The list of men to be executed was set. Enforcers in Theo Lacy Jail were already passing the word.The executioners were assigned.
Gang members in the county’s maximum-security jail were in the middle of a violent power struggle within the ranks of the Mexican Mafia. Among them, 38-year-old Mark Garcia was told one of the men targeted for death was in his housing unit. A gang banger with a history of theft and weapons possession convictions, Garcia immediately knew something was amiss.
The man in his unit had the same nickname as one on the death list – Sluggo. But Garcia knew the wrong man had been targeted. Plus, with a construction job waiting for him on the outside, Garcia wanted to keep his distance. So he asked the name be checked again, hoping to stall. But the same order came back.
“He gave us the go ahead, that it was a special request,” Garcia testified in court. “We basically looked at each other in disappointment but knew something was wrong, and that it was something personal.”
Relying on violence and a complex network behind bars, law enforcement officials know the Mexican Mafia exerts control over county jails, Latino gangs and the street drug trade.
Known as La Eme, the secretive organization is rife with internal politics and power grabs, but the inner workings are known only to a select few. Gang members rarely meet members of the Mexican Mafia.
In a Superior Court trial in February, a trial over an otherwise minor jailhouse assault provided a rare glimpse into how power from the very top of the Mexican Mafia flows down to the lowest ranks of the street gangs. In a high-stakes game of criminal control, gang members with little insight into what’s on the line are often pawns in a deadly war.
As one inmate testified, gang members can be given an order and – without knowing who issued it – find themselves picking a side in a bloody fight they have no stake in.
In 2011, about 100 people were indicted in multiple federal and state cases involving the Mexican Mafia in Orange County. The cases stemmed from a power struggle that began in late 2009 when, according to authorities, two leaders of La Eme began to fight for control. In all, prosecutors suspect about 30 assaults and attempted killings took place in and around Orange County as a result of that war from 2009 to 2011.
The case in Judge David Hoffer’s court in February was the first of those cases to make it trial.
Four Orange County gang members were charged with carrying out an order on behalf of the Mexican Mafia. Prosecutors allege the attack on a fellow inmate was carried out by Mark Garcia, 38, Bernardo Guardado, 22, Fernando Gallegos, 29, and Jose Camarillo, 29, but the order could be traced to the very top of the criminal pyramid. Defense attorneys argued their clients found themselves in a losing situation: ignoring the order could put their own lives at risk.
“Much like you write a grocery list, Mexican Mafia members write lists of people to be killed,” said Deputy District Attorney Eric Peterson said. “This case is bigger than the (four) defendants.”
The testimony shed light on the shadowy power structure of the Mexican Mafia, and how fear is used to enlist the enforcement of street gangs.
“You are in a place where you can’t be protected, and you can’t protect yourself,” said Roger Sheaks, one of the attorneys for the defense. “Obey or you pay.”
Armando “Mando” Moreno was in the midst of a bloody struggle with Peter “Sana” Ojeda, law enforcement officials said. Ojeda was a long-time figure in O.C.’s underworld and the two men were one-time allies. But by 2009, authorities said Moreno was making his move.
Jailers attempt to isolate high-ranking members of the Mexican Mafia and disrupt communication. Yet messages and orders are routinely circulated between and inside local jails and state prisons.
Acting as the eyes, ears and fists of the Mexican Mafia is a “mesa,” a group of trusted gang members who keep tabs of inmates and ensure orders are executed. They also keep lists of gang members in custody and which gangs are in bad standing for crossing someone or owing money. That “mesa” – Spanish for table – then assigns shot-callers, or “llaveros,” to pass out orders in jails, explained Peterson to a jury.
Ojeda’s “mesa” kept tabs on O.C. Theo Lacy jail, but Moreno tried to set up his own command structure as he moved to assume control. By 2009, gang members were receiving orders from both sides, causing confusion and misunderstandings.
“All that chaos was going on,” said Garcia. “Multiple people were getting assaulted in various places.”
On June 24, 2009, deputies found a “kite” – a written message – intended to reach Moreno’s “mesa” in Theo Lacy Jail, Peterson said. The small, tightly written message was a list of men to be killed, including Ojeda’s supporters. Donald Garcia, who was known as “Sluggo,” was on that list.
But housed with Mark Garcia was an inmate with a similar nickname of “Lil Sluggo,” who was now mistakenly targeted for execution.
“Deep down, Mark Garcia knew they were hitting the wrong person,” Peterson said. “They, being the loyal foot soldiers for the Mexican Mafia, carried it out.”
Other messages found by deputies in the jail show there was an effort to clear up the mistaken identity. One message found by deputies read, “on sluggo (…) is it lil or big?”
The answer would not get back in time.
During five days of trial in February, defense attorneys admitted their clients attacked a cellmate.
On the witness stand, Garcia testified he had little choice: “If I would have refused, I would have had problems with my cellie. It would have been a struggle. Foul play like that happens all the time.”
Instead, defense attorneys argued, Garcia, Guardado, Gallegos and Camarillo decided to beat the inmate in front of deputies for a few seconds – perhaps saving his life, they argued. The beating – with no weapons – would guarantee a transfer to protective custody for the victim and the four attackers could claim they carried out the order.
“We’ve got a problem, we can disregard it, or carry it out or … we’re going to lay hands on him,” said Laurence Young, a defense attorney. “That plan was not to hurt him.”
“The only reason this assault happened is because Armando Moreno put pen to paper,” he said. “Foot soldiers carry out their orders, (and) believe it’s never going to get back at them.”
But in this case, Peterson said, authorities were able to seize a message written by Moreno. The attack, he argued, was traced from inside Theo Lacy Jail to Moreno, who was in state prison 30 miles away in Chino.
Deputies who witnessed the attack said the beating took about 15 seconds and only a few feet from the watch tower.
“You never intended to kill (the victim), did you?” asked defense attorney Gilbert Carreon.
“No,” Garcia said.
“You just wanted to remove him?” Carreon said.
“They (the defendants) know what a removal is,” Garcia said. “Giving him a little whooping and send him on his way.”
By assaulting the man in front of deputies, defense attorneys argued the defendants avoided killing the wrong man.
“The solution to this is to get the guy out of here,” Sheaks said.
As deputies stopped the fight, Sheaks said his client looked at the victim and told him, “You gotta go, man. You gotta go.”
“It’s a fight. It’s a fight of convenience,” Sheaks said. “He’s doing the only thing he can do, and that’s move the problem down the road.”
But for Peterson, the case is an example into the nature of the Mexican Mafia’s power and influence in the criminal world. The organization’s power stems from fear and intimidation exerted upon street gangs, he said. But, he argued in court, gang members can always opt to step out of that world.
“To say they had no choice is ridiculous,” he said.
Before the jury returned with a verdict, defense attorneys and the prosecutor made a deal. The four defendants pleaded guilty to one count of assault with a deadly weapon or force likely to produce great harm. The charges of attempted murder were dismissed.
Guardado and Gallegos were sentenced to seven years. Camarillo was sentenced to eight years. Garcia received four years.
Meanwhile, Moreno and Ojeda are awaiting trial in federal court. They are currently where authorities say the Mexican Mafia exerts the greatest influence over Southern California gangs – behind bars.
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ/ ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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