Hundreds of gangsters crowded around Peter "Sana" Ojeda as he stood like a preacher on a pulpit atop green bleachers in Santa Ana's El Salvador Park. It was a Saturday afternoon in January 1992 and many in attendance were deadly rivals. They were ordered to put aside bad blood.
The 49-year-old Mexican Mafia leader issued a command: No more drive-by shootings.
Peter "Sana" Ojeda, who authorities said turned Orange County's "shot caller" for the Mexican Mafia, posed for this prison photo with several leaders of the California-based prison gang. The photo is believed to have been taken in San Quentin prison sometime from 1968 to 1971. Ojeda is lower left. Some others in photo: Top row, far left, Joe "Peg Leg" Morgan; far right, Mike "Poor Slim" Mulhearn. Bottom row, from left, Ojeda; Manuel "Rocky" Luna (now deceased); Robert "Crow" Juarez.
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Gang killings were climbing across Orange County. In 1992, detectives investigated 20 gang homicides in Santa Ana alone. Bringing warring gangs together and having them agree on "rules" seemed impossible, but Ojeda had the reputation, the pull and the power to enforce it.
For decades the Mexican Mafia has controlled Latino street gangs, according to authorities. Through fear and intimidation "La Eme" – Spanish for "The M," for Mafia – has controlled prisons, jails, drug sales and violence by exerting influence over thousands of gangsters in Orange County. The ruthless control starts behind prison walls and, from the early days, it was clear that Orange County belonged to "Sana" Ojeda.
The influence of the Mexican Mafia extends from prisons to county jails to the streets. Though Santa Ana is considered its hub in Orange County – with 100 documented gangs – the group's influence is countywide. Gangs that pledge allegiance often use a "13" – for the 13th letter of the alphabet, M – next to their tagging, according to officials.
After the indictment of nearly 100 Mexican Mafia members and their associates in July, The Orange County Register reviewed court documents and interviewed law enforcement officials with the Santa Ana Police Department, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, the FBI and the California Department of Corrections to piece together a glimpse at the secretive organization known as the Mexican Mafia.
The indictment in July was the second racketeering charge Ojeda has faced in the past six years. His attorney, Craig Wilke, said authorities have targeted Ojeda as a "larger-than-life figure."
"They set him up as this all-powerful man responsible for everything that happens in Orange County," Wilke said.
BEGINNING IN 'LA EME'
Born Peter Jess Ojeda in 1942, Ojeda was one of four boys growing up in Santa Ana. His father was a construction worker and his mother was a housewife.
He dropped out of high school after the 11th grade and authorities said that by that time he was already involved in gangs.
When he first entered state prison on a heroin smuggling conviction in 1965, the Mexican Mafia had already evolved into a complex criminal web.
It began in the mid-1950s at Deuel Vocational Institution in Northern California as a way to protect Latino inmates who were outnumbered by whites and blacks. As the number of Latino inmates grew and they organized, the reach and power of the Mexican Mafia expanded.
Through violence and intimidation, "La Eme" controlled heroin traffic, gambling, debt collection, extortion and other illicit activities in the state's most notorious prisons – San Quentin, Folsom and maximum-security Pelican Bay.
Communication is the key in the organization's power. Orders are relayed from Mexican Mafia leaders in prison through written messages, American sign-language or Nahuatl, an ancient language once used by the Aztecs. Some messages are written in coded notes, known as "kites" or "wilas," which are smuggled in and out of the prison system by visitors or inmates who were released.
Membership was secretive and exclusive, said Leo Duarte, gang specialist with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Duarte began his career working as a prison guard and has been studying prison gangs for decades. He now works with the department's Criminal Intelligence Unit.
"They look for these qualities: Does the individual have courage, does the individual display no hesitations?" he said. "It takes a long time to be a 'carnal.' They look at you; they look to see if you're a producer. They see if you're a quality person that's going to be able to direct activities. A person that doesn't say, no."
Recruits are directed to kill fellow inmates to test their mettle. Hesitation is viewed as weakness. Once a gang member joins the Mexican Mafia, the only way out is death.
Wilke would not say whether Ojeda ever became a member of the Mexican Mafia.
"He's an old man," Wilke said. "He's been to prison before. I think that's public record. Beyond that, I'm not going to say anything else."
Investigators believe Ojeda was in his 20s when he became a "made" member of the Mexican Mafia, just as it was extending its control from prisons to the streets.
"Things were different back then because that was when 'La Eme' was beginning to form their structure on the street," an Orange County sheriff's deputy who has investigated Ojeda said. "The inside controls the outside."
By controlling the prison system, "La Eme" could call the shots for street gangs. Street criminals knew at some point they would likely be incarcerated and that's where the Mexican Mafia's power was born. By the early 1970s, the Mexican Mafia ruled the streets.
According to an FBI memo dated July 8, 1974, the Mexican Mafia had already appointed a leader on the outside. In December 1971, the first known Mexican Mafia hit – ordered from inside Chino Prison by Rudy "Cheyenne" Cadena – occurred in Monterey Park.
"This was now truly organized crime in its embryonic state," the memo reads.
OUTSIDE PRISON WALLS
The Mexican Mafia expanded its influence from state prison to county jails.
In return for loyalty, Mafia offered protection.
Records show Ojeda continued to build his rap sheet. In 1970, he was found guilty of burglary. In 1977, he was convicted of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.
By 1987, Ojeda walked out of state prison, and authorities believe his grip on Orange County gangs had been firmly established for more than a decade.
Though other counties are split into territories, Ojeda has owned Orange County for nearly four decades, several law enforcement officials interviewed by The Register said.
At age 68, Ojeda was one of the oldest Mexican Mafia members. One prison photo shows him posing alongside founders, including Joe "Peg leg" Morgan, Gilbert "Mongol" Silva, and Steven "Calote" Amador.
That status earned him the respect of O.C. gangs, officials said, and his control was complete. When the Mexican Mafia was developing in the 1960s, there were about 30 members, Duarte said. Today, there are an estimated 120 "made" Mexican Mafia members across the country. Though his status in the Mexican Mafia was known, authorities said he didn't flaunt his power. His tattoos were easily covered by his shirt, and he could walk unnoticed in Orange County neighborhoods.
Living in a working-class neighborhood in La Habra before he was indicted in 2005, Ojeda stayed out of limelight after he was paroled in 2000. He married and was known to frequent Indian casinos on the weekends. He divorced in 2010, while in federal custody.
But Ojeda ruled narcotic sales, authorities said, and the backing of the largest gang in Orange County helped him "tax" and keep smaller gangs in line.
LA EME ENFORCEMENT
Because of his standing, Ojeda was able to get warring gangs to meet in 1992 at El Salvador Park. Some civic leaders applauded his effort to broker a peace treaty, but law enforcement officials suspected he had other motives.
By ordering a cease to drive-by shootings, the Mexican Mafia was establishing not just control in drug sales, but in gang violence as well.
"How do you keep the street gangs in check? By taxing them if they do something wrong, if they do a drive-by shooting," said an investigator with the Orange County Sheriff's Department. "So by regulating what the street gangs did by beginning the 'green light' list it is what it is now. It's a criminal organization."
By 1993, members of gangs who refused to obey the Mexican Mafia were being beaten and assassinated. They sought protection from prison officials.
"In my opinion, it was an opportunity for the 'Eme' for power and to generate more money via taxations, trafficking of narcotics," gang specialist Duarte said.
Those who ignored orders were placed on a "green-light" list. They were targeted for regular beatings. More serious infractions meant placement on a "hard-candy" list. Death.
"'We're going to be beating the living hell out of you every single time we get access to you,' and that's what a green-light is," said a sheriff's investigator. "They were regulating them."
Violating the rules meant paying $1,000 to $10,000 in fees. Other infractions carried tougher penalties.
In the 90s, Ojeda was allegedly shot at by a member of a Santa Ana gang, Duarte said. It is not known whether the shooting was intentional or a case of mistaken identity, Duarte said. Members of the gang that did the shooting were threatened in prisons across the state. Officials believe Ojeda put them on the green-light list.
The gangsters remained on the list for years.
"Before you know about it the whole clique is on the green-light," Duarte said. "How do you get back in good graces? Money, guns, taxations."
FIGHTING THE MAFIA
By 1995 authorities dealt the first serious blow to the Mexican Mafia.
Twenty-two members and associates were indicted in Los Angeles in the first Racketeering Influence Corrupt Organization indictment against the Mexican mafia.
Ten years later, another RICO indictment was handed down. This time, Ojeda was at the top of the list.
Ojeda pleaded guilty to racketeering and was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison. He was seen winking to his family before the judge handed down the sentence.
Law enforcement officials said Ojeda didn't miss a beat.
From federal prison, authorities said Ojeda – also known as "Big Homie" – continued to appoint "llaveros" in Orange County, men to run the streets and in county jail on his behalf.
Wilke said the racketeering case against Ojeda will likely go to trial, but that the charges are weak. Ojeda's lawyer points out that, according to the indictment, Ojeda is charged of conspiring with the same victims he was accused of conspiring against.
"Their theory defies logic," he said.
Law enforcement officials said the case merely points to the politicking that occurred within the criminal enterprise.
Officials close to the investigation said things are changing. Though Ojeda continues his hold over Orange County crime, a new "La Eme" was emerging.
Older members closely adhered to the main unwritten rule of "La Eme" – silence. Membership was a closely guarded. Tattoos pledging allegiance to the organization were discrete or hidden within other tattoos, officials said.
After 1995, membership to the Mexican Mafia began to grow, and some newer members were louder, younger and eager to make their mark. Tattoos of large, black inked hands were proudly displayed and membership was flaunted as new recruits were eager to display their power.
According to court documents and interviews, Ojeda aligned himself with one of the newest members of the Orange County Mexican Mafia in 2007 – Armando "Mando" Moreno. A federal indictment shows the partnership was short-lived.
"(Moreno) saw the opportunity with having a lot of loyal street gang members underneath him to try to take over the county and that's when all the problems started happening," said a sheriff's investigator. "He figured that Ojeda, given that he is 68, he probably wasn't going to be around much longer."
"It was an eye opener," said an investigator with the Santa Ana Police Department. "It was very interesting, the in-fighting and power struggle."
Ojeda's hold was about to be challenged.