Running a criminal organization while locked inside one of America’s most secure prisons requires imagination, cunning and ruthlessness. It also demands a firm set of rules and a way to impose them on operatives on the streets, often violent and obstreperous gang members.
A secret letter allegedly sent from an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California to members of Florencia 13, a multi-generational street gang in south Los Angeles, details a covert network that has enriched the state’s most powerful prison gang, the Mexican Mafia.
The note was originally written in tiny script on a small scrap of paper known as a “kite,” smuggled out of Pelican Bay, recopied and then distributed to street gang members, according to federal prosecutors who are using it as evidence in a major crackdown in Los Angeles.
The letter outlines rules, or reglas, drawn up by Mexican Mafia members for associates operating on the streets. They include:
- How street gangs and their sub-groups are governed, including the election of a president and vice president by “majority votes.”
- How drug sales, prostitution and other illegal activities are organized and “taxed,” with a percentage going to gang leaders behind bars.
- How disputes are settled.
- How assaults and murders are authorized.
- How snitches and sex offenders are rooted out and punished.
“We are forewarning everyone to cautiously respect these reglas and know there’s no 2nd chance,” reads the message, which was allegedly written by Arturo Castellanos, a convicted murderer who has been held in isolation at Pelican Bay since 1990. “We are Emeros (Mexican Mafia members) and we expect that these reglas are followed and respected by all true south-side Florencianos and Florencianas.”
Hunger strike leader
Earlier this summer, Castellanos and three other inmates organized a two-month hunger strike over conditions at Pelican Bay, where they and hundreds of other men have been held in special windowless cells, usually alone, for more than a decade. The action drew international attention and plaudits from a host of civil and human rights groups, including the ACLU and Amnesty International. They say conditions at Pelican Bay are unconstitutional and amount to slow torture.
To his supporters, Castellanos is a relentless campaigner for prisoner rights who has eschewed a history of violence to help coordinate peaceful protests behind bars.
Leaders of the hunger strike, including Castellanos, only agreed to call off the protest after California lawmakers promised hearings and possible legislation to address complaints about prison gang policy and isolation units.
State corrections officials say conditions in the units are humane and that the severe restrictions are necessary to curtail gang communications. They allege the protest leaders have a hidden agenda — strengthening the hand of criminal groups that control drug and extortion rackets behind bars and on the streets.
Prosecutors in L.A. charge Castellanos
In August, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles named Castellanos in an indictment alleging a host of narcotics, firearms and fraud offenses, all carried out from his cell at Pelican Bay.
Prosecutors alleged Castellanos was a Mexican Mafia member and “undisputed leader” of Florencia 13 and its associated “cliques,” and that he received payments from the gang’s illegal activities into his inmate trust account.
The indictment cites as evidence the rules allegedly written by Castellanos from his prison cell that established leadership positions within the F13’s territory in the Florence-Firestone area of Los Angeles.
“These ‘shot callers’ were then ordered to coordinate the illegal distribution of drugs and other criminal activities, to ensure that extortionate taxes were collected, and otherwise to oversee their respective portions of the gang’s territory, such as by resolving disputes both among F13 gang members and associates and with members of other Los Angeles gangs,” the indictment states.
Turf battle with African-American rivals
Other edicts allegedly issued by Castellanos guided Florencia 13 into a turf battle against rival gangs. The action triggered a wave of racial violence against African-Americans, according to court documents. More than 20 people were killed.
Prosecutors allege Castellanos continued to discuss gang business in meetings with visitors at Pelican Bay as recently as 2011 and in the aftermath of an earlier hunger strike.
A separate indictment released in August alleges Mexican Mafia members attempted to form an alliance with operatives from a powerful Mexican drug cartel, with approval from leaders at Pelican Bay.
In a letter released by inmate advocates, Castellanos denounced the federal investigation as a “set-up” and described Florencia 13 as his “old childhood street gang.” He has also questioned why the feds only named him as an unindicted co-conspirator (Castellanos and the secret note were also mentioned in a 2007 indictment against other alleged gang members).
Peter Hernandez, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney who handled an earlier Mexican Mafia investigation, said the government at that time concluded it was safer to keep Castellanos in isolation and not pull him out of Pelican Bay for court hearings in Los Angeles, which would have been required had he been indicted.
“It was important that … Castellanos not be let out, because he holds sway over gang members to do things they would otherwise not want to do,” Hernandez said.
The Mexican Mafia’s influence on the streets stems in part from its power inside California jails and prisons. Anyone who ignores the group’s edicts faces likely retaliation if they end up behind bars.
Castellanos “wants to be indicted”
Rene Enriquez, a former Mexican Mafia leader who is cooperating with federal prosecutors, said Castellanos’ brazen style suggests he wants to be indicted and sent to federal prison where he can enjoy a host of privileges banned at Pelican Bay, including monthly phone calls and freedom of movement in a general population facility.
“I believe one of his objectives is to get [transferred] to federal prison to further his business plan,” Enriquez said.
Castellanos’ actions — in running criminal conspiracies and in organizing protests – are driven by an unquenchable thirst for power and recognition, according to Enriquez.
“He wants to place himself, through this megalomaniacal sense of importance, on this pedestal where he is looked at as one of the chieftains of the mob,” he said.
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