One night in early April, Bobby Leal, Israel Banda, Abraham Serna and another unidentified suspect put a gun to someone’s head, beat and stabbed him repeatedly, then left him for dead in front of the Harlingen Sports Complex.
Roughly one week later, violence broke out again in Harlingen when Leal and Alfredo Aguilar attempted to kidnap a Harlingen man at gunpoint outside his brother’s house. Aguilar was shot in the stomach and taken to the hospital after the victim fought back. Both Aguilar and Leal were arrested soon after the incident.
What has concerned local police is both the violent nature of these two incidents and that the crimes appear to be connected to one of the largest and most violent gangs in Texas.
Court records and interviews with local enforcement show that the participants in both attacks were members the Mexican Mafia.
The gang, one of the largest in Texas, is widely known for its hand in drug trafficking and heinous crimes committed around the state, gang experts and local law enforcement said. Over the past two decades, the Mexican Mafia in Texas has grown into an organized, far-reaching criminal enterprise, active both in the state’s prison system and on the streets.
Although Harlingen police keep a close eye on Mexican Mafia activity in and around the city, both cases last month were alarming because they broke through the surface, the violent nature of each attracting the attention of local law enforcement, Harlingen police Sgt. Stephen Mayer said.
Mayer, the head of the Harlingen Police Department’s Gang Eradication Unit, remarked that it is highly uncommon to see violent acts committed by Mexican Mafia members in the Rio Grande Valley because the gang is intent on keeping a low profile.
“This is very uncommon here,” Mayer said. “We are looking into the situation and attempting to gather intel … We have identified a spike here and we’re investigating it.”
The Mexican Mafia in Texas functions separately from the original Mexican Mafia, which sprang from the California prison system in the 1960s. Maryanne Denner, a gang expert and former gang sergeant with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, explained that Heriberto “Herbie” Huerta started the Texas offshoot in the mid-1980s, after which the gang spread throughout the state, both on the streets and in the prison system.
“‘La Eme’ ” — the gang’s well-known moniker — “is a huge organization across the state now,” Denner said bluntly.
Miles Hutchinson, a supervisory senior resident agent for the FBI in Brownsville, noted that while numbers of confirmed Mexican Mafia members in the Valley aren’t remarkably large, their reach in the Valley is troubling. Hutchinson estimated that between Brownsville and McAllen, there are anywhere between 50 and 100 Mexican Mafia members.
Still, their connection to local street gangs is alarming, Hutchinson explained.
“What’s dangerous is the violent crime associated with them — the kidnappings, the home invasions, all of that,” Hutchinson said. “They’ll co-opt and recruit these young street gang members … They’ll try to insulate themselves with young impressionable kids to do their dirty work,” he said.
The gang, Hutchinson explained, is known to be involved in drugs and weapons smuggling, drug rip-offs and money rip-offs throughout the Valley.
La Eme in Texas conducts itself much like the original Mexican Mafia spawned from the California penal system.
“They’re basically the same: they promote extortion, murder for hire, prostitution, and things like that,” Denner said.
“They generally control the street gangs; they use the street gangs for their activities,” said Dionicio Cortez, a gang investigator for the jail division at the Cameron County Sheriff’s Department. “If a street gang member is, for example, selling in an area, they collect on that and control it,” he said.
Tim Flores, HPD’s gang intelligence officer, said the Mexican Mafia in Texas operates within a “paramilitary type” structure, with a president and vice president who “control all aspects of the Mexican Mafia in Texas,” generals who oversee regions within the state, and captains and lieutenants who “keep the soldiers in line” in various locales.
It is generally accepted that San Antonio is the hub for the Mexican Mafia in Texas.
“San Antonio is kind of considered their capital,” Denner said. Local smugglers and drug peddlers pay a “dime,” or 10 percent of their profits, up through the chain for the right to sell in any particular region, she said.
It is often tough for law enforcement to gauge Mexican Mafia activity, local law enforcement and experts said, because most crimes are unreported.
Flores, HPD’s gang intelligence officer, said, “Much of what they do is criminal on criminal … Often they’re violent amongst themselves.”
Court records indicate that the victim in the April 2 Harlingen stabbing knew at least one of his attackers. According to the arrest warrant affidavit for Israel Banda and Abraham Serna, the victim identified Bobby Leal, one of the attackers, as his “friend.”
When picked up by McAllen Texas Department of Public Safety troopers soon after the attack, officers noted that Serna had “tattoos that pertain to the prison gang known as the ‘Mexican Mafia,’ ” and that DPS gang experts later confirmed that Serna was Mexican Mafia, the affidavit shows.
Further investigation confirmed Bobby Leal and Israel Banda were both Mexican Mafia, the affidavit states.
Flores said that the victim in the April 2 stabbing was also a Mexican Mafia member, adding, “He had tattoos that visibly connected him to La Eme.”
Flores said police are still looking for the fourth suspect in the stabbing, who, according to court records, goes by either “Smiley” or “Hometown.”
The tattoos Mexican Mafia members sport, Flores and other gang experts said, are often intricate, ornate and rich with cultural significance.
“Every item in the tattoo means something to them,” said Cortez, the Cameron County gang investigator. As with so many other gangs, studying tattoos is one of the most effective ways to identify a Mexican Mafia member, he said.
“Many are based off Mexican culture and Aztec symbols ... They use the symbol of the two-headed serpent, they use the Mexican eagle,” Cortez said.
Mexican Mafia members in the Valley are also known to work with the Mexican drug cartels, local experts said.
Members have been known to move drugs for the cartels, Flores said, explaining, “They’ve definitely been known to work with the Zetas.”
Although they are known to work together, the connection between the Mexican Mafia and the cartels is “very loose,” Hutchinson insisted. “(The cartels) sometimes supply drugs for them to move,” Hutchinson said, but associations between the Mexican Mafia and a particular cartel are not direct. Both the gang and the cartels are part of organized underground crime syndicates, and it is inevitable that sometimes their paths will cross, Hutchinson said.
“They may use them to rough up people, move drugs, collect debts; I mean, we’ve definitely heard of that happening,” he remarked.
Cortez explained, “They’re basically like a gun for hire: when the drug cartels need somebody to assist them, these guys do it.”
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