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Texas Officer's Killing Exposes the Ruthless Inner Workings of the Mexican Mafia

The 2014 execution-style killing of a San Antonio-area police officer with ties to the Texas Mexican Mafia is a stark example of how the self-proclaimed "gang of all gangs" operates.

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr., The Washington Post
Julian Pesina in his Balcones Heights police uniform.

Both sides of Julian Pesina’s double life were closing in on his secrets.

Pesina was a police officer in Balcones Heights, a small city of 3,000 people near San Antonio. But he also claimed allegiance to the Mexican Mafia, a notorious gang known for extortion and precision killings.

Pesina sold drugs for the Texas branch of the Mexican Mafia and paid a weekly tax, or “dime,” for his tattoo parlor, according to court documents. Beneath his police uniform, his body was covered with gang tattoos.

In 2014, federal investigators were probing Pesina’s ties to the Texas Mexican Mafia and getting close to making an arrest that could send him to prison for years. But gang members who learned about his police job from Facebook sentenced Pesina to death instead.

Jerry “Spooks” Idrogo was ordered to kill him.

On May 4, 2014, Idrogo called Pesina, saying he was in a hurry and wanted to pick up the “dime” outside Pesina’s tattoo parlor, Notorious Ink.

When Pesina walked up to the car to pay Idrogo, the other gang members rushed around the building, wearing masks.

One carried a shotgun. The other clutched a pistol.

Pesina was shot and killed in the street — though the gunmen waited until he had paid his 10 percent tax before opening fire, according to federal investigators.

Video of Pesina’s killing was captured on a pole-mounted camera FBI agents had set up to watch his business and build their case, according to the San Antonio Express-News. FBI sources told the newspaper they had planned to arrest Pesina within a week when he was shot down in cold blood.

On Friday, Idrogo pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of conspiracy to participate in a “Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization.”

As part of the plea, Idrogo admitted he was was responsible for Pesina’s slaying and the death of another man, Texas Mexican Mafia member Billy Padilla, who was killed in 2013 “for failing to turn over drug proceeds to the organization,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas.

At his sentencing in November, Idrogo faces life in federal prison.

The Mexican Mafia — also known as “La Eme,” Spanish for “the M,” and as “Mexikanemi” — has existed for more than 60 years, according to an Associated Press story on a gang sweep in 2007.

The organization “was formed by Mexican-American inmates in a Northern California prison in the 1950s as a front against racist attacks,” the AP noted. “It has since fanned out across the state prison system and to Mexican and U.S. streets.”

Authorities say the self-proclaimed “gang of all gangs” has cowed a who’s who of the state’s deadliest gangs — including Aryan Brotherhood and 18th Street — into paying taxes in their turf …

“La Eme” hits gangs who refuse the arrangement with a so-called “green light,” making them a target for retaliation by the gang and its allies.

The gang’s Texas offshoot gained power in the 1980s, according to court documents.

Behind bars, gang members trafficked drugs and banded together for protection. When members were released, they expanded the enterprise — and the violence — to the streets.

Many Texas Mexican Mafia members were from San Antonio, which became the branch headquarters. Members could join only if they were asked by a “sponsor,” or “padrino.”

To gain membership, inductees had to commit a criminal act, which could include the murder of an enemy.

And according to the Mexican Mafia’s constitution, cooperation with law enforcement was punishable by death.

Pesina’s execution-style killing in 2014 was a textbook example of a Mexican Mafia hit, according to Tony Rafael, the pen name of the author of a book about the gang.

“The smaller weapon is used to pin down or debilitate the target,” Rafael told The Washington Post. “And then they finish them off with the rifle.”

Rafael said it’s not uncommon to find civil servants among the gang’s ranks.

One of the organization’s strengths, he said, is its ability to coerce people and even other gangs into working to benefit “La Eme.”

“They’re very, very good at manipulating people,” Rafael said. “They’ve had female corrections officers and manipulated them into literally marrying them. Prior to marrying them, these [officers] smuggled food and drugs into the jail.

“They’ve corrupted social workers to do their bidding for them, and occasionally police officers, too. They’ll find a weak spot. They’ll befriend you, try to figure out what makes you tick. If you’re short of cash, they’ll get you cash. If it’s drugs, they’ll get you drugs. If it’s women, they’ll get you that, too. They’re excellent, excellent manipulators.”

The gang has only about 300 “made” members in the United States, Rafael said.

But the Mexican Mafia’s number swells into the thousands when you count those who work with “La Eme” in the hopes of becoming “carnales,” or brothers, he said.

In a 2015 Texas Gang Threat Assessment, the state’s Department of Safety estimated there were 4,700 Texas Mexican Mafia members and associates, organized into clearly defined ranks on a paramilitary model.

Idrogo, a sergeant, was on one of the lowest rungs, just above a soldier.

Senior leaders are able to issue orders to subordinates, according to the assessment, which classifies the Mexican Mafia as a Tier 1 gang.

“These groups pose the greatest gang threat to Texas due to their relationships with Mexican cartels, high levels of transnational criminal activity, level of violence, and overall statewide presence,” the assessment said.

Sending gang leaders to prison isn’t enough to stymie the gang, Rafael said. Once imprisoned, the highest-ranking members relay messages to subordinates outside using cellphones, smuggled notes and even family visitors.

Their spirit of cooperation has been extended to Mexican drug cartels in the past decade, said Rafael, whose book argues that the the Mexican Mafia could be “the most dangerous gang in America.”

Rafael said that because the Mexican Mafia has a stranglehold on the prison systems in California and Texas, street gangs, drug dealers and unaffiliated criminals are intimidated into working with them in and out of prison.

“They run virtually every street gang in California,” he said. “Any kid growing up 14, 15, 16 years old knows that if he’s going to continue capering [committing crimes], he better make his peace with the Mafia well before he ends up in prison. He needs people that respect him, people that will protect him. They tell them, ‘You do what we tell you when you’re on the street, we’ll take care of you in prison.’ ”

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