“La Eme”—The Mexican Mafia

Robert Ramirez delves into the history of the infamous La Eme, better known as the Mexican Mafia.

One of the most brutal gangs in existence is the Mexican Mafia, or, ‘La Eme’ (Spanish for ‘The M’). According to most accounts, the gang was founded in 1957 by Luis ‘Huero buff’ Flores. At the time Flores was incarcerated in a Californian jail; in order to survive the brutal conditions, and protect himself from other prison gangs which were organised along racial lines—such as the Black Guerillas and the Aryan Brotherhood—Flores decided to form a gang to provide protection for him and his Hispanic peers from other prison gangs.

Soon Flores’s gang offered a variety of ‘services’ for other gangs members and paying customers in the prison community at large: drugs, gambling, and contracts killings were just some of the many ‘products’ which people could pay Flores’s gang to carry out. The idea behind the gang’s diverse portfolio of activities had one aim: to establish supremacy over other prison gangs.

La Eme
La Eme in the Early Years

As La Eme continued to grow in size and status inside the prison during the 1960s and 1970s, its more senior members created a structure for the gang in order to spread their activities into other Federal prisons and even local communities. A pyramidal structure evolved as the gang recruited more Hispanics into its ranks. Those at the top would commission lower-ranking members to carry out jobs, for which those at the top received a ‘cut’; La Eme’s operations were now no longer about simply protecting Hispanics in prison but about extending their power and business interests.

During the 1980s, La Eme joined forces with gangs on Los Angeles’ East Side, which gave them a stake in the city’s drug trafficking and contract killings trades—this was when the Mexican mafia really started to thrive. The Mexicans’ dominance over California then allowed them to branch off the contract killings and maximize their profits by focusing on trafficking drugs to and from Mexico.

La Eme soon formed links with cartels in Mexico, who in turn cultivated relationships with other organized crime groups in South America. The Guadalajara cartel—one of Mexico’s biggest—was founded by ‘the Godfather’, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. Miguel formed a partnership with the infamous Colombian, Pablo Escobar, to expand his empire of the business of cocaine. It was a relationship which offered mutual benefits: the need for the relationship was due to the lack of transportation that fortunately Gallardo could provide for Escobar. Gallardo was in charge of the transports of the cocaine products, he moved them to and from the western side of Mexico such as Tijuana and Sinaloa, adjacent to California, which made it easy for them to illegally transfer their products across the border. Sinaloa was the region of Mexico that Pablo Escobar assigned to the notorious “El Chapo,” also known as Joaquin Guzman Loera.

El Chapo arrest
The Arrest of El Chapo

When Escobar was killed in 1993 by the Colombian authorities, El Chapo took this chance to become the master of the operation and remained in his post for almost an entire decade without being snitched on by his communities and the inside workers from the cartel. The reason that local communities did not report El Chapo to the authorities was simple: they were too scared to do so. And certainly no one in his own gang would dare to betray him; criminal organizations such as the Mexican cartels do not take “rats” lightly; members treat each other as if they are family, and if they turn on family it usually ends in death or severe injuries. Besides, the ‘pyramid’ structure of El Chapo’s gang meant that the soldiers at the very bottom of it know very little of what those at the top of the organization do. Such arrangements protect the boss from getting busted if one of the lower level members gets caught.

The modus operandi and structure common described above, common to many organized crime groups, has been carefully adapted in mafia movies in popular culture. Tony Montana from the 1983 film Scarface, is a character who was inspired by several South American drug lords including El Chaop. Montana is a young Cuban refugee who dreams of a better life and will do anything it takes to achieve it; he starts out as a soldier, carrying out menial duties for those above him in the gang, but eventually climbs his way to the top of the cocaine scheme. During the film, the operation starts by just moving a few kilograms of cocaine but turns into a massive drug selling business connects him to many powerful people. A man from the DEA is out to get Tony and his bosses convicted and warn people about the scandalous amounts of drugs they are bringing into the country, so he decided that he had to take him out by planting a bomb in his car. Montana does not, however, assassinate the man due to his morals—organized crime members are always shown to have some kind of moral compass—as the man from the DEA is traveling in the car with his daughter and wife. By not finishing the job it allowed for the compromise of their operation, leading to the death of his drug business and himself.

The famous “Scarface” based in part on El Chapo and several other drug lords

Scarface of course was a fictional portrayal of a man whose career was similar to El Chapo and many other organized crime bosses. Although unlike Montana, El Chapo was captured, not killed. On three separate occasions, the cartel was able to bribe the security guards of the Federal Maximum Security prison in Mexico and break him out twice. In 2016, the photograph above was taken of El Chapo as he was arrested for the third time in twenty years. The trial for this arrest is still going on today, according to MSN News:

“The 12 jurors began deliberating in federal court in Brooklyn last Monday, and were dismissed for the week on Thursday afternoon. The lack of a verdict in the first week seemed to please Guzman, who grinned and hugged one of his lawyers before he was led out of the courtroom.”

Perhaps the cartels have managed to influence the jury; its members recently alleged that there is no actual evidence to convict him and that El Chapo was being set up as a “fall boy” for another high-ranking member named El Mayo.

In spite of El Chapo’s arrest and trial, the drug trafficking continues under new leaders of who find new ways to smuggle drugs into the United States. According to Insight Crime:

“Sinaloa Cartel hid a haul of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine inside the spare tires of new cars sent from Mexico to Canada, showcasing the innovative tactics drug traffickers are using to successfully skirt border checks.”

The cartel has no intention of stopping business flow, even if its most iconic leaders have perished into the prison system or killed. To keep this drug empire operating at this level is quite an astonishing accomplishment and the cartels are one of the most efficient organized crime units in existence. After decades have passed of the constant successful movement of illegal drugs across different border lines you have to ask yourself: is it that the cartel is just that good or is that the Government of the country the drugs are running through cannot afford to enforce the law? It may be a little bit of both as the cartel knows how to take advantage of countries that live in poverty and are unable to properly manage their own citizens. Mexico is always stereotyped as a country full of gangsters and cartel movement but it is really just a reflection of the Government that allowed its people to live in poverty and ultimately be forced to sell drugs to provide for their families. Organized crime will continue to affect communities locally and globally as they know their way around the government system. The repeated use of bribery, innovative tactics, intimidation and overall crime from the political and social standpoint is what will allow the empire of the Mexican cartel to continue to grow the enterprise.

Further Reading:

Mark Galeotti (2009), Organized crime in History. Abingdon: Routledge.

Brendan Pierson (2019), WWW MSN News, Jury in “El chapos” U.S trial begin second week of deliberations , https://www.msn.com/en-in/news/world/jury-in-el-chapos-us-trial-to-begin-second-week-of-deliberations/ar-BBTsswe , sited on 11-02-2019, (Searched 09-03-2019)

Chris Dalby (2019), WWW Insight Crime, Sinaloa cartel places unwanted surprise inside new Ford cars, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/sinaloa-cartel-unwanted-surprise-ford-cars/ , sited on 01-03-2019, (Searched on 10-03-2019)

Scarface (1983), Produced by Brian De Palma, United States.

Carlos Rodriguez (2016), Mexican Cartels,  https://gesteofrobinhood.com/2018/05/11/mexican-cartels-carlos-rodriguez/ (10-03-2019)

Suzanne Pekow (n.a), Gangsters Confidential,  Brutal Control: A brief history of the Mexican Mafia, americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/gangster/g1.html , sited in (2018) , searched on (11-03-2019)



The Meaning of ‘Mafia’

By Stephen Basdeo

The early 1860s in Italy was a decade of hope.

King Victor Emmanuel II of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia had, with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s help, unified the whole of the Italian peninsula under his rule, where previously the region had been divided into a number of small petty kingdoms, often ruled by foreigners.

It seemed like the dream of the Italian radicals – that of the Risorgimento (‘rebirth’) – had finally been realised, a sentiment that is reflected in the Cango degli Italiani (1847), which is now used as the Italian national anthem:

Noi fummo da secoli [We were for centuries]

Calpesti, derisi [Downtrodden, derided,]

Perché non siam popolo, [Because we were not one people,]

Perché siam divisi. [Because we were divided.]

Raccolgaci un’unica Bandiera, una speme: [Let one flag, one hope gather us all]

Di fonderci insieme Già l’ora suonò. [The hour has struck for us to unite].

Yet the dream turned sour and far from a unification it looked increasingly as though Piedmont-Sardinia had merely conquered or colonised the rest of Italy – Victor Emmanuel even retained the regnal number ‘II’, instead of opting to be named Victor Emannuel I of Italy. Some of the tax and conscription measures passed by the new government prompted angry rebellions in the southern part of the peninsula and banditry became rife, which of course made the government send troops into the region to put down the bands of brigands that flourished there.

Banndits 4
Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

If the southern part of the mainland had its problems, Sicily was deemed to be virtually lawless. Sicilians had often been viewed by northern mainlanders, if not with contempt and suspicion, at least as an exotic ‘Other’. They were to all intents and purposes a separate people with their own customs. Law enforcement here was practically non-existent which, as in the region of Naples, still suffered from endemic banditry.

According to Robert M. Dainotto, about this time a new word appeared in the Italian language which was ‘shrouded in mystery, eerie in sound, mysterious in origin, menacing in the images it evoked’.

The word was mafia.

It is true that the word had been around before; a record from the Inquisition in 1685 lists a case of alleged witchcraft as maffia, and a successful but short lived play by Giuseppe Rizzotto and Gaspare Mosca entitled The Mafioisi of Viccaria (1863) used the word to describe a set of law-breakers.

The word originally signified a state of mind, an attitude that was opposed to all forms of central and governmental authority, and only later was it applied to paramilitary groups which had been hired by Sicilian landowners to protect their estates from brigands. It was a marriage of convenience; it gave men from the poorer classes a wage and an escape route from dire poverty while more affluent citizens could carry on their businesses without hindrance from brigands.

Yet these ‘mafia’ paramilitary groups soon became aware of just how powerful they were – they sought to gain the upper hand over the Sicilian propertied classes by controlling local businesses and taking a cut out of their takings, while in some cases they even ejected business owners and farmers from their properties.

The first notable instance we have of a mafia-style group taking extorting money from and then taking control of a thriving business occurred in the 1870s. Just like they are today, back in the 1800s, Sicilian lemons were popular with consumers, and anyone who bought into the citrus business could make themselves a nice profit.

Italian lemon grove

So Dr Gaspare Galati thought when he inherited an already thriving large lemon grove with state-of-the-art irrigation pumps in 1872. The warden of the farm, a man called Benedetto Carollo, began taking many of the lemons under Galati’s nose and selling them for his own gain. Carollo’s main purpose, however, was to run the business into the ground so others could buy the farm for a negligible amount. Carollo was sacked and his replacement was shot; the perpetrator was identified as a man named Signor Giamonna, who according to the local authorities was a pillar of the community. Although Giamonna attempted to murder the new warden, Giammona visited him at his sickbed and apologised for the ‘misunderstanding’, after which the replacement warden retracted his accusation and Giamonna never faced any consequences for his attempted murder.

In 1875, feeling exasperated and powerless, Dr Galati abandoned the lemon grove and it was taken over by Giamonna.

In the same year, a Professor of History named Pasquale Villari decided to turn his attention to the problem of lawlessness in Sicily. In his Southern Letters (1875), he attributed the rising crime rate in Sicily to the dire economic inequality of the region and to the fact that the policies of central government were widely disliked, and he used the word ‘mafia’ to describe the groups of law-breakers and paramilitary ‘protection’ groups which flourished in the region.

Pasquale Villari

Dr Galati decided to get in touch with Villari and relate his experiences with these new mafia-style groups, detailing their strange rituals and outlining their crimes in exact detail. Giamonna’s mafia group seemed all-powerful and sinister, willing to even resort to murder if they were crossed.

It was in Villari’s Southern Letters, therefore, that the Mafia, as we understand it today, was born.

The information for this post is taken from a reading of Robert M. Dainotto’s The Mafia: A Cultural History (2015), particularly chapter one.


Organized Crime

The following essay is adapted from a paper, written by Tyler Welch, on the theory behind the concept of organised crime. Tyler is a first year undergraduate student at Richmond American International University (Leeds RIASA). Originally from Maine, USA, he is also a talented soccer player and is a striker for his university’s team. Tyler also has another forthcoming article which he will be contributing to this website on terrorist subcultures.

Let us imagine that there is a robber who wants to steal from a convenience store. This robber is fairly intelligent and a few days before plans ahead by first walking into the store to find out where all of the security cameras are placed. He may also take note of the hours that are the most popular for customers to go in. After all of his research and planning, he finally carries out the robbery. This crime was certainly organised and executed in a methodical way, yet most people would not consider this robber’s crime as constituting an example of organised crime, for that term, for most people, often brings up images of the Sicilian Mafia, the Russian Mafiya, or the Yakuza, to name but a few. This post discusses how we should define organised crime and how such criminal networks operate. We will then take a more in depth look at the origins of the Sicilian mafia and discuss their ways and customs.

The cast of Goodfellas – this is the image that most people have of organised crime.

The criminologist, James Finckenauer, highlights some of the problems inherent in defining organised crime, saying that,

“the problem […comes] not from the word crime, but from the word organized’.[i]

Crimes such as murder, robbery, and theft are mala in se (wrong in and of itself). Prostitution, drug dealing, bribery, and in some regions, gambling, are mala prohibita (wrong because they are prohibited by law).[ii] All of the above offences would require a degree of method in their execution, therefore, “any definition must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised”.[iii] Thus, a satisfactory definition which distinguishes the actions of mafia groups from the two-bit robber is the fact that organised crime is non-ideological; there is a hierarchy and structure under which its members operate; the hierarchy must facilitate continuity, enabling the group to exist even if its leading members are arrested and imprisoned; the highly secretive yet powerful hierarchy is often reinforced by restricting its membership to a chosen few who are highly vetted; and finally traditional organised crime groups must penetrate the “upperworld” of local and sometimes national governments, as well as businesses, through bribery and extortion.[iv]

Not all organised crime groups are organised in the same way, however, for different groups organise themselves differently, as we can see through the illustrations of the “traditional” hierarchy of organised crime groups and the “loose network”. In the first, the “soldiers” would have to go through the underbosses to get to the boss. Likewise, if the authorities were trying to take down the group, they would have to track down some of the members in the lower parts of the chain so that they can get more information on where the head man is and take the organisation down. This is how the mafia in nineteenth-century Sicily and twentieth-century New York typically operated.

Mafia Structure 1
The “Standard” Criminal Network Hierarchy (C) Larrisia Hall

However, organised crime groups require a particular set of conditions under which they can grow and flourish. To understand the origins of a group such as the Sicilian Mafia, we must turn to the political and social history of nineteenth-century Italy. Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, is well-known as the homeland of the mafia. This island became a part of the nation state of Italy when it was unified under the Royal House of Piedmont-Sardinia in the 1860s. However, Italy at this time and lacked sufficient resources to enforce the law in what had already been an unruly region prior to its unification with Italy, and many of whose inhabitants resented the new regime. Banditry became endemic throughout the southern regions of Italy, and the landowning classes didn’t want their stuff to be taken and vandalized. Since there was no effective police system at the time, the landowning classes turned to private armies, known by the name of mafie, to watch over and protect their estates for a fee. Over time these groups became known as the mafia because they gradually exerted their influence, not only over businesses and farms, but also over local government. The mafia gained a lot of attention at this time, although the people in the mafia rarely call themselves mafia. They rather call it cosa nostra which means “our thing”. These clans are called families or cosche. These families or cosche come together to form a mafia. They all have a strong bond with each other and kinship is applicable as well because everyone is like a brother to one another. Also every mafia has a territory and in the territory they have a monopoly or violence policy. Which means that every business is owned by one of the family members in the mafia and if there is a business that is in operation in the mafias territory and they aren’t willing to pay the mafia they will take matters into their own hands to see that they start paying. Being arranged in such a close knit community comes at a price: no one can leave the mafia because they have to go through an initiation ritual that includes an interrogation, a blood oath to never betray the family, and holding a burning piece of paper. Anyone of the members can move up in the chain of command if they work hard enough because it was a democratic system with an election based on the other family members. To keep track of all these criminals there has to be something to keep them in check. That one thing is honor. A member of the mafia has honor if he always puts the family first and abides by the mafia rules. If a member has no honor they are nothing. There is one sacred term that every member of the mafia must follow and that term is Omerta. That word signifies a code of silence which forbids mafia speaking about the group to non-members, which in practice is a prohibition upon speaking to the police. No two members of the mafia, furthermore, can introduce themselves to one another and only a third member can introduce the two if he knows they are both members of the mafia. Thus, organised crime groups such as the Sicilian mafia are subcultures because their moral values, and the activities they engage in, set them apart from mainstream society with its legal and cultural apparatus.

mafia Structure 2
The Modern “Loose Network” Structure. Source: Source: Klaus von Lampe, “Understanding Organised Crime in Germany” (1995)

While the traditional hierarchy worked well for organised crime groups in the twentieth century, their activities could be significantly disrupted by the authorities if the boss was imprisoned, and the group’s activities could even cease. From the mid-twentieth century, therefore, organised crime groups evolved into a more unorthodox structure called a “loose structure”, facilitated in part by globalisation from the 1980s onwards. In the second image, we can see there are many operational sub-units in the organisation. There is no single place to find the head boss because they are all equally important which makes it very difficult for the authorities to track them down and eliminate because there is no clearly identifiable center of power; the latter structure also facilitates continuity more effectively than the traditional hierarchy does; as no single unit depends upon another, if the leader of one unit is tracked down and sent to prison, the organisation simply carries on.

Although Finckenaur says that that organised crime groups are non-ideological, they are essentially capitalist, and aim to provide people with some type of service.[v] Thus,

making a profit, through whatever means are considered necessary, is in fact the primary goal of organised criminal groups.[vi]

Nowadays many Americans, for example, want sex, drugs, opportunities to gamble, and to obtain outlawed arms, and so organised crime groups are only too ready to make money by providing consumers with such things through illegal means such as drug and people trafficking, and loan-sharking. Often, as in the case of the Sicilian mafia, they even provide protection from robbery, and so they charge law-abiding businesses owners a fee (what we could call extortion). On occasion, organised crime groups invest in restaurants and bars gains to get respectable social status, and present themselves as some type of Robin Hood figures by giving back to the local community. Their legitimate businesses are, of course, also an effective way to launder money.[vii]

Although there is not a universal agreement on the definition of organised crime, the definitions provided by Finckenaur and Galeotti provide a good basis from which researchers and policy makers can move forward in combatting organised crime. This can only be done when the history of these groups is considered; when their hierarchies are analyzed; and by asking questions of mainstream governments such as whether it is productive to prohibit things which people want, when organised crime groups are only too willing to supply them. Finally, it should be remembered that it will always be difficult for anybody to fully investigate the workings of these groups because they form highly secretive subcultures.


[i] James Finckenaur, ‘‘Problems of Definition: What Is Organised Crime?’, Trends in Organised Crime, 8: 3 (2005), 63-83 (p. 64). Crime itself can be straightforwardly defined more simply as an action which is an offence and punishable by law.

[ii] Ibid., p. 65. A simpler form of this is there are actions that can be committed and by the general public it is looked down upon but other actions can be up for debate in what is right and wrong based on preference and the area where the rules are made. Much of the Middle East operates under Islamic laws, which forbid gambling, with one possible penalty for this being beheading. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, gambling is very lenient. In almost every city center there is a casino or place to make bets on football matches and no one gets punished for it.

[iii] Ibid., p. 64.

[iv] Ibid., p. 65. Finckenaur recognizes something very important in defining organised crime. Some people may believe that groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda are classified as organized crime but they are not. The criminal organizations actually collaborate with terrorist organizations and the terrorist help in crimes to help finance their own organisation. The difference between the two groups are the ideological and non-ideological sides to them. This means that the organised crime groups go about their business to receive a profit while the terrorist organisations go about their business to advance a political and/or religious agenda.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., p. 67. Mark Galeotti, Organised Crime in History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), p. 1; Mark Galeotti, whose own definition of organised crime is broadly in agreement with Finckenaur’s, sheds further light on our understanding of organised crime networks as a subculture which mirrors the structures of mainstream society, saying that “When societies get organised, so too their criminals; and in this way, organised crime has evolved as the shadowy underside of modernisation and order.” Further information on organised crime and the Siclian mafia can be found in the following works: John Dickie, Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004); Petter Gottschalk, ‘How Criminal Organisations Work: Some Theoretical Perspectives’. The Police Journal, 81 (2008), 46-61.