The Established Place of Prisons in the Organized Criminal Community

(Mexican Mafia membership, California Dept. of Corrections, 2011)

August 24, 2016

In facilities across North America the rain drops often rattle against barred windows, like little kamikaze airships in their final pitch against the immovable might of a 1945 battleship. The water dips and dives, being more blown than falling, yet this momentum serves it little. Despite its impetus and courageous abandon, it cannot beat the walls, bars, fences and ubiquitous metal doors that ring the facilities it has been driven against. While the American Navy may have been metaphorically immovable in the 1945 Pacific theatre, it had become literally a social force that could undo societies and conquer minor countries with relative ease. Like the all powerful battleship, the contemporary American prison also stands as a behemoth against all detractors and those who wish to circumvent its mission, with leaking water sometimes being the only intrusion permitted into the oft-depressing depths and wings of the modern US prison.

Over 2.4 million men, women and children make their homes in federal and state prisons in the United States alone. Of these, approximately 1.5 million are serving serious sentences (over 1 year) and many will be inmates for significant portions of their adult lives. As many renowned scholars of this depressing circumstance have elucidated, this population – often warehoused in comparative squalor and under socially disruptive conditions – has historically demonstrated very little ability to either reform or reduce their criminal behaviour, both without and within the prison in which they are located. As modern psychiatry and science have made clear, one’s environment has a tremendous impact on what one decides to do. And if one happens to be incarcerated for the next 25 years-to-life there is very little grounding the incarcerated individual in the rules and norms of society, often leading to an intense desire to buck the system (external society and the prison system itself) which has produced such a life of violence, loneliness and recidivism.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that individuals that spend exorbitant amounts of time in such an environment and community will be exceptionally influenced by it. In this way it becomes possible to understand that the behaviours and pathways of reason learned by individuals and tutored by senior criminals on the inside of prison walls will naturally lead to those same pathways and behaviours being exhibited on the outside of prison as well. In this article PanAmerican Crime will examine the growing issue of organized crime and prisons, focussing on the role prisons now play in the expansion of organized criminal doctrine and membership. To achieve this end, prisons should no longer be seen as the proverbial “gladiator academies” the progressive mind once viewed them as; rather, they must now be seen as organized criminal workshops or, more accurately, the established bases for organizations engaged in all manner of illicit activities, where chosen individuals are inculcated in the rights, rituals and responsibilities of their individual criminal organization – a fraternity or sorority that will likely require lifelong membership regardless of whether the individual remains incarcerated or not.

To understand the growing role of prisons in the criminal landscape a brief trip through history is warranted utilizing the most dangerous (non-federal) prison system in America: the California Department of Corrections (CDC). This system alone has contributed the most ruthless, violent and organized prison gangs to emerge in America in modern times, including: the Black Guerrilla Family, La Nuestra Familia, the Nazi Low Riders, the all-powerful Aryan Brotherhood, and the Mexican Mafia. Of these groups, the Mexican Mafia, or “La EME” for short, provides the best example of the social behaviours being discussed and exhibits the criminal evolution in scope and power that is now being replicated by other criminal groups all across the World.

Formed in the Duel Vocational Institute in 1957 to combat assaults by inmates of other ethnicities, the Mexican Mafia was initially little thought of beyond the walls of Duel. However, the founder, Luiz “Huerro Buff” Florez, and his senior compatriots soon proved their mettle by quickly asserting control over the prison yard and community areas through aggressive acts of violence. In 1961, in order to undermine the power of the gang, authorities moved the older members to San Quentin – the oldest and once most feared prison in the State as well as the home of California’s death row; but the move did little to dent the boisterous ruthlessness and single-minded expansionism of the group, and authorities soon came face to face with a powerful human condition: give someone enough time and they will eventually figure out how to get what they want; give lots of like-minded people enough time and they will obtain their goals that much sooner. The expansion of La EME coincided with the development and dissemination of the other two predominant prison gangs of the time in the State: the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerrilla Family. While Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs would not be officially launched until 1971, the successful spread of each of these three gangs can be seen as the product of a rapidly increasing prison population that was largely incarcerated due to the dramatic increases in illegal narcotics violations.

By 1967 La EME would be wholly involved in drug trafficking within prison walls throughout the State and, through the connections established and maintained by its pre-eminent Caucasian member – Joe “Peg Leg” Morgan – it would establish lasting connections to north-western Mexican trafficking groups in Tijuana, and later Sinaloa. By 1975 two paroled members, Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza and Eddy “Sailor Boy” Gonzalez, began to work with Morgan (also out on parole) in order to take over and expand drug trafficking throughout southern California; a practice that came to be known as: “spreading the gospel”. The readiness of this supply proved intoxicating and empowering, further expanding the reach and agenda of La EME, which now had established connections and power bases outside of the prison system. Its full raison d’étre had finally morphed from the protection of Mexican-Hispanic inmates within California prisons to the expansion of drug markets and illicit revenue anywhere it could be found or developed, including their own neighbourhoods and communities.

With this fluid and somewhat innate transition into a large-scale drug trafficking organization (DTO) the leadership of La EME realized its powerful potential. As gang culture gripped southern California in the late 1980s and 1990s Mexican-American gangs began to surface throughout the State. Within several years prison populations that were once dominated by black inmates became reflections of the outer communities in their regions, with Hispanic inmates rapidly becoming the most populous. Not only did this rise in manpower give La EME innumerable options for top-notch recruits, it also provided a conduit to the outside for the criminal enterprises of the group, the most predominant being, of course, the trafficking of controlled substances. However, while Chicano gang culture of the 1980s and 90s initially drove up the power of the Mexican Mafia it also hindered their profits. Powerful street gangs were often at war over comparatively small areas of demand and sources of supply. Grudge matches and juvenile violence were leaving hundreds of gang soldiers dead annually as well as dramatically decreasing the ability of La EME to sell drugs or further develop its influence. Therefore, in a moment of functional ingenuity, La EME’s leadership decided on a bold gamble. Since all Chicano gangsters would likely end up in prison at one point in their criminal career, it would be reasonable to assume that they would fear repercussions from the predominant Mexican prison gang once they were locked up if they failed to heed the directives of that same organization when previously free on the street. Henceforth, La EME knew it could wield immeasurable power over the Hispanic community in California (and later the entire south-western United States). The only thing that needed to happen was for the organization to assert its authority and bring the perpetual gang conflicts to an end through control over the supply of illegal drugs in the community.

Initially, the only confirmed evidence of this policy was a much-discussed meeting of Chicano gangsters at a park in Los Angeles, aptly named Elysian, for the Elysian Fields that comprise part of the Roman mythological underworld inhabited by the blessed dead. On September 18, 1993 this meeting was held by the Mexican Mafia with representatives from the various different Mexican gangs in southern California. The purpose of the meeting was multi-faceted, stating that:

  • All southern California Chicano gangs would be overseen by a Mexican Mafia member and the State would be divided up into established territories overseen by a designated La EME member or council; these are often called “mesa” or “tables”; (Southern California Hispanic gangsters were labelled Surenos – southerners; Northern Californian Hispanic inmates would form the Nuestra Familia prison gang to fight the dominant power of the southerners);
  • No Sureno gangs would be permitted to fight each other without permission from La EME. (This policy, while initially appearing relatively enlightened for ending the endemic inter-gang violence, can also be credited with the development of horrific incidents of racialized violence perpetrated by Mexican gangs against innocent black citizens who inhabit their respective locales in order to further the influence of these ethnically-based organizations);
  • The Sureno gangs would be required to obtain their drugs from the Mexican Mafia. (This control over criminal enterprises also extended to all criminal activities, with all Sureno gang-bangers required to kick up a percentage of all criminal proceeds to La EME, which is often referred to as “piso” or “rent”).

The developing process of centralized control was possible because of the established partnerships between the Mexican Mafia and the Sinaloa Cartel, which was rapidly becoming one of the most powerful criminal groups in the World by the 1990s. (For more on this arrangement see: here). The control over heroin distribution within prisons soon morphed to control over trafficking within all Hispanic communities, later evolving to include command over the cocaine and methamphetamine trades in these areas as well. What this new operational paradigm created was firm control of Hispanic communities by incarcerated prisoners, many leaders of whom would never see freedom again. This army of Sureno gangsters on the outside (thought to be over 50,000 strong in California alone) has allowed La EME unprecedented access to communities in order to facilitate the corruption of political figures, influence economies and effect the creation of zones of peace or the blight of gang warfare. From the moment the pact was signed at Elysian Park the Mexican Mafia ceased to be a prison gang and became, instead, a social force or criminal subculture – much like the Italian-American mafia achieved in New York City for many decades (and arguably still). Whole Hispanic neighbourhoods have now become generational strongholds for the group, with families and peer groups becoming wholly subservient to this expanding hold of organized criminality. It certainly does not help the fact that many of the people in these victimized communities are illegal immigrants, fearful of creating a disturbance that will lead to their deportation and unaware of their human rights or available recourses of action, if indeed any truly exist.

Today, many senior incarcerated La EME members earn over $60,000 a year through racketeering schemes and the collection of piso from gangsters on the outside. As prison is now the centre of power for the group, being sent there often proves to be no initial disincentive to gangsters, who see it like joining the “big leagues” (although many defectors and state witnesses can attest to the fact that this enamoured state can sometimes wear-off). As mentioned before, this power has also been disseminated, with mesas and prison cliques appearing in all south-western American states as well as the ever-dangerous American federal prison system. However, the paradigm shift also means that there is no going back for La EME. Street gangs and the communities that support them are now the true life blood of La EME, along with their dominant prison presence and access to narcotics. Control of the street and over Hispanic neighbourhoods will ensure La EME’s survival and the continuation of its destructive racketeering enterprises. However, any future major disruptions to their supply network could produce tensions between exogenous groups that are dependent on the Mexican Mafia for their supply of cocaine, heroin and meth. If this supply were to cease La EME would fast become a fractured organization, with offshoots and sub-groups forming around newly acquired but likely less-effective forms of supply, producing violent repercussions. Stated philosophically, once the pinnacle of power is reached in politics or power-brokerage arrangements that organization cannot regress without significant organizational upheaval. While this has not yet occurred with La EME, factional violence within the group has appeared statically in various areas across California, although not to the extent that it would threaten the group’s overall cohesion, efficacy or its ability to project its power.

Sadly, the La EME paradigm of organized crime is not unique to the south-western United States. In Chicago, the incarcerated founder of the All Mighty Latin Kings and Queens Nation established a brutal hold over the neighbourhoods where the gang was predominant. This same pattern occurred with the gang’s expansion into the Dominican and Puerto Rican populations of New York City, where many brutal murders on the street were due to the orders passed down by the senior leadership that was in prison hundreds of miles away. In Russia, due to the repressive nature of the later Soviet system and that system’s creation of fluidly forming connections of patterns of venality, prisoners formed the Vor v Zakone – a label referring to a code of behaviour denoting a hardened criminal dedicated to the morals and calling of the code. This behaviour would then become the cornerstone of the growing Russian mafia groups established in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, in Russia, gangsters are not considered leadership material in Russia criminal groups until they have received a series of tattoos from during their time within a Russian prison.

While the Russian mafia groups have a rightly deserved reputation for violence and corruption of the Russian state, in Brazil this pattern of criminality has potentially spread even further. At least three major prison gangs have emerged in Brazil since the 1970s, when, again, the American policy of criminalizing mundane behaviours and aggressive neo-liberal economic policies would be adopted by successive Brazilian governments, producing surges in poverty, the corresponding criminality and, finally, the accompanying building prisons seen elsewhere. In Sao Paulo, the largest of these gangs, Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Capital Command – PCC), began its expansion in 1993 and has reportedly grown to well over 13,000 hardcore members, only 6,000 of which are actually in jail. Establishing a firm code of conduct, the group now controls drug trafficking and supply networks across Brazil, giving it unparalleled access to weapons and political power brokers who can further enhance its influence and corruption of the state. The visceral nature of this power was demonstrated when the group launched coordinated and sustained attacks on Brazilian police services in both 2006 and 2012, resulting in hundreds of killings on both sides and the formation of roving police death squads. All of the attacks were apparently organized and directed from the incarcerated leaders, whose casus belli was rumoured to be better living conditions and a halting of the State’s policy of breaking up the group’s hegemony in specific prisons by moving prisoners to different facilities. Another notorious Brazilian DTO is Comando Vermelho (Red Command), which has dominated Rio de Janeiro’s prison system since the 1970s and has since moved to control many of the city’s favelas, both directly and through its dominance over the supply of drugs entering the State.

While the groups highlighted here are often the best known, with their capabilities and power truly feared, they only represent a small percentage of the criminal organizations that are replicating this model of control over their respective corners of the criminal underworld. Powerful prison gangs now exist in countries throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, and expanding prison systems in other developing world states are now producing the same pattern of organized criminal development. Even Canada, with its educated populous and relatively small prison inmate population, has fallen victim to this trend of bad policy making, which has contributed to the expansion of ethnically-based organized criminal groups deriving from behind prison walls. Currently, the Indian Posse has taken over control of that country’s western prison systems, with that control now also being exercised in the indigenous communities and reserves where the incarcerated inmates originated from. Again, policies leading to poverty, criminalization and expanding prisons have led to a nexus of criminality that can only produce a more organized and lethal brand of itself.

As mentioned earlier, it is now time for analysts and policy makers to view the prison as a conduit for powerful criminals to assert their influence and develop their authority over the World. Groups that are allowed to form and fester in these conditions have the time and inclination to develop beyond just prison gangs, and have naturally become fully-fledged, streamlined and incredibly well-run organized criminal groups. In short, the dissemination of drug culture, the promotion of policies related to the perpetration of the war on drugs (including the building of more prisons and the criminalization of various mundane behaviours), as well as the general and destructive spread of poverty due to ongoing neo-liberal state experiments have created the conditions necessary for the creation of organized criminal sub-cultures that are then spread through the osmosis of revolving door prison systems to those communities where the poverty and despair are the most acute. Sadly, this pattern of behaviour has been replicated around the World and it remains to be seen whether society is capable of addressing this crisis before the these criminal organizations further add to the social divisions, violence and criminality experienced by vulnerable communities around the Globe.


By: Scott Paulseth





Skarbek, David, “The Social Order of the Underworld; How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System,” Oxford University Press, July 1, 2014.

Wood, Graeme, “How Prison Gangs Took Over Prison,” The Atlantic, October, 2014,

Mejia, Brittny, “Mexican Mafia’s O.C. boss convicted of federal racketeering charges,” LA Times, January 13, 2016,

Gangster Confidential with Rene “the Boxer” Enriquez, American Radioworks Documentary, 2013,

Gangster Confidential, Documentary Interview, 2009,

“Birth of the Mexican Mafia,” History Channel,

Lopez, Robert J., and Jesse Katz, “Mexican Mafia Tells Gangs to Halt Drive-Bys,” LA Times, September 26, 1993,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s