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Latino Prison Gangs: La Pinta Part One
By Gabe Morales
Published: 06/11/2001

When a person is arrested and charged they will often sit out their time in jail if they cannot bail out during trial. If they are sentenced to jail most will not do more than a year locked up. While there are gang members in jails, it is generally harder for gangs to get organized since there is more restrictive movement and limits on personal property that is the cause for much violence. People doing prison terms usually do more than a one-year sentence and for more serious crimes may even be doing a 'life sentence'. They can get more organized. Whether in jails or prison, Correctional Officers attempt to keep warring gangs away from each other. This is not always an easy task!

Gangs in prison originally started as protection groups from other prison gangs and to act as a welcoming committee for new prisoners after their intake into the system. Prison gangs are often classified as 'Security Threat Groups' in correctional facilities because they tend to disrupt the normal operation of the facility. This term includes other organizations that are 'Disruptive Groups', but not normally associated with the outside or street gangs. Nationally, it is believed that there are at least 283 different prison gangs. 

Prison gangs are much more violent than street gangs. Between 1970 and 1980, 189 inmates were killed behind prison walls in the California Department of Corrections, the majority of them by prison gangs. Street gangs and prison gangs are closely intertwined today with the 'revolving door'. Street gang members are groomed by prison gang members to 'put in work, earn their stripes and make their bones'. If a street gang member is a prospect, he will have to prove himself out on the prison big yard. Prison gang members once released usually return to the street and are expected to collect taxes for the gang and kickback money or drugs to their former brothers behind bars (la pinta).

Mexican Mafia

Also known as 'La EME', this prison gang began in the Duell Vocational Institute at Tracy, California, in late 1957. The group was initially called the 'Baby Mafia' and built its' infrastructure based on the Cosa Nostra, also known as the Italian Mafia. The object of this group was to protect Chicano inmates from others to control criminal enterprises within the prison and later to control the action in the varrio.

Under general EME rules, nobody is really in charge of the whole gang (some EME defense attorney's have even labeled the group disorganized crime). Members are called 'carnales' or brothers of the family. Members who could make weapons or were known as killers became the gang's enforcers. Non-affiliated inmates were forced to pay rent to gang members for a prison cell the state owned! Members who had skills at bookkeeping or running a commissary store from their cells became the 'money men.' Money could be cigarettes, money orders placed on inmate accounts, or something as simple as 'Top Ramen'. The introduction of contraband and dealing of drugs was another major gang activity.

Gang discipline was enforced through 'the holding of court.' If determined guilty of a major violation or disrespect, the person's name was put on a hit list. One of the group's founding leaders was Rudolfo 'Cheyenne' Cadena. The movie 'American Me' filmed in East L.A., Chino, and Folsom Prison was based on his life. Also, depicted in this movie was Joe 'Pegleg' Morgan, the reputed 'Godfather' of the Mexican Mafia for 20 years until his death in 1994. While based on the true story of the Mexican Mafia, several parts were fictitious. Another movie 'Blood In, Blood Out' directed by Jimmy Santiago Baca depicted a similar story but omitted the true historical nature of gang alliances (former San Quentin Warden Dan Velasquez played himself in this movie).

The EME was so secretive that most prison staff did not even know they existed. The first public mention of the group was in 1968 when San Quentin Warden Louis S. Nelson stated that his staff had 'eliminated the Mexican Mafia.' While the department had put many of the troublemakers in segregation, the group was firmly entrenched and others stepped in to fill the void. 

Eventually, the EME began using the number '13' as a symbol for their organization. This symbolizes the thirteenth letter of the alphabet (M) and the rag color used by the group is blue. While there were EME members from Northern California from the beginning of La EME, the main recruitment area for this group was the SUR (Southern California).

By the mid 1960's, the EME had made many enemies of former EME members and 'Farmeros' from Northern California. In 1968, the 'Nuestra Familia' (Our Family) emerged as a self-protection prison gang after a dispute arose when a high-ranking member of the EME stole an inmate's shoes at San Quentin. The victim was from Northern California. Many violent assaults occurred between the NF and EME as both struggled for power. A truce occurred and a meeting was organized. At this meeting, Cadena was killed in 1972 at Chino Prison's Palm Hall that resulted in an all-out bloody war. 

Gangs that participate in EME politics and put in work for the prison gang on and off the streets are given a 'red light'. They are not to be assaulted. Gang members who do not kick back drug profits to the gang or do not take care of business are given a 'green light' and their names are 'put into the hat' to be assaulted on the streets, in jail or in prison. Originally, the EME was a 'Blood in, Blood out' organization, meaning you had to kill to get in and die to get out. (Some gang experts note this rule has changed somewhat today as well as the caliber of prison gang members). 

The Father's Day Massacre in 1982 at Folsom was just another one of the prison gang wars and again showed the administration the disruption of the gangs as the EME battled the Black Guerrilla Family. Eleven shots were fired with one of the tower officer's bullets striking and killing an EME soldier. Six Black inmates were stabbed in the melee. The prison went on lockdown and taken off slowly to prevent violence but the gangs had no intention of stopping.

In 1984, 108 inmates were stabbed. Six died. In 1985, 216 were stabbed and seven died. Finally in 1986, a truce was called between the two warring gangs and the violence ebbed for a while. Veteran officers would say the prison yard would be eerie with almost total silence just before it erupted into total mayhem. Some victims were former members while the gang 'cleaned house'. The EME has a sophisticated network that was clearly documented during 'Operation Hard Candy' at the L.A. County Jail. During the investigation, it was learned that the gang had set up sort of a 911 Dispatch Center to call hits and make drug deals from the jail phones.

The EME still has an ample number of prospect read to join and pay allegiance to the feared group as was evidenced by the Feb. 2000 riot at Pelican Bay State Prison when SUR 13 inmates attacked Black inmates at one of the state's most secure prisons. One inmate was killed, over a dozen stabbed, and forty injured. Another RICO Trial recently finished against more EME members that has caused more instability. Benjamin 'Topo' Peters, the past recognized EME Godfather and long time member, died of cancer in February of 2001 and already there has been a power struggle between different EME factions which has caused a rash of homicides out on the street between the gangs.

Gabe Morales is a Classification Programs Specialist at the King County Jail in Seattle, WA. He was a former Corrections Officer at Folsom Prison and has juvenile gang intervention experience in both California and Washington. He is the lead Gang I.D. & Management Instructor at the WA State Criminal Justice Training Center-Corrections Academy and the author of 'Varrio Warfare: Violence in the Latino Community'.

He can be reached at (206) 296-1278 or at his personal website:


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