacArthur Park neighborhood] gang that had blacks and Hispanics in it for a long time, up until about 10 years ago, when the Mexican Mafia leaders told the 18th Street, "If you don't want to get green-lighted, get all the blacks out of your gang." They had to go. Before that, the 18th Street gang was an equal opportunity employer. But the Mexican Mafia said, "We can't have it, can't have blacks in our gangs."

The way I hear these knuckleheads tell it, they don't want their neighborhoods infested with blacks, as if it's an infestation. It's just pure racial animosity that manifests itself in a policy of a major criminal organization.

IR: Does the Mexican Mafia have the same policy toward whites or Asians?

RAFAEL: No. In fact, in the California prison system the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia have made an alliance to gang up against the Black Guerilla Family. It's common knowledge in the prison system that if there's a fight between a Mexican Mafia member and a black inmate, and there aren't enough Mexican Mafia guys to jump on his side, the Aryans are supposed to jump in on his side. This is an alliance that goes back 20 years. The Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood have a mutual racial hatred for blacks.

IR: The Avenues killings and the Avenues gang have been getting all the media attention recently, but there are a lot of other street gangs loyal to the Mexican Mafia. How many of them also target blacks?

RAFAEL: All of them. What happened in the Avenues is happening all over southern California. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's happening throughout all of Los Angeles, or that there's policy to drive blacks out of the entire metropolitan area, but it's certainly happening in all the areas where the Mexican Mafia and their allied gangs feel they have control.

For example, they don't control Beverly Hills or the west side of Los Angeles. But places like [the Los Angeles neighborhood of] Highland Park, very strong presence. Pomona, very strong. West and north San Fernando Valley, extremely strong. And these are places where you don't see many blacks living in the first place, so wherever the Mexican Mafia has a very strong or extremely strong presence, the blacks who live there are going to have problems. The federal government is aware of this, and the decision to prosecute the Avenues using federal hate crime laws came from the highest levels of the U.S. Attorney's office. They were basically using the Avenues case to send a message to the Mexican Mafia leaders, to say, "This is not going to happen."

IR: And are those gang leaders getting the message?

RAFAEL: They got it, but they don't care. It's not like their reaction has been, "Message heard, okay, we're gonna back off." One week before the [Avenues federal hate crimes trial] ended, another black kid was killed by the Avenues 43.

IR: What level of truth is there to the rumor that Bloods and Crips are going to start carrying out similar racial attacks on Latinos as a form of revenge?

RAFAEL: It's already happening. There was one case in the Avenues already where three [Latino] family members were shot and killed by two black guys with AK-47s. The victims were civilians, not gang members. The killers rolled up on them in central Avenues, opened up on them with the AKs, then, after the [Latino] guys were down, the [black gang members] walked up and shot them in the back. It was coup de grâce, assassination, pure-out assassination. So, yes, unfortunately, it's started.

IR: Some people who live in Highland Park point out that many of these killings [of blacks] happened years ago, and that it was a relatively small problem caused by a relatively small group. But you're saying this is still a big problem today, in more areas than just Highland Park?

RAFAEL: Absolutely. It's not like if you're black they're definitely going to shoot you on sight if they only see you once in Highland Park. However, if you move there, like [2000 murder victim] Anthony Prudhomme, and they see you going in and out of your house all the time, or you start hanging out there regularly, like [2001 murder victim] Christopher Bowser, sitting in front of a bus bench with your boom box, yeah, you'll have problems.

IR: You think that was a cultural thing with Bowser, them not liking a black man imposing on their public space with noise from his boom box?

RAFAEL: I think the boom box just made him stick out more. They just didn't want Bowser hanging out there, period, because he was black. He had been beaten up and robbed before and called the usual epithets. The [1999 murder victim] Kenneth Wilson case, though, was weirder. Wilson didn't even live in Highland Park. He was just visiting a friend of his, and he went out to move his car because it was parked illegally, blocking somebody's driveway, and he had the random misfortune of coming across one of the four most vicious guys there are, [Avenues gang member Gilbert "Lucky"] Saldana.

Saldana is an outright racist. He's the one who uttered the infamous words, "Wanna kill a nigger?" before Wilson was shot. And Wilson was targeted at random. He was just parking his car when these guys went out looking to kill a black guy. He was totally innocent.

IR: Let's say a member of a street gang under the Mexican Mafia's authority obeys all the other rules and pays his taxes, but when it comes to terrorizing blacks, he says, "Look, I have no problem with black people just for being black, so I don't want to do this," does he have that kind of wiggle room?

RAFAEL: No.

IR: So then, if he carries out an assault or a killing because he's under racist orders, even though he's not a racist himself, is that still truly a hate crime, or is it more accurately described as a gang hit?

RAFAEL: The guys prosecuted in the [federal] Avenues case, there was nobody holding a gun to their head. They went out looking for blacks to kill to earn stripes, and to curry favor and to bring up their status with the Mexican Mafia. They may have hated blacks and been down with killing blacks to begin with, or they may have just said, "To show you I'm with the program, I'll go out and do what I gotta do." But the end result is the same, and it's really at a basic level driven by the same sort of racial purity theories as nut groups like the KKK.

IR: Are there really any theories or ideology to the Mexican Mafia's racism, or is it just disorganized, visceral hatred?

RAFAEL: The Mexican Mafia derives inspiration and ethnic pride from the concept of La Raza (Spanish, in this context, for "The Race"), as well as from the Aztec, Aztlan movement. And this goes way back. There was a Mexican Mafia shot caller back in the 1970s named Rudolph Cheyenne Cardena, and before he was killed by rival Mexican gang members in 1978 or 1977, Cardena saw the Mexican Mafia the way George Jackson [a prominent member of the original Black Panther Party who founded the Black Guerilla Family] saw the black prison movement. He wanted to change the Mexican Mafia into a political, socially active movement, and what he used for inspiration was the Aztec culture. He taught himself Nahuatl [the ancient language of the Aztecs], started teaching it to all the other homies. In fact, to this day they still use Nahuatl to send coded messages to one another -- these kinds of three level-coded messages. You have to know the code, and then Nahuatl and so on. And one of the symbols of the Mexican Mafia is the Aztec worship [symbol].

They've brought in the Aztec heritage as part of their philosophical inspiration, and there are no black people in the Aztec culture. La Raza comes first to these guys. They see themselves as a race unto themselves, and there's really not too much room for anybody else.