SAN ANTONIO – For more than 30 years the Texas Mexican Mafia has terrorized the streets of San Antonio.
By controlling a significant portion of the drug trade and committing countless murders, assaults and robberies, the gang has spread its influence across the Lone Star state and beyond.
Through the years, several local and federal cases against members have helped law enforcement piece together a detailed history of one of the state's most violent prison gangs, known to members as Mexikanemi or La Eme.
The Mexikanemi constitution lays out the hierarchy of the gang from the president on down to soldiers and associates. It spells out the rules and responsibilities members are to follow and it defines what the gang is all about.
"Their constitution talks about the whole function and purpose of the organization was to commit crimes to benefit Eme," said Gabe Morales, an expert on prison gangs. "They're talking about drug trafficking, they're talking about robbery at a high magnitude, they're talking about contracts of assassination, prostitution, those rackets, anything they can imagine."
In fact one passage from the constitution reads:
"Being a criminal organization we work in any criminal aspect or interest for the benefit and advancement of Mexikanemi. We shall deal in drugs, contract killings, prostitution, large scale robbery, gambling, weapons and in everything imaginable."
San Antonio native Herb Huerta started the gang in the Texas prison system in the 1980s as a way to protect Mexican and Hispanic inmates.
"At that time, there was the Texas Syndicate, a group that was killing a lot of Hispanic, Mexican-American, Mexican members in Texas prisons, especially from the San Antonio area," Morales said. "A lot of them formed a protection group and soon became a predatory group called the Texas Mexican Mafia, or the Mexikanemi."
Now doing a life sentence in a federal prison in Colorado, Huerta still holds the title of president for life.
"He's basically locked down 23 hours a day, virtually away from any human being, but he still is able to control the organization," Morales said. "That says something to his power and control and how good he set up the organization. There have been some challenges to his power. Some youngsters that have come up and said, 'Hey, we don't like the way you're doing things,' (and) 'You're old, you're a has-been,' and he has maintained control and power, and put out hits and killed a lot of those people."
Huerta created a belief system for the gang deeply rooted in Aztec and Mexican culture.
"They actually worship the gods and consider themselves modern day warriors just like the Aztecs. They consider San Antonio to be the capital of Aztlan, which is the homeland of the Aztecs before they went to Mexico City and started their empire," Morales said. "They use that as a recruitment tool for younger members, to say, 'If you're proud of your heritage, proud of the Aztec empire, we're going to bring a modern day empire back. If you join our organization, the Texas Mexican Mafia, then you'll be a part of it and you'll get to share in all the fruits of our labor.'"
That culture is often reflected in the tattoos members proudly wear on their bodies like a badge of honor.
"The regional estampa, a symbol of the Texas Mexican Mafia, was the eagle and serpent on a cactus, which is the symbol that you see on the Mexican flag," Morales said. "They also have daggers. The daggers aren't quite accurate because the Aztecs used obsidian stone and not steel daggers, but you'll see crossed daggers, often with the eagle and the serpent. Above that is a Quetzalcoatl, often the double-headed serpent, above that in the form of an M."
As law enforcement agencies have used those tattoos to identify members of the gang, some have started to shy away from using them.
"Now, a lot of times it'll be a camouflaged tattoo. So it'll still be there, maybe the double-headed serpent in the form of an M, but hidden in another tattoo, that type of thing," Morales said. "They may have in the sombrero of a Mexican revolutionary Poncho Villa or Zapata, Ms on the hat. So there's things we can look for. The letter 13, which is eme, which is another word they use for the 13th letter of the alphabet in Spanish is eme. There's a lot of different ways they do that."
As members were released from prison, Eme spread to the streets, earning money by charging a 10 percent tax on drug dealers, pimps and any other profits from crime.
"Any crime that is committed, they want a cut. If you don't pay that, there's consequences. Sometimes people will feel that they don't have to pay the 10 percent. They actually encourage people sometimes don't pay the dime. We need to make an example out of you. Those people usually pay up," Morales said. "They have made hundreds of examples of people that they have killed or maimed, that are paraplegics now. They know the reason they commit these crimes, and they do it very viciously, is they want other people to know what they're able to accomplish, that they can touch you, there's no place where you'll be safe."
Those crimes often get the attention of federal investigators who have rounded up numerous high-level members in several busts resulting in lengthy prison sentences and often leading to violent internal power struggles.
"Sometimes if business is doing good, they don't want to do anything to interfere with that. Sometimes business is not going well, there's problems within the organization, they need to take care of those people, those problems. That's when the bloodshed often happens," Morales said. "It is a blood-in, blood-out organization. Most members get in by killing somebody. And they know the only way of getting out is to die. They know that getting in."
There has been an awful lot of bloodshed in the past few years with several Mexikanemi members winding up dead.
Following a series of recent indictments of the gang's leaders, Morales believes the gang is currently in a state of crisis. But he said it hasn't been enough to put them out of business, something that may never happen.
"A lot of people feel by sending a lot of these members to the feds, the Federal Bureau of Prisons system, that we're actually spreading that. We saw that with the Aryan Brotherhood. They started in California and now they're in 40 of 50 states, they're spread throughout the U.S.," Morales said. "As long as there is supply and demand in the drug world, in the criminal world, groups like this will exist. I think we can put a dent into them. I think it would be hard to say that we would totally obliterate them. We could do some damage to them."