Mexican mafia member sentenced to 11 years in prison for role in cartel alliance
Michael Moreno, a respected member of the Mexican mafia, has been jailed for more than nine years on charges of orchestrating but ultimately foiling a novel alliance with a Mexican drug cartel that wanted to trade money and drugs for protection in prison and muscle on the streets.
After pleading guilty earlier this year, Moreno, 65, stood before US District Judge Christina A. Snyder on Wednesday, dressed in white jumpsuit, his hands tied to the waist, his grey-brown hair cut short.
The judge asked if he had anything else to say before he was sentenced.
“No, I’m fine,” he said. “I’m OK.”
Snyder sentenced Moreno to 11 years in prison. Because of the time he has spent in pre-trial detention and the credit he deserves for completing a substance abuse program and not being disciplined while behind bars, Moreno is expected to be released soon, his attorney Robert Bernstein said.
Under the terms of a four-year probation, Snyder Moreno banned dealings with members of the Mexican Mafia “or others known to be involved in the criminal activities of the Mexican Mafia, with the exception of family members.”
No other family has contributed more members to the Mexican Mafia, the prison-based syndicate that controls Latino gang members in prison and on the streets of Southern California, than the Morenos.
“I have a family, a big family,” Moreno’s younger brother Tommy testified at a recent trial. “I have nine brothers and six sisters. Of my nine brothers, five are members of the Mexican mafia.”
There’s Michael, better known as “Mike Boo”; Jesse, nicknamed “Pelon”, who is serving a life sentence for racketeering and was pronounced critically ill by his lawyers at the age of 83; Eddie, who died of an overdose behind bars; Pete, who is serving a life sentence in Arizona for shooting a man outside a bar in Phoenix; and Tommy, known as “T-Bug”, who has been in prison since 1983 for robbing a bank and assaulting another inmate at Lompoc Jail.
The federal case against Michael Moreno began in 2011 when Jose “Fox” Landa-Rodriguez, a Mexican mob member then being held in a federal prison in Virginia, approached him for help realizing his dream of forming a drug trafficking alliance to obtain.
Two brothers, Hugo and Freddie Montes, who sold drugs in the San Fernando Valley, had approached Landa-Rodriguez with a proposal, a task force official with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives wrote in a wiretapping request.
La Familia Michoacán, a now-defunct Mexican cartel that primarily dealt in methamphetamine, was willing to provide cash and drugs at below-market prices if the Mexican mafia agreed in return to protect cartel members in US prisons and collect drug debts on the streets, the officer wrote.
Landa-Rodriguez called Moreno, who was then on probation in Fresno. “This will open the doors for all of us because the future is bright,” Landa-Rodriguez said, according to an affidavit authored by an agent with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Michoacán native Landa-Rodriguez, who faced deportation after completing his sentence, told Moreno the traffickers wanted him to one day take over “the whole family,” citing the cartel, the agent wrote.
As a step to solidify the deal, Freddie Montes, who had ties to La Familia Michoacán, turned over cash from the cartel to a Mexican mafia member, Ralph “Perico” Rocha, who in turn passed some of it to Moreno, according to testimony at The Trial against Landa Rodriguez. The cartel figures and Mexican mafia members pursuing the alliance intended to share the money with imprisoned Mexican mafia members to build support for it, witnesses said.
However, Rocha was secretly an informant for the ATF. He carried a wire as he told Moreno that the dealers wanted her help to evict dealers who weren’t selling their drugs: “They want to be known in the calles” – streets – “that, you know, when you do it.” aren’t have familia drogas, any paraphernalia they got going then you can’t do anything and we can let the homies know… We don’t say anything – who it is. Black, white, green, chinese, all. Shut it down.”
They would be the “security detail” of La Familia Michoacán, Rocha said. “Let them do all the drug dealing, let them do all that. And all we do is ‘feria’ – money – ‘for protection’.
A grand jury in 2013 indicted six Mexican mafia members — including Moreno and Landa-Rodriguez — and seven other defendants for conspiring with the cartel to sell drugs in the United States.
In his July guilty plea, Moreno admitted channeling the money Rocha shipped to jailed Mexican mafia members to build support for the deal.
Landa-Rodriguez and several other defendants went to court in 2019 and were acquitted. Landa-Rodriguez remains incarcerated on unrelated charges of distributing drugs, committing racketeering and ordering murders within the Los Angeles County prison system. He has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
A year after he was charged in federal court, Moreno was indicted by Ventura County authorities, who conducted their own investigations into his influence on local gangs and drug rackets.
Ventura County detectives caught Moreno in 2013 when a Mexican mafia associate, Alejandro “Danger” Ornelas, was released from Pelican Bay State Prison after serving a 13-year sentence for robbery.
A member of Oxnard’s Colonia Chiques gang since he was 13, Ornelas returned to his old neighborhood with orders from Det, the underworld heavyweights he was imprisoned with. Victor Medina of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department wrote in a wiretapping request.
The county was in the midst of a power struggle, with Moreno on one side and another Mexican mafia member, Martin “Evil” Madrigal, on the other, Medina wrote.
According to the detective’s affidavit, Madrigal appeared to be on the losing side: his lieutenants had been arrested, and other Mexican mafia members leaked word from state prison that no one was allowed to pay him “taxes.”
Latino gangs regularly have to make payments to Mexican mafia members who have divided Southern California and other areas of the state into personal fiefdoms. While most gangs raise taxes by collecting money from drug dealers who sell in their area, they will also rob people, break into homes and blackmail businesses to meet their obligations, Medina wrote.
A month after leaving Pelican Bay, Ornelas called a meeting of Ventura County gang members at a Mexican seafood restaurant in Calabasas, according to Medina’s affidavit. One of the participants carried a wire.
Ornelas explained he worked for “Boo Boo” and “the Viejo” — Moreno and another member of the Mexican Mafia, James “Rube” Soto, detectives concluded. Any taxes Madrigal had paid in the past would now go to her, Ornelas told the group. If there was resistance, he warned that he “already had a crew from Los Angeles who were killers,” Medina wrote.
Authorities tapped Moreno’s phone. They listened as inmates in prison yards across the state asked for Moreno’s blessing to work under his authority and offered to send him money for the privilege, Medina wrote.
Moreno was overheard telling a subordinate that “the boys in Oklahoma” — an apparent reference to the contracted out-of-state facilities where correctional officials once sent inmates to relieve an overburdened prison system — could send the money to a computer company , which he had registered at a PO Box, Medina wrote.
Moreno boasted to another subordinate that he had bought a new home on the better side of Fresno, two stories, five bedrooms, two and a half bathrooms, and an underground bomb shelter, according to Medina’s affidavit.
Moreno has pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to use gang reinforcement in the Ventura case, court documents show. Prosecutors have approved a served sentence that does not extend his federal term, his attorney said.
“He looks forward to being home with his grandchildren and family,” Bernstein told the judge.