Mexican Mafia gang members arrested in San Diego

By Angelica Martinez
Union-Tribune Staff Writer

5:48 p.m. February 13, 2009

More than a dozen gang members connected to the Mexican Mafia prison gang were arrested early Friday and accused of attempted murder, kidnapping and drug trafficking in San Diego County, authorities said.

Officials have charged 40 people – 17 of whom were arrested early Friday – in connection with the nearly year long investigation, dubbed “Operation Keys to the City”, that targeted the notorious prison gang, officials said at an afternoon news conference downtown.

Two criminal complaints charge 36 defendants with federal racketeering, firearm offenses and drug trafficking violations.

U.S. Attorney General Karen Hewitt described the Mexican Mafia and its connection to Latino street gangs as a rigid hierarchy comprised of “members”, “associates” and “soldiers” whose criminal enterprise spills into the community.

Some of the alleged crimes involved paying “taxes”, which officials say is the term used by gang members who use violent acts to extort payments from victims.

One defendant admitted to kidnapping a man, who twice broke free, authorities said. One of the kidnappers fired at the victim, who was able to run free and call police after the second kidnapping attempt was foiled, according to authorities, who recorded the Sept. 15, 2008 incident.

The victim, who was kidnapped in San Diego, broke free in Chula Vista while being transferred to another vehicle, according to federal court documents.

FBI Special Agent-In-Charge Keith Slotter said the arrests in the operation have dealt a blow to the Mexican Mafia by disrupting the criminal enterprise.

“These operations are not just a bunch of low level criminals that were caught up in a sweep,” Slotter said. “These are dangerous, extremely violent individuals.”

Some of the accused are involved with 13 street gangs in San Diego and National City and have associates as far north as the Los Angeles area.

Hewitt said members of the Mexican Mafia are elected by fellow gang members and are the top of the hierarchy. They are followed by associates, many of whom are in custody and who are given the authority or “the keys,” by members of the prison gang to order crimes in a neighborhood, city or prison yard, Hewitt said.

Next come the soldiers, the low-level street gang members believed to be in the thousands who carry out and enforce the orders of the associates, she said.

Four men are still being sought and are considered fugitives: David Garcia, 43; Jorge Lerma-Duenas, 40; Ernest Soqui, 32; and Lance Agundez, 38.

Hewitt said many of the defendants were already serving time in prison for other crimes.

The arrests occurred in stages over the past weeks, she said. Some of the defendants were arrested on state charges or parole violations and will be transferred over to federal custody, she said. Four of the defendants were charged in late 2008.

The exact number of those suspected of being behind bars while orchestrating the drug and violent crimes was not available, Hewitt said.

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