Joe Morgan — of the Mexican Mafia

Article by Seth Ferranti

“Joe had a reputation from the start at San Quentin, because his homeboys in Maravilla were probably the largest segment of incarcerated gang members,” says retired investigator Valdemar. “If someone called him a white boy, he would have killed him. He knew what his genes were, but his heart was Chicano.”

A natural-born leader, Morgan influenced La Eme before he became a member. “He became the new gang’s first counselor and later its business guru,” says crime expert and documentary filmmaker Al Profit, director of the American Dope series. “He studied Aztec history and formed solid relationships with gang carnales like ‘Hatchet’ Mike Ison and Ruben ‘Rube’ Soto. Back then, prisoners tended to settle their disputes with their fists. But when La Eme came along, they started making and hiding weapons in strategic places on the yard, so they could grab them when things jumped off.”

On February 24, 1961, after being subpoenaed to act as a witness in the trial of a man who murdered a San Quentin inmate, Morgan masterminded an 11-man escape from the L.A. County Jail using lock-picking tools and hacksaws hidden in his artificial leg. The inmates made their getaway through a pipe shaft. Again Morgan made the news. A splashy front-page Los Angeles Times story called it the jail’s largest escape ever.

“Talk about street cred and cleverness,” says Christian Cipollini, commenting on the jailbreak and Morgan’s resourcefulness in bringing it about. This time Morgan remained at large for a week before being captured at a store in West L.A.

“When he walked back onto the yard in San Quentin, he was a California prison legend who’d escaped more than once and had served 14 years, mostly at Folsom. He learned the Aztec language and taught others so they could communicate in code. He was a master negotiator, an expert on doing time, and had connections with all the racial groups.”


“La Eme formed at D.V.I. — the Deuel Vocational Institution — a California youth prison that housed the state’s most violent teenage inmates,” says Chris Kasparoza. “Legend has it that it was the brainchild of a then 16-year-old Luis ‘Huero Buff’ Flores, who brought together the toughest, smartest, most dangerous members of various Mexican-American street gangs at D.V.I., mostly from the barrios of East Los Angeles, uniting them. It was like a ‘special forces’ of teenage gang members who ruled their youth prison yard.”

It wasn’t long before these first La Eme soldados were transferred to maximum-security adult prisons like San Quentin, with prison officials hoping the transfers would kill the fledging Hispanic gang in the cradle. That didn’t happen. La Eme members recruited even more ruthless and murderous Mexican-American inmates into their ranks, and learned lessons about criminality, organizing, and securing power from people like Morgan.

“The Mexican Mafia did not materialize in the streets, it formed within prison confines, probably out of necessity. Like virtually any other prison gang, these guys needed to stick together to survive and thrive,” says Cipollini. “The idea soon morphed into creating not just a gang, but a super-gang. Eventually that evolution created vast outside connections and reach, but of course that kind of expansion also produced enemies.”

In 1969, at the age of 40, Morgan was sponsored by his friend “Hachet” Mike Ison and joined La Eme, becoming the organization’s first member with non-Mexican blood.

Morgan was given the Aztec name “Cocoliso” and was immediately accepted into the inner circle. Up until that point, he’d been acting in an advisory capacity. Embracing his role as a Mexican Mafia soldier, he proposed operations and began scheming from day one.

“La Eme was founded on the principle that every man is equal and the gang operated on a one-man/one-vote, majority-rules system,” says Al Profit. “Leaving their individual rivalries in the street, the top gangsters merged into a single crew. Joining required a formal sponsorship. A made member had to speak up for the individual being considered for membership and take responsibility for them. La Eme was recruiting gangsters with serious criminal résumés who weren’t afraid to use violence as an intimidation tool.”