The Mexican Mafia, also known as La eMe (Spanish for the letter M) is an American originated mostly Mexican-American criminal organization, and is one of the oldest and most powerful prison gangs in the United States. The Mexican Mafia was formed in the late 1950s by Chicano street gang members incarcerated at the Deuel Vocational Institution, a state prison located in Tracy, California. The foundation of the gang began with thirteen Mexican-Americans from East Los Angeles, several of whom were members of the Maravilla gang. These thirteen prisoners that laid the groundwork for the gang referred to themselves as Mexikanemi, which is translated from Nahuatl as "He Who walks with God in his heart". The initial founding member of the gang was Luis "Huero Buff" Flores. While the Mexican Mafia was founded in part to show reverence to Aztec and Maya heritage, its primary focus was to protect members against other prison inmates as well as corrections officers.
The Mexican Mafia initially recruited violent members to the gang, in an attempt to create a highly-feared organization which could control the black market activities of the Deuel prison facilities. As a response to the increase in violence, the California Department of Corrections transferred some members of the Mexican Mafia to other prison facilities, including San Quentin Prison. This action inadvertently helped the Mexican Mafia in recruiting new members in both the prison and juvenile correctional facilities in California. The Mexican Mafia is an organization involved in extortion, drug trafficking, and murder, both in and outside the prison system. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Mexican Mafia had arranged for contract killings to be carried out by the Aryan Brotherhood, a white prison gang. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood are mutual enemies of the African-American gang Black Guerilla Family.
Members and associates of the gang remain fiercely loyal to the criminal organization both in and outside of prison, particularly in Southern California cities such as Los Angeles and San Diego. The gang asserts its influence over other gangs throughout Southern California by threatening violence against their members should they ever become incarcerated. Gangs and drug dealers who refuse to pay a protection "tax" to the Mexican Mafia are often murdered or threatened with murder. High-ranking members of the Mexican Mafia who are locked in private cells for 23 hours of each day are still able to communicate with their associates, through methods which range from tapping in code on prison plumbing pipes to smuggled letters.
While the Mexican Mafia is a highly-organized criminal entity, it is believed that the gang presently is not presided over by a single leader. Prison membership of the gang is believed to consist of at least 150 members with authority to order murders, and at least 1000 associates who can carry out those orders. It is estimated that the Mexican Mafia has over 30,000 members throughout the United States. Modeled after the Sicilian Mafia in the United States, the Mexican Mafia operates on a paramilitary structure, including generals, captains, lieutenants and sergeants. Those ranking below the sergeants are considered soldiers, sometimes referred to as "carnales". Mexican Mafia symbols include images of a black hand. The gang's primary symbol, which is often used in tattoos by members, is the national symbol of Mexico (eagle and a snake) atop a flaming circle over crossed knives. Members of the Mexican Mafia often use the number 13 as gang identification, as the letter "M" is the 13th letter of the English alphabet.