20th Century

“La Eme”—The Mexican Mafia

Robert Ramirez delves into the history of the infamous La Eme, better known as the Mexican Mafia.

One of the most brutal gangs in existence is the Mexican Mafia, or, ‘La Eme’ (Spanish for ‘The M’). According to most accounts, the gang was founded in 1957 by Luis ‘Huero buff’ Flores. At the time Flores was incarcerated in a Californian jail; in order to survive the brutal conditions, and protect himself from other prison gangs which were organised along racial lines—such as the Black Guerillas and the Aryan Brotherhood—Flores decided to form a gang to provide protection for him and his Hispanic peers from other prison gangs.

Soon Flores’s gang offered a variety of ‘services’ for other gangs members and paying customers in the prison community at large: drugs, gambling, and contracts killings were just some of the many ‘products’ which people could pay Flores’s gang to carry out. The idea behind the gang’s diverse portfolio of activities had one aim: to establish supremacy over other prison gangs.

La Eme

La Eme in the Early Years

As La Eme continued to grow in size and status inside the prison during the 1960s and 1970s, its more senior members created a structure for the gang in order to spread their activities into other Federal prisons and even local communities. A pyramidal structure evolved as the gang recruited more Hispanics into its ranks. Those at the top would commission lower-ranking members to carry out jobs, for which those at the top received a ‘cut’; La Eme’s operations were now no longer about simply protecting Hispanics in prison but about extending their power and business interests.

During the 1980s, La Eme joined forces with gangs on Los Angeles’ East Side, which gave them a stake in the city’s drug trafficking and contract killings trades—this was when the Mexican mafia really started to thrive. The Mexicans’ dominance over California then allowed them to branch off the contract killings and maximize their profits by focusing on trafficking drugs to and from Mexico.

La Eme soon formed links with cartels in Mexico, who in turn cultivated relationships with other organized crime groups in South America. The Guadalajara cartel—one of Mexico’s biggest—was founded by ‘the Godfather’, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. Miguel formed a partnership with the infamous Colombian, Pablo Escobar, to expand his empire of the business of cocaine. It was a relationship which offered mutual benefits: the need for the relationship was due to the lack of transportation that fortunately Gallardo could provide for Escobar. Gallardo was in charge of the transports of the cocaine products, he moved them to and from the western side of Mexico such as Tijuana and Sinaloa, adjacent to California, which made it easy for them to illegally transfer their products across the border. Sinaloa was the region of Mexico that Pablo Escobar assigned to the notorious “El Chapo,” also known as Joaquin Guzman Loera.

El Chapo arrest

The Arrest of El Chapo

When Escobar was killed in 1993 by the Colombian authorities, El Chapo took this chance to become the master of the operation and remained in his post for almost an entire decade without being snitched on by his communities and the inside workers from the cartel. The reason that local communities did not report El Chapo to the authorities was simple: they were too scared to do so. And certainly no one in his own gang would dare to betray him; criminal organizations such as the Mexican cartels do not take “rats” lightly; members treat each other as if they are family, and if they turn on family it usually ends in death or severe injuries. Besides, the ‘pyramid’ structure of El Chapo’s gang meant that the soldiers at the very bottom of it know very little of what those at the top of the organization do. Such arrangements protect the boss from getting busted if one of the lower level members gets caught.

The modus operandi and structure common described above, common to many organized crime groups, has been carefully adapted in mafia movies in popular culture. Tony Montana from the 1983 film Scarface, is a character who was inspired by several South American drug lords including El Chaop. Montana is a young Cuban refugee who dreams of a better life and will do anything it takes to achieve it; he starts out as a soldier, carrying out menial duties for those above him in the gang, but eventually climbs his way to the top of the cocaine scheme. During the film, the operation starts by just moving a few kilograms of cocaine but turns into a massive drug selling business connects him to many powerful people. A man from the DEA is out to get Tony and his bosses convicted and warn people about the scandalous amounts of drugs they are bringing into the country, so he decided that he had to take him out by planting a bomb in his car. Montana does not, however, assassinate the man due to his morals—organized crime members are always shown to have some kind of moral compass—as the man from the DEA is traveling in the car with his daughter and wife. By not finishing the job it allowed for the compromise of their operation, leading to the death of his drug business and himself.


The famous “Scarface” based in part on El Chapo and several other drug lords

Scarface of course was a fictional portrayal of a man whose career was similar to El Chapo and many other organized crime bosses. Although unlike Montana, El Chapo was captured, not killed. On three separate occasions, the cartel was able to bribe the security guards of the Federal Maximum Security prison in Mexico and break him out twice. In 2016, the photograph above was taken of El Chapo as he was arrested for the third time in twenty years. The trial for this arrest is still going on today, according to MSN News:

“The 12 jurors began deliberating in federal court in Brooklyn last Monday, and were dismissed for the week on Thursday afternoon. The lack of a verdict in the first week seemed to please Guzman, who grinned and hugged one of his lawyers before he was led out of the courtroom.”

Perhaps the cartels have managed to influence the jury; its members recently alleged that there is no actual evidence to convict him and that El Chapo was being set up as a “fall boy” for another high-ranking member named El Mayo.

In spite of El Chapo’s arrest and trial, the drug trafficking continues under new leaders of who find new ways to smuggle drugs into the United States. According to Insight Crime:

“Sinaloa Cartel hid a haul of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine inside the spare tires of new cars sent from Mexico to Canada, showcasing the innovative tactics drug traffickers are using to successfully skirt border checks.”

The cartel has no intention of stopping business flow, even if its most iconic leaders have perished into the prison system or killed. To keep this drug empire operating at this level is quite an astonishing accomplishment and the cartels are one of the most efficient organized crime units in existence. After decades have passed of the constant successful movement of illegal drugs across different border lines you have to ask yourself: is it that the cartel is just that good or is that the Government of the country the drugs are running through cannot afford to enforce the law? It may be a little bit of both as the cartel knows how to take advantage of countries that live in poverty and are unable to properly manage their own citizens. Mexico is always stereotyped as a country full of gangsters and cartel movement but it is really just a reflection of the Government that allowed its people to live in poverty and ultimately be forced to sell drugs to provide for their families. Organized crime will continue to affect communities locally and globally as they know their way around the government system. The repeated use of bribery, innovative tactics, intimidation and overall crime from the political and social standpoint is what will allow the empire of the Mexican cartel to continue to grow the enterprise.

Further Reading:

Mark Galeotti (2009), Organized crime in History. Abingdon: Routledge.

Brendan Pierson (2019), WWW MSN News, Jury in “El chapos” U.S trial begin second week of deliberations , https://www.msn.com/en-in/news/world/jury-in-el-chapos-us-trial-to-begin-second-week-of-deliberations/ar-BBTsswe , sited on 11-02-2019, (Searched 09-03-2019)

Chris Dalby (2019), WWW Insight Crime, Sinaloa cartel places unwanted surprise inside new Ford cars, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/sinaloa-cartel-unwanted-surprise-ford-cars/ , sited on 01-03-2019, (Searched on 10-03-2019)

Scarface (1983), Produced by Brian De Palma, United States.

Carlos Rodriguez (2016), Mexican Cartels,  https://gesteofrobinhood.com/2018/05/11/mexican-cartels-carlos-rodriguez/ (10-03-2019)

Suzanne Pekow (n.a), Gangsters Confidential,  Brutal Control: A brief history of the Mexican Mafia, americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/gangster/g1.html , sited in (2018) , searched on (11-03-2019)


2 replies »