How Cell Phones in Prison Changed the Mexican Mafia

The business call began with banter and self-deprecating humor.

“We’re just here to compare bellies,” one man said.

“Hey, I never lost – I never got to go below, uh, s—, 182. And now I’m around 171,” said another, adding, “I’ve been training.”

“But don’t waste your knee, man, your leg.”

The conversation then shifted to what sounded very much like a murder plot.

One of the men said he told an underling “everything, contingencies — I said, look, that’s how you do it. You do this, you block this, you hit this, you go this way.

“Saturday, they, they – that’s when they were supposed to go to the auto show, right?” He continued. “At the auto show. That’s when they were going to leave. Now, if they don’t make it to the auto show this Saturday, the homie of [inaudible] take the driver’s seat.

“I understand,” said another. “He will, will end up driving the car. He’ll end up driving it to the auto show.

The four men in line were members of the Mexican mafia, held in prisons across California. They had connected using smuggled cell phones, one of which had been secretly tapped. They spoke according to a code that only they thought they understood.

The person they were plotting against was called “two T’s”. Four days after that call, Emiliano “Tonito” Lopez, a member of the Mexican Mafia who had fallen out of favor with the organization, was stabbed to death in Calipatria State Prison.

The “car show”, it seems, was the code for a murder. The person who “drove him to the car show” was the killer.

About two-thirds of the 140 members of the Mexican mafia are held in California prisons, awash with illegal cellphones. They use the phones to smuggle drugs, collect money and orchestrate murders, according to testimonies, interviews and recorded calls obtained by The Times.

In 2022, 6,776 phones were seized from California prisons, up from 10,494 in 2019. They are smuggled in by correctional officers and “free personnel” – the armies of cooks, counselors, electricians, nurses and other employees who serve prisons. Some are even dropped onto prison yards using drones, according to reports.

An imprisoned Mexican mafia associate told The Times that the market for phones is even bigger than the market for drugs.

“Everyone wants phones,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “Some want it for illegal activity, that’s for sure. But some just want to face their wives or just watch movies in the cell. Mobile phones make the passage of time easier.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation declined a request for an interview from investigators about the prevalence of cellphones behind bars. Instead, a department spokeswoman, Terry Thornton, said in a statement, “The use of contraband cellphones by incarcerated gang members and associates, including those aligned with the Mexican Mafia, is highly dangerous as they are used to communicate with other gang members and associates in prisons and communities to further their criminal activities”.

Thornton said that “while no approach is 100% effective”, investigators use cell inspections, body searches, metal detectors, x-ray scanners, CCTV and dogs to prevent “a large amount of contraband” to enter the prisons.

Ten years ago, the Mexican mob associate said he paid $400 for his first phone, a Verizon Juke. Phones now cost between $1,500 and $2,000, he said. An inmate at his jail had a relationship with a corrupt kitchen worker, who hid dozens of phones in boxes of oatmeal and crackers and brought them into the jail. The arrangement was so lucrative, he said, that before the phone dealer was moved to another prison, he sold the connection to another inmate for $20,000.

Like all illegal goods in prison, the Mexican mafia taxes the telephone trade. In 2013, a Calipatria inmate nicknamed Creeper used a cell phone to call Michael “Mike Boo” Moreno, a high-profile Mexican mob member whose phone had been tapped by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. Creeper complained that some inmates had smuggled in 10 phones without paying taxes.

“You bring anything here, you have to pay respects to the homies who have seats in the yard, you know? Creeper told Moreno, one of five members of the Mexican Mafia who had a claim on the prison yard. “You know, it might not be one-third” – the one-third tax imposed on all drug sales in prison – “but you’re going to pay. you’re going to give respects. You will give something for the senores to which this court belongs. So we’re like, listen, we’re at least asking for a phone. That’s it. You have 10.

Worse still, Creeper complained, they had already sold some of the phones and “made a bunch of feria” – a bunch of money.

“They’re going to have to kick,” Moreno replied.

In prison, inmates return to their cells at night and guards roam the cell blocks to make sure everyone is present. After the count was made, the Mexican mafia associate told The Times that he turned on his phone and “stayed up until 1 or 2 a.m.,” doing business on the phone “nonstop”: selling drugs inside and outside prison, collecting taxes from street gangs.

Members of the Mexican Mafia involved in drug trafficking once relied on people outside prison to make wire transfers, maintain post office boxes or mail depots, and send money orders. Now, the source said, they use PayPal, CashApp, Green Dot, Zelle and other online banking services on their phones to sell drugs, buy them from wholesalers and arrange delivery through associates at Mexico.

Authorities had tapped the cell phone of Daniel “Danny Boy” Pina, a state prisoner and high-profile member of the Mexican mob, when he received a call from a man who identified himself as Jerry.

Jerry said he was with Pina’s”hermano, peanut butter,” in Tijuana. Robert Ruiz, a Mexican mob member nicknamed Peanut Butter, had fled to Mexico after jumping bail in San Bernardino County.

“In a few weeks we’re going to be, uh, we’re going to be dealing with it again, with material,” Jerry said.

“Oh, okay,” Pina said. “And what are the prices? I mean, what…

“OK, because – everything is cheaper if you buy it here, you know?” says Jerry.

“No, I understand that,” Pina said. “What are the prices on this side? »

“OK, are you talking about, uh, uh, heroin?” Jerry asked.

“I talk about anything. At any rate. White black -“

Jerry said a pound of meth could be bought in Tijuana for $1,100, plus “about $800 to get across it,” and sold in California for $2,100. A kilo of black tar heroin, valued at $26,000 in California, costs half that in Mexico, he added.

Pina said he wanted “a sample from this side.”

“If we like it, we say, ‘OK, look. We want this, you know what I mean? He continued. “So here we go, the order has already been placed. In other words, the only thing that needs to be done is the money needed to get [inaudible] and it has to come in a paper bag and that’s it.

Jerry agreed. “Tio right here,” he said, referring to Ruiz, “whatever possibilities he has, he is – they are open to you. To one of his brothers.

On another call, Pina seemed to acknowledge a lack of enforcement on the part of the authorities, telling three other members of the Mexican mafia: “Although they don’t bother us, you can believe that they are investigating all the angles of us houses, you know?”

On the anti-smuggling phone he added: “So we all have to be careful man what’s going on because you got a lot of us doing a lot of things… What we’re involved in [in], we can’t keep anything quiet. It’s not that we don’t try. It’s the nature of the thing, the business, the houses.

Los Angeles Times

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