83 Charged in Federal Indictments Targeting Mexican Mafia Operations Inside L.A. County Jails

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More than 80 people were charged in federal indictments targeting Mexican Mafia operations involving drug smuggling into county jails and extortion of inmates, federal officials in Los Angeles said Wednesday.

Out of the 83 people charged, 35 were already in custody in local jails, 32 were arrested during early morning raids in several counties Wednesday and 16 are fugitives that are considered armed and dangerous, officials announced during a news conference.

Two indictments charging the defendants were unsealed Wednesday. The two cases were filed in late March.

As part of "Operation Dirty Thirds," the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Pomona Police Department joined the FBI in serving arrest warrants throughout Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

FBI Assistant Director in Charge Paul Delacourt called the Mexican Mafia "a gang of gangs."

He said that the goal of the operation was to target the Mexican Mafia's criminal operations within county jail systems. Authorities said the notorious gang has control of many Hispanic street gangs in Southern California.

The defendants allegedly ordered assaults within and outside of county jails, transported narcotics in and out of facilities and collected a tax on drugs distributed inside jails.

The two indictments allege a range of offenses including drug and gun charges, carjacking, money laundering and identity theft. The Mexican Mafia allegedly also has a network of people, including wives and girlfriends, who serve as vital links to the outside world.

One of the indictments focuses on Mexican Mafia member Jose Landa-Rodriguez, who, along with two now-deceased prison inmates, allegedly controlled criminal activity within the L.A. County jail system. The indictment alleges that Landa-Rodriguez, 55, sanctioned murders, assaults and the kidnapping and planned the murder of the relative of a gang member who defied orders.

Landa-Rodriguez's attorney, Gabriel Zendejas-Chavez, is also named in the indictment and allegedly conveyed Mexican Mafia messages to members at different state and federal prisons. Zendejas-Chavez also allegedly gave mafia members the names of people who might have been cooperating with law enforcement and facilitated a plot to extort $100,000 from another major gang.

Another mafia member, Luis Vega, 33, also allegedly ordered the killing of and assaults on those who didn't follow rules or showed disrespect.

The second indictment states another mafia member, Michael Lerma, 61, allegedly controlled Latino street gangs in and around Pomona while incarcerated in Imperial County. Members who followed Lerma, or "Pomona Mike," are believed to have engaged in robberies, identity theft, drug trafficking and kidnapping, the indictment alleges.

In one incident allegedly involving a Lerma follower, a woman was kidnapped, held for days and was extorted for money, officials said. Authorities believe there was a plot to kill the victim, but the plan was disrupted by law enforcement.

The defendants arrested Wednesday were transported to Whittier Narrows where they were processed. Most were expected to be arraigned in federal court Wednesday afternoon.

More than 500 law enforcement officials participated in the raids Wednesday morning, including six SWAT teams. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Ontario Police Department, IRS Criminal Investigation and other agencies assisted in the raids Wednesday.

KTLA's Salina Nasir contributed to this story. 

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