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Sunday, 7 September 2008

Rene Enriquez,aka Boxer, killed for the gang and also ordered the deaths of men and women in prison and on the streets of Los Angeles

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Rene Enriquez could order murders and conjure elaborate drug deals from an 8-by-10 cell in one of the country's highest-security prisons. He was a leader in the Mexican mafia, a violent group based in California prisons that exerts powerful influence on the streets. Then Enriquez defected. Now, he's a government witness living behind bars. Enriquez is serving two 20-to-life sentences for murder. We agreed not to reveal the location where Enriquez is being held. "It's kind of like we're buried. We're subterranean," Enriquez says.
Enriquez was transferred here several years ago from state prison after dropping out of the Mexican mafia, a powerful criminal gang active in more than a dozen states. In 2002, after having been a Mexican mafia member for over 17 years, he joined the ranks of convicted criminals who agree to provide information against their former peers. Cooperating with the government has its perks — like video games and a razor to shave with. But it means living a secret life.
"The only time that we have any environmental stimulation is when we go for a ride, like under the United States Attorney's Office, doctors' appointments, and then we go under the escort of the United States Marshal," he says.'He's Killed People'
For his security, Enriquez now depends on his former enemies in law enforcement, agents like Jeff Bosket."Almost everyone I work with always says you have to be careful. This guy is a huge mafioso," Bosket says. "He's killed people."
As Enriquez's chief handler, Bosket coordinates assignments with various law enforcement agencies, and he acts informally as a sort of guardian, counselor and therapist rolled into one."When I first learned about Rene, they said he had been passed through numerous law enforcement agencies. Numerous cops had worked with him, extracted information from him and basically done what Rene calls the 'hump and dump' — take the information and leave him and don't give him anything," Bosket says. Enriquez is using his insider's knowledge of the Mexican mafia to help several large investigations into surging gang violence in the L.A. area. He decodes gang members' conversations from surveillance tapes and identifies suspects in photographs.Convicted criminals like Enriquez who cooperate often do so in the hope that it will improve their chances for freedom. But it's a vexing path. For one, law enforcement agents and prosecutors are limited in what, if anything, they can offer in exchange for information. Richard Valdemar, a retired L.A. sheriff's sergeant who spent years trying to bust Enriquez, says cooperation requires a leap of faith for both sides."We have this strange and very strained negotiation about 'I have to trust you as a bad guy and you have to trust me as a law enforcement person,' which goes against both of our whole personas. But we have to establish some kind of trust there," Valdemar says.Trusting the cops is only one of Enriquez's challenges. As a gang turncoat, he struggles with the stigma of being branded a snitch. And he has to resist daily temptations like drugs, which seem to be everywhere. Enriquez has already had one major backslide. Soon after dropping out, he was back on heroin and dealing drugs with other gang dropouts in state prison. Enriquez eventually got clean. But, he says, he faces other issues: He struggles with his new status as a "regular Joe." Specifically, as a former mob leader, he finds it frustrating to stay silent when other prisoners get on his nerves."You want to react. It's almost a daily temptation to want to roar up or have it your way, or, you know, be that guy again," he says. "It's hard for me. Whereas before, these small slights, they would be dealt with immediately. Boom. Without hesitation. Now, an individual that is on the tier that is drunk and pops off at the mouth, I look at them [and] in the back of my head I think, 'I could hurt this guy.' " Working with the cops can bring benefits beyond a more comfortable cell. On occasion, agents pull favors for their informants. One morning Enriquez put on a suit and tie for the first time since his murder trial 18 years ago. Then, heavily armed U.S. Marshals put cuffs and chains on Enriquez and drove him to a federal building.Enriquez was getting married to an old friend. He reconnected with her after his transfer to the L.A. jail.
Marrying the two was Father Gregory Boyle. Boyle is a prominent Catholic priest in Los Angeles. Years ago, Enriquez tried to con Boyle. Now the two talk about the power of redemption through good works."I believe so strongly in the sense of somebody redeeming themselves," Boyle says. Enriquez's wife asked that we not use her name out of safety concerns. But she told us she believes her husband has changed and expects to share a life with him outside prison. They see each other several times a week, but they aren't allowed conjugal visits.Enriquez credits his long talks with his wife for changing the way he sees things.
Three years after he started working for the government, Enriquez finally faced the challenge every gang witness dreads: testifying in open court. The case was a large federal trial of Mexican mafia associates in San Diego. Detective Bosket says Enriquez entered the courtroom wearing a prison jumpsuit, but he carried himself like a business executive."And when Rene took the stand and talked about what the Mexican mafia does and what their abilities are, the jury went to the prosecution and judge with fears of retaliation. They were terrified of the abilities and how powerful the Mexican mafia really is," he says.Bosket says the jurors weren't afraid of Enriquez, but they were disturbed by the brutal world he described. All seven defendants were found guilty. They were sentenced earlier this year to life terms in federal prison.
Enriquez says his work against the Mexican mafia has damaged the group, though not fatally. A host of law enforcement officers say Enriquez should be rewarded for his efforts. Valdemar, the retired sheriff's sergeant, is one of Enriquez's supporters.
"When he became disillusioned with that organization, we [were] obliged to do everything we can to help him come out of that. That can only help us in society in general. And he shouldn't be punished for that. He should be rewarded for that," Valdemar says.But should that reward be freedom? Frank Johnson, who prosecuted Enriquez for murder years ago, isn't sure. He's now a judge. Johnson still remembers how the grandfather of one of Enríquez's murder victims came to court every day."I don't know if you can ever earn your way back from a double murder. And those are the only two murders I know about," Johnson says. "I just don't know if you can ever climb out of that hole. And I don't know how you test someone's sincerity when they come back from such a bad place."Every man is more than the worst thing he's ever done, Enriquez says."There has to be something more than the worst thing you've ever done; that doesn't define every person," he says. "I think really I'm a man in his nascency. I'm learning how to become a man again, because I've never really learned that aspect of life. I've always been incarcerated." From his jail cell, Enriquez engages in an almost daily mental exercise. He weighs his past deeds — his murders, assaults and drug dealing — against his prospects for the future. He says his work for the government has boosted his hopes. But he concedes his chances for release are slim.
He points to a file full of laudatory documents. The praise comes from the highest levels of the Department of Corrections and from law enforcement agencies.
"But this is one little file. Consider the sheer volume of documents that are adverse. Consider my whole life in the Mexican mafia. This only tips the scale a little bit," he says. "The weight of my other file, my criminal file, is so huge that this is nothing here. This is nothing. These are just pages."
Enriquez is still cooperating with several law enforcement agencies from a secret location in southern California.

Rene Enriquez,aka Boxer, who once killed for the gang and also ordered the deaths of men and women in prison and on the streets of Los Angeles, ended up opening his life to the police and sharing many of the organization's secrets. When he decided to defect in 2002, Enriquez became the highest-level Mexican mafia leader to work with the cops. His most prominent tattoo is a black hand on his chest, a symbol of the Mexican mafia. "We call it the black hand of death," he says.Enriquez says he looks like a typical gang member, though he adds he does not believe he is a typical gang member. "I believe I'm a cut above the rest. As a mafioso, you have to be an elitist. You have an elitist, arrogant mentality," he says. "That's how you carry yourself in the Mexican mafia. That's how you project yourself."Enriquez has been involved in organized crime for 20 years and was a Mexican mafia member for over 17years. Enriquez is currently behind bars, serving two life sentences for murder. And California prisons are where Enriquez fought his way to the top of the Mexican mafia, a group that rallies Latino gang members from the southern part of the state.
But in 2002, he had a change of heart: Enriquez quit the Mexican mafia and agreed to cooperate with authorities. He told his story to prison investigators in videotaped interviews."For the first time, we had a Mexican mafia member defect that was really able to lay out for us how the organization works, the organizational structure," says Robert Marquez, a special agent with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Enriquez's information was a bonanza. But what really intrigued investigators was his unusual profile. Enriquez grew up in a middle-class home in places like Thousand Oaks and Sunset Hills in California. He showed early promise in school. But instead of following his father into business, Enriquez channeled his ambitions into the local street gang."And once we got into the gangs, we understood that the homeboys that got out of prison were well respected. You go there, and you learn prison," Enriquez says. "We wanted to get to prison somehow. And we were destined to get there." While serving time for armed robbery, Enriquez started carrying out assaults for Mexican mafia leaders in San Quentin and Folsom prisons. The mafia had deep roots in the California prison system, having been formed there in the 1950s. Enriquez learned the art of making homemade knives and hiding them in his rectum. He carried out assaults for the Mexican mafia on other inmates. Then, after he was paroled, Enriquez used his connection with Mexican mafia leaders in prison to extort drug dealers on the streets, where the cocaine and crack trade was booming.Chris Blatchford, a Los Angeles television reporter who has written a book about Enriquez, says the former Mexican mafia leader was more ruthless than other crooks."He was greedier than they were and he was smarter than they were and he really lived off the booty he took from crooks," Blatchford says.When a drug dealer refused to pay up, Enriquez retaliated. He was sentenced to two life terms for killing the man, and in 1993, the state sent him to Pelican Bay State Prison on California's remote north coast. Because he was a prison gang member, Enriquez was locked in a windowless isolation cell in the Security Housing Unit, or SHU. There inmates spend 24 hours a day alone without seeing the outside world, except on television.Many years later, Enriquez started capturing his life story on audiotapes he recorded off the cuff for family and friends. He says he got the idea from a movie. "What impacts me immediately as soon as I walk in, is the smell. I just stepped outside from the bus and you smell the pines, the redwoods, the forest … these earthy, loamy smells. But as soon as you step into the SHU, it hits you like a wave. It's the smell of despair, depression, desperation. This is a place where people come to die."Pelican Bay was designed to break the gangs. But locked down in isolation, Enriquez and his cohort remained defiant. They concocted simple but effective communication networks. They passed messages through visitors and legal mail — mail that guards aren't allowed to read. They taught themselves exotic dialects and American Sign Language to fool prison staff. And they thrived in a culture of impunity. A secret to Enriquez's success was his transforming punishing isolation into a sort of sanctuary. Rival gangs couldn't get to him, and most cops and prosecutors thought their job was already done. After all, Enriquez was serving two life sentences. The prison couldn't do much more to punish him. But lifers have time to think and scheme. Enriquez remembers participating in something called "the thousand concepts" at Pelican Bay. "We'd spin off a thousand ideas. And if only one of them was profitable, we were succeeding. So we'd do this every day up in Pelican Bay, a thousand miles from our base of power, spinning off ideas that paid money," he says.Marquez, who was Pelican Bay's chief gang investigator, says Enriquez "had a level of sophistication in conducting his business that it was almost impossible to pinpoint and nail down exactly, everything that he was doing," Enriquez treated the street drug dealers like owners of a fast-food franchise. They could use the Mexican mafia name in return for part of their profits, and they were intimidated into paying. "A street gang southern Hispanic, or a sureno, knows that if he's engaged in a criminal activity on the streets, at some point he's going to go to jail, or going to go to prison," Marquez says. "Because the Mexican mafia has such influence within the prisons and the jails, that street gang member knows, 'If I don't do what I'm told to do on the streets, that when I hit the jail, or when I hit the prisons, there are those who are so loyal to the Mexican mafia that they're going to assault me.' " Perhaps Enriquez's greatest achievement was in helping extend the Mexican mafia's brand to dozens of L.A. street gangs. And he did this through an elaborate subterfugeIn the mid-1990s, the group put out calls to stop drive-by shootings among L.A. Latinos. But Enriquez says the aim wasn't peace. "Our true motivation for stopping the drive-bys was to infiltrate the street gangs and place representatives in each gang, representatives which then, in turn, tax illicit activities in the areas," he says.He says the Mexican mafia wanted to channel the random shootings into a form of violence it could control, for profit."And we already had it planned out that California would be carved up … into slices, with each member receiving an organizational turf," he says.The Mexican mafia's campaign against drive-by shootings had another benefit: good PR. "They saw that as a way into being more respectable, in the eyes of sympathetic do-gooders, city leaders, church leaders," author Blatchford says. And for the most part, Enriquez says, it worked. "Tens of thousands of gang members adhered to what we said. Us. High school dropouts," he says. "But we had such authority behind who we were, they listened."It was then, he says, they realized the true potential of the Mexican mafia: Astronomical amounts of money could be made without ever having to touch drugs or do anything again themselves."We could do all this; we could become a true powerhouse, because of the finances generated by taxation: taxation, extortion, protection," Enriquez says.
Drug profits flowed to prison. Drug dealers on the street sent checks and money orders to gang leaders behind bars, under the noses of California prison staff. Enriquez and his associates socked away tens of thousands of dollars. He invested in bank CDs and government bonds. The accounts were only frozen after he defected.
But success fueled greed and paranoia. Violent feuds erupted among Mexican mafia members. Some started plotting to kill the families of rivals in the gang. "This arbitrary targeting of families — because I am your adversary — takes it to a whole different realm of violence. This was not part of the bargain. This is not the Mexican mafia that I joined," he says.Enriquez grew disillusioned. And he was being ground down — by a heroin addiction and prison isolation. "I remember the first time I had an anxiety attack. I felt like I was going to die, impending doom," he says. "That was the first sign I had that something was going wrong with me, that it was time for me to get out of this." Enriquez was a mobster facing a midlife crisis."In Rene's case, he had accomplished everything that he wanted to accomplish as far as being a Mexican mafia member. However, I think in his case, he finally saw that, 'Hey, you know what? I've reached the pinnacle of everything that I'm doing here, and yet at the same time, I'm still locked up. And is this the rest of my life? Being in this concrete cell, this concrete unit, and is this how I'm going to end my life?' " Marquez says. Enriquez says it's called "mob fatigue." "Everybody goes through it," he says.In 2002, Enriquez left the Mexican mafia. His defection put him on the gang's hit list, but it also opened a new universe.After leaving the prison isolation unit, Enriquez saw the night sky — the moon and stars — for the first time in 10 years.

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