More than 120 people linked to street gangs that claim allegiance to the Mexican Mafia were indicted Tuesday on various racketeering, weapons and narcotics charges, as authorities attempt to cripple what they called a "powerful and violent prison gang."
Hundreds of law-enforcement officers fanned out across Southern California, making arrests as part of "Operation Smokin' Aces." A total of 129 people were indicted by county and federal grand juries alleging crimes including murder, drug trafficking and extortion.
The Mexican Mafia sought and received payments from gangs in Orange County in exchange for freely committing crimes in primarily Latino neighborhoods, according to court documents. Those who refused were put on lists that often resulted in violent retribution.
Even those who appeared to have significant roles in the gangs found themselves in trouble. One defendant, Raul Gonzalez-Hernandez, was placed on a "hard candy" list, which meant he was targeted for death because he was disobedient. Gonzalez-Hernandez was beaten up by other Mexican Mafia associates in 2011 for insulting an Orange County Mexican Mafia member and violating leadership rules, court documents say.
Others were even less fortunate. Ramon Alvarez, charged with racketeering conspiracy, allegedly authorized a gang associate to kill a person in 2011. No one was killed but it is unclear if the associate was charged.
The Mexican Mafia’s Orange County faction was headed by Peter Ojeda, according to the indictment. He wasn't charged Tuesday, but is awaiting trial in another racketeering conspiracy case filed in 2011.
Those who spoke poorly of Ojeda were also met with violence, authorities said. Juanita Carillo-Ortiz, 39, was killed in Mexico last year because she was "talking disrespectfully" about Ojeda, according to court documents.
Carillo-Ortiz told Orange County gang members she represented the Mexican Mafia in Los Angeles and had the authority to collect money from them, authorities said. She was killed by two men in a Tijuana hotel room who kept her body for several days, before burning and dumping it in a remote area. The two men remain fugitives, but Orange County prosecutors have charged Ismael Esquivel, who they say ordered the murder, with Carillo-Ortiz's death.
The Mexican Mafia has long been suspected by law enforcement of controlling drug distribution and other illegal activities within California jails and prisons, as well as on the street. By extorting gangs via "taxes," the Mexican Mafia receives a portion of the proceeds, while also offering gangs protection or assistance if needed.
The indictments also targeted the girlfriends and wives of inmates and gang members, who authorities say were messengers and drug smugglers for the Mexican Mafia.
One defendant, Gloria Aguilar-Vargas, is accused of sending two greeting cards containing heroin to a gang member in jail. Kimberly Silva-Cox allegedly tried to send cards soaked in methamphetamine to the Orange County Jail, but they were confiscated.
Authorities said they seized 22 pounds of methamphetamine, 1 1/2 pounds of heroin, 3 pounds of cocaine and made 67 undercover-weapon purchases as part of the investigation.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press