The Güero Loco of Kingpins
There a scene in the 1992 movie American Me where actor William Forsythe, who plays J.D., a Slavic-American character based on the legendary Mexican Mafia gang leader Joe “Pegleg” Morgan, hits a California prison yard as a newbie and is confronted by white inmates.
J.D. responds in fluent Spanish. Moments later, a group of Mexican-American gangsters roll up, glare at the “peckerwoods,” and embrace J.D. as one of their own.
As the scene extends, one of the Latino inmates questions Santana, the gang’s shot caller, about J.D. hanging with them. Santana kills the issue by letting the dude know this Anglo was one of them, a homeboy with heart, courage, and discipline.
“Pegleg” Morgan — born Joseph Megjugorac in 1929 in Los Angeles, the son of Croatian immigrants — rose to become a real-life shot caller in the vicious Mexican Mafia gang, founded by 13 Mexican-Americans in a California youth prison in 1957.
This crew, also known as La Eme (Spanish for the letter M), rapidly gained in size and strength, using intimidation, extortion, and murder, both inside and outside the California prison system. Controlling territory, trafficking drugs, and terrorizing anyone who resisted their demands or threatened their power, La Eme became a dominant, entrenched, moneymaking force throughout the Golden State. And as its lethal footprint expanded, its Slavic-American player became one of the most powerful gangsters in the United States.
“Joe Morgan was a nails-tough Croatian who grew up in a Hispanic neighborhood in East L.A.,” says true-crime author and Gangster Report founder Scott Burnstein. “In total, he spent 40 years locked up for crimes ranging from bank robbery to homicide. He escaped jail twice, committed murders like he had a license, and developed, for La Eme, lucrative, power-boosting connections to both Mexican drug cartels and the Italian mafia in L.A.”
With his shaved head, burning eyes, dark eyebrows, and prosthetic leg (a result of being shot by cops while on the lam), Morgan had the right look to match his steely character. He
was smart, ruthless, charismatic, strategic, and lived by strict rules — a code he expected his associates to live by, too. Morgan, who died in 1993, helped spearhead the Mexican Mafia’s evolution into the baddest prison-spawned gang to ever do it —
a California kingpin with a big vision and ceaseless drive, a killer whose lengthy leadership status within La Eme puts him in
the conversation with marquee gangsters like John Gotti and Pablo Escobar.
“Although Slavic ethnically, Morgan adopted Mexican ways and spoke Spanish perfectly,” recalls Richard Valdemar, a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department gang investigator for 33 years, now retired. “As a kid, he joined one of the Maravilla gangs in East Los Angeles. He’s unusual because he’s a white boy who grew up in the projects. If you met him and hung out with him for just a few moments, you’d forget he was white, though. Joe didn’t fake it.”
Despite being a güero — a light-skinned person — Morgan had a bone-deep connection to L.A.’s vato loco underworld, its subculture of Mexican-American street gangs and gangbangers. He developed a command of Mexican-Spanish slang. Raised in the barrios, he was a Chicano at heart, a guy who identified as Mexican-American, and who also, from early on, happened to be one of the baddest motherfuckers around. By his late teens, he stood well over six feet tall, and projected an intense, intimidating vibe. In 1946, still just 16, he took up with a 32-year-old married woman, Elvira Rojo, who eventually offered him $1,000 to kill her husband. Morgan did the deed early one September morning, walking into the room where Rojo’s 52-year-old husband was sleeping and bashing his skull with a hammer. He transported the corpse into the Malibu hills and buried his victim in a shallow grave.