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Brown Announces Convictions of 31 Mexican Mafia Gang Members in Extortion and Drug Trafficking Cell

Thursday, March 25, 2010
Contact: (415) 703-5837

El Centro, Calif.—In a “fatal blow” to one of the most extensive, organized and violent extortion and drug trafficking operations in Imperial County history, Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. today announced the successful prosecution of all 31 members of a Mexican Mafia cell.

Early this week, the leader of the cell, Patrick Ralph Ponce, 44, of Imperial County, pleaded guilty to drug, weapon, kidnapping and extortion charges, making him the last of 31 gang members to plead guilty to charges brought by Brown’s office. The final conviction concludes “Operation Gangland,” which began in 2005 and ultimately shut down a major Mexican Mafia cell spread across Imperial and San Diego Counties.

“This Mexican Mafia cell was one of the most violent extortion and drug trafficking rings California’s border region has ever seen,” Brown said. “With the convictions of all 31 gang members, we’ve dealt a fatal blow to their criminal enterprise and they will spend a long, long time in prison.”

Originally indicted in August 2007, the gang members have collectively been sentenced to more than 200 years in prison.

In 2005, officials from the California Attorney General’s Office, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Imperial County District Attorney’s Office formed the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force to investigate the Mexican Mafia’s criminal activities.

The investigation uncovered a widespread drug smuggling and extortion operation directed by Mexican Mafia cell leader Patrick Ponce. The cell used “tax collectors” in El Centro, Calexico, Brawley, Heber, Holtville, Calipatria, and Niland to extort funds from anyone engaged in illegal activity, such as drug sales or immigrant smuggling. Those who refused or failed to pay were attacked by Ponce’s enforcers. The “taxes” would be split between the gang member who collected them, Ponce and other gang leaders.

Additionally, Ponce ran a heroin and methamphetamine trafficking operation, distributing and selling narcotics throughout the region. Ponce ordered gang members with outstanding warrants to surrender themselves to officers so that illegal contraband hidden on these individuals could be smuggled into the Imperial County Jail. Gang members attacked anyone who failed to carry out orders.

Over the course of the investigation, agents captured Ponce on wiretaps ordering assaults, setting extortion rates and arranging drug sales.

Following the investigation, Brown’s office assisted Imperial County District Attorney Gilbert G. Otero in preparing the case against the gang. In August 2007, the case was presented to the San Diego County criminal grand jury, which returned a 46-count indictment against 31 members of the cell. Over the past two and a half years, Brown’s office has successfully prosecuted all 31 gang members, including:

• Patrick Ralph Ponce (“Pato”), 44, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to kidnapping; two counts of extortion; selling methamphetamine; and supplying a firearm to a felon and is expected to be sentenced to 22 years in state prison;
• Marc Anthony Villasenor (“Joker”), 31, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to assault likely to cause great bodily injury; selling heroin; and assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 20 years, 8 months in state prison;
• Raul Antonio Cruz, Jr. (“Jr.”), 33, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to assault with a firearm; three counts of extortion; and three counts of supplying a firearm to a felon and was sentenced to 16 years in state prison;
• Ezequiel Ernesto Rodriguez (“Neto”), 39, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to extortion and admitted carrying a firearm during a gang crime and was sentenced to 15 years in state prison;
• Victorianao Ortiz (“Cyco”), 30, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 14 years in state prison;
• Raul Vega Mejia (“Pollo”), 37, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted extortion; two counts of extortion; carrying a concealed firearm in a vehicle; and being a felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 13 years in state prison;
• Gabriel Anthony Valles (“Guero”), 47, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon and admitted carrying a firearm during a gang crime and was sentenced to 9 years in state prison;
• Marco Araujo, 54, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin and three counts of selling heroin and was sentenced to 9 years in state prison;
• Juan Antonio Hornback (“Duke”), 31, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to selling heroin and was sentenced to 9 years in state prison;
• Jose Manuel Zepeda, 31, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion and extortion and was sentenced to 9 years in state prison;
• Victor Ruby (“Outlaw”), 38, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to assault likely to cause great bodily injury and was sentenced to 8 years in state prison;
• David Paez Martinez (“Deebo”), 32, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to extortion; two counts of attempted extortion; assault with a firearm; and felon in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 7 years in state prison;
• Luis Hector Munoz (“Clepto”), 30, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion and extortion and was sentenced to 7 years in state prison;
• Gerardo Robles (“Gerry”), 29, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin and selling heroin and was sentenced to 7 years in state prison;
• Jose Espinoza (“Chuck”), 26, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to extortion; receiving stolen property and possession of an assault weapon and was sentenced to 6 years, 4 months in state prison;
• Jaime Alejandro Perez (“Beef”), 26, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to attempted extortion and is expected to be sentenced to 6 years in state prison;
• Jorge Cuevas Mendoza (“Twinx”), 25, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin and was sentenced to 5 years in state prison;
• Antonio Padilla (“Kasper”), 34, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin and was sentenced to 4 years in state prison;
• Refugio Castellanos Servin, 43, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to selling heroin and was sentenced to 4 years in state prison;
• Manuel Estrada Solarez (“Chile”), 54, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to selling heroin and was sentenced to 4 years in state prison;
• Juan Cordero (“Pollo”), 31, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin and was sentenced to 3 years in state prison;
• Max Ponce, Jr. (“Mad Max”), 53, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin and was sentenced to 3 years in state prison;
• Anthony Edward Favela (“Shadow”), 37, of San Diego County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin and was sentenced to 3 years in state prison;
• Judy Ann Huerta, 29, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell heroin and was sentenced to 3 years in state prison;
• Brian Mark Smith (“Dusty”), 34, of San Diego County, who pleaded guilty to supplying a firearm to a felon and was sentenced to 2 years in state prison;
• Joe Alberto Tamayo (“Drak”), 36, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to extortion and was sentenced to 2 years in state prison;
• Rudy Raymond Ferrel, Jr., 36, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to perjury and was sentenced to 2 years in state prison;
• Armando Salvador Leon (“Fooskie”), 49, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit extortion and was sentenced to formal probation, 435 days jail;
• Eden Macias Portugal, 34, of Imperial County, who pleaded guilty to possession of heroin and was sentenced to summary probation, 355 days jail;
• Maricela Smith, 48, of San Diego County, who pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine and was sentenced to formal probation, 234 days jail; and
• Ruby Flores Mendez, 35, of San Diego County, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to sell methamphetamine and is expected to be sentenced to formal probation.

Over the course of the investigation, agents also seized a large number of firearms, heroin and methamphetamine.

“I want to give special thanks to the members of Attorney General Brown’s San Diego office for all the hard work and effort expended to bring this case to a successful conclusion,” said Imperial County District Attorney Gilbert G. Otero. “This is just another example of what can be accomplished when federal, state and local law enforcement officers work together for the common good of the citizens of California.”

"With these guilty pleas, all agencies involved in this investigation have dealt a significant blow to the leadership of this criminal organization,' said DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge at the Imperial County Office Timothy A. Jennings. 'This should send a clear message to the drug traffickers that the DEA and our outstanding law enforcement partners will not tolerate drug trafficking and the related criminal activities in our community. I think that these arrests make the community a little bit safer for the citizens of Imperial County'.

Other law enforcement agencies that assisted with the investigation included the El Centro Police Department, Imperial County Sheriff's Office, Calexico Police Department, Brawley Police Department, Holtville Police Department, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Border Patrol, Imperial County Narcotic Task Force, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A copy of the original 46-count indictment against the 31 gang members is attached.

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n1885_mexican_mafia_indictment.pdf153.53 KB

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