Inside Out

When the Mexican Mafia was founded, no one though it would become what it is today, least of all its founders. Today, the Mexican Mafia recieves 1/3 of the profits from drug-dealing Hispanic gangs south of Bakersfield. They are able to do this even though there are only 150-300 members total and virtually all of them are locked away in prison. Even though the state has done everything in its power to render these men harmless, they have risen to become the most powerful criminals in the state, and perhaps the country. Indeed, it is because of their incarceration that they are able to control gangs on the outside.

The Mexican Mafia is able to control street gangs because they control jails and prisons. Street gang members, in turn, anticipate going to prison or jail. It’s almost like a cost of doing business, a peculiarity of the job. When they get incarcerated, they are rendered helpless in an environment controlled by the Mexican Mafia. If the Mafia wants to kill you, there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. In other words, street gang members are highly vulnerable to Mexican Mafia extortion. The Mexican Mafia requests 1/3 of street gang profits, or else. Streets gangs have made the decision to pay the Mexican Mafia rather than be killed in custody.

But there’s more to just paying. A gang member from Southern California that goes into custody become a Sureno: a footsoldier for the Mexican Mafia. It doesn’t matter if two men are from rival gangs on the street. When they go in, they are both Sureno allies. And if they receive an order from the Mafia, they must carry it out.

The same coercive forces that the Mexican Mafia uses to get drug profits could also be used in other ways. For example, the Mafia has previously forbidden street gangs from engaging in drive by shootings; the police attention hurts profits. And the Mafia has ordered street gang members to commit murders on its behalf.

So far, the Mexican Mafia has remained mostly a crime problem. They have not attempted to project their power out of the prison and into political life. But an interesting paper by Benjamin Lessing discusses international prison gangs that have done just that. And he provides a look at how the Mexican Mafia could go from a criminal organization to a sinister political power. The paper is called “Inside Out: The Challenge of Prison-Based Criminal Organizations.” Lessing draws attention to two international examples that can teach us where the Mexican Mafia may go.

The first is El Salvador. In 2010, imprisoned leaders of the MS-13 and M-18 gangs joined forces to induce – via threats of mass violence against city buses by street-level affiliates – a transportation strike that shut down the capital for three days. The incarcerated gang members wanted improved prison conditions and the veto of an anti-gang law.

In Sao Paulo, there was a 2001 “mega-rebellion” in which 21 prisons, all under the control fo the Primeiro Comando da Capital, rebelled simultaneously. Then, in May 2006, the PCC launched a synchronized wave of attacks. First, simultaneous riots broke out in some 90 prisons. Then, after many police had been deployed to prison sites, street-level collaborators launched hundreds of attacks on civilian, police, and urban-infrastructure targets. The capital was brought to a standstill for days, until authorities met with PCC leaders and made key concessions, at which point the attacks abruptly stopped.

The past is prophecy when it comes to international prison gangs and the Mexican Mafia. We have been lucky that the Mafia has not used its power over gang members on the street to coerce the government into making them concessions. For example, repealing California’s anti-gang STEP Act. Or shortening their prison sentences. Prison gangs like the Mexican Mafia must be attacked, not just because they are a crime problem, but because they can become a political problem, and an intractable one at that. The PCC and the Salvadorean prison gangs provide clear evidence that the Mafia could do much more harm than its doing. And it needs to be destroyed before it can.

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