Joe Morgan — of the Mexican Mafia

Article by Seth Ferranti

In addition to being fearless, intelligent, and ambitious, Morgan was willing to kill when and wherever for La Eme. In the pen they say, “Boys fight and men kill.” La Eme gained a reputation for killing with abandon. Side by side with all the violence, though, there was an emphasis on mental discipline, thinking ahead, and studying.

Morgan, especially, believed in the benefit of hitting the books. Determined to be the best gangster he could be, he pushed his brothers to read classics like Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to gain insights into maintaining power and battling enemies.

Other books Morgan encouraged La Eme members to read were Grey’s Anatomy, to learn about the body and its vulnerabilities so as to maximize damage in shank attacks, and primers on martial arts and weapons. Morgan wanted to exploit every possible advantage, from knowledge of murder methods to big-picture strategizing, in his quest to make La Eme the dominant gang force in the California prison system and on the streets.

“For a long time, there’d been a close association between the Aryan Brotherhood and the Mexican Mafia because they have the same gang enemy — the Black Guerrilla Family,” Cipollini of Gangland Legends points out. “It was the Mexican Mafia who first challenged the BGF. But La Eme was also battling with another, newer Hispanic gang, Nuestra Familia. About the time that Joe Morgan came on the scene, the BGF and NF formed an alliance. The lines were drawn in the sand. That took things to a whole other level.”

In 1972, there was a bloodbath in the California system. Thirty-six prisoners were killed that year and gang experts believe the Mexican Mafia was responsible for 30 of the killings. Race riots raged at Folsom and San Quentin. There were constant, major conflicts between black and Latino inmates. It was sparked by a La Eme hit put on a BGF soldier at San Quentin. In Chris Blatchford’s The Black Hand, Rene “Boxer” Enriquez says that Morgan was good for at least a dozen murders on his own and had engineered many more.

“All the members were expected to put in work,” says former gang investigator Valdemar. “They called it ‘putting in work’ or ‘wetting your steel.’ When I say work, I mean murder. If you hesitated, you fell from grace. Every one of them put in work and they were reluctant to pass on work to anyone else. The gang was basically a bunch of prolific murderers. Prisoners like Morgan knew the system. He let people like me run the overt system, but he ran the covert. Overtly, they were cooperative with us and knew we controlled the walls, but inwardly, they operated covertly and controlled the inside.

“He was in custody in the L.A. County Jail when I worked there,” Valdemar continues. “Like 1972-73. He was in my module, the high-power module, where all the big people from the Aryan Brotherhood, BGF, Mexican Mafia, and some political guys, like Black Panthers, were. I had direct contact with him on a regular basis. I also ran the law library which inmates were allowed to visit. He was very polite. He would greet me in Spanish. The guys at the top back then, they had a smooth, know-how-to-do-time kind of attitude, but they were dangerous.”

“La Eme seized control of the flow of narcotics into San Quentin,” says Niko Vorobyov, author of Dopeworld, a new book about the international drug trade. (See our interview with Vorobyov starting on page 104.) “And as gangmembers were transferred out, they did the same thing at other prisons. Joe Morgan had La Eme getting protection money from incarcerated Italian Mafia members, along with running all the prison hustles. More importantly, he started laying the foundation for the organization on the outside.”

Beginning in 1971, in another brazen La Eme initiative, recently paroled members of the gang began taking over federally funded drug and alcohol programs in East L.A. barrios, and some community action groups as well. The moves provided income fronts for ex-con gangbangers, always ready to do the gang’s bidding (strict, across-the-board obedience to the directives of La Eme shot callers was and is an ironclad rule, and the punishment for leaving the gang is death), as well as opportunities to siphon off government money. Gang revenue streams were expanding.


Over the years, as Valdemar’s career in law enforcement progressed, Joe Morgan’s name kept popping up in various investigations, but during most of this time, he remained in custody. In other words, Morgan was pulling strings from inside the belly of the beast, issuing directives, cementing La Eme power. This was a gang and a kingpin with reach.