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Mexican Mafia Crime Ring Busted in Los Angeles, San Bernardino County Jails

by Scott Grammer

In May 2018, federal authorities, including the FBI and DEA, in conjunction with California state prison officials and local police, arrested 32 people on charges related to the Mexican Mafia’s operation of a massive crime ring in Los Angeles County’s jail system. Approximately three dozen prisoners also were charged, while others had yet to be apprehended. 

A total of 83 people were named in two federal indictments. One was attorney Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, who allegedly misused his attorney-client privilege to conceal messages that he carried in and out of the jails to gang members, including orders to kill someone.

According to the indictments, the gang members and their collaborators smuggled drugs into the jails, created fraudulent phone accounts, communicated information between prisoners, carried out assaults, and “taxed” and fined those who disobeyed the gang’s rules. Some gang members would allegedly commit low-level crimes in order to be arrested and jailed, giving them an opportunity to smuggle in contraband. Other prisoners who wanted to sell drugs were required to wait until the Mexican Mafia’s supply ran out, then were required to give up a third of their drugs and other contraband to the gang. This “tax” of one-third of all contraband is what gave the five-year-long investigation its name, “Dirty Thirds.”

U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna said during a May 23, 2018 news conference, “We just delivered a blow to a cold-blooded prison gang and their associates.” But then-L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell explained that the void left by the arrests would be quickly filled. 

“There will be new leaders, that’s kinda how the whole system works. It’s hierarchical.... When one [gang member] goes to jail or passes away then someone else backfills their spot just like any multilevel organization.”

One of the federal indictments called the Mexican Mafia’s wide-ranging operations in Los Angeles County’s jail system a type of “illegal government.”

In April 2019, two dozen members of the Westside Verdugo gang, operating as “foot soldiers” for the Mexican Mafia, were arrested in connection with a scheme to smuggle drugs and other contraband into San Bernardino County jails. Ten other people already in custody were charged in the investigation after eight indictments were unsealed. The gang members are accused of distributing drugs in the county’s jail system since July 2017 as part of a “large scale methamphetamine and heroin distribution network.” They also face firearm-related, identity theft and money laundering charges. 



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