PHOTOGRAPH: Mural – “In Memory of a VNE Homeboy”
(NOTE: For an AUDIO VERSION of this story, Click onto the following link …. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1zAh2qrIqfgbXcypM-Pc9A)
This episode will touch on one of the longer standing Sureño street gangs and its 50-year association with the Mexican Mafia. Similar to the dysfunctional relationship between two lovers, one can begin to envision the up-and-down roller coaster ride La EME historically goes through with the gangs they interact with.
VNE stands for the Varrio Nuevo Estrada Courts housing projects located in the Boyle Heights district of East Los Angeles not far from Our Lady of Resurrection and the old Sears building on Olympic and Soto streets. VNE came into existence almost 80 years ago, sometime in the 1940’s, and is famous for its painted murals which adorn the housing projects’ walls and once appeared during the opening credits of an old sitcom Chico and the Man. Interstate 5, also known as the Santa Ana Freeway, is one of the physical geographical boundaries separating VNE from White Fence, their one-time mortal enemy.
The first wave of Mexican Mafia members from VNE included several who possessed the pedigree for Mexican Mafia membership. Eddie “Sailor Boy” Gonzalez and Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza were the first to solidly represent VNE. Mundo was convicted in 1969 for the machete slaying of a rival gang member from White Fence. In those days, the vast majority of EME’s members existed inside the California state prison system and their street activities did not seriously kick in until the mid-1970’s. In those days, before you could become a Carnal, your sponsor would circulate your name to every state prison where EME existed, back then it was San Quentin and Folsom, and a vote was requested. You had three types of votes to give – yes, no, or defer to the sponsor, which was the same as a “yes” vote. If you did not know the member being sponsored, members back then would vote to “defer to the sponsor.” One “no” vote from any member for any reason would automatically end membership consideration. It had to be unanimous.
After being made, Mundo and Sailor were almost welded at the hip and they conducted themselves without blemish performing multiple stabbings and assaults at every prison facility where they did time. Mundo was personally responsible for a half dozen prison murders and was a co-conspirator in over a dozen other EME related hits on the inside. In 1973, the first prison internal execution took place at Folsom Prison where EME member Thomas “Elmo” Duran, from the VNE street gang, was stabbed to death by fellow Carnal Armando “Mandi” Varela for not taking care of EME business. As a result of Elmo’s death, VNE members Artie Duran, “Rufas” Peña, “Desi” Gonzales, and Ronnie Salazar, like dominoes falling, dropped out of the EME organization, leaving Mundo and Sailor as the remaining VNE representatives in the EME.
In July and August of 1975 Mundo and Sailor were paroled from San Quentin and received the “red carpet” treatment in the VNE Projects. They immediately installed drug dealers who exclusively sold the Mexican Mafia’s heroin as they took over the gang territories of VNE, White Fence, El Hoyo Soto and the surrounding gang areas of East L.A. They became a lethal force on the outside and were directly involved in dozens of street executions working with the Hit Team created and led by Mundo. On October 9, 1975, a heavy number of L.A. Sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers blocked the Lake Hughes Road section of Interstate 5 where Mundo and Sailor were taken into custody as they returned from Bakersfield where they had executed two rival gang members.
After more than a year in the Kern County Jail, the murder charges were dismissed, both men were discharged from state parole, and they became free men. What happened next was totally unexpected. While housed in the county jail, Mundo became a born-again Christian and made a decision to work as an embedded informant with the Prison Gang Task Force. After his release, Sailor’s home was raided and Task Force and local authorities arrested him on weapons and drug charges. Unaware his former partner in crime had already turned and while housed in the LAPD Glass House (also known as Parker Center), Sailor also decided to “roll” against his EME Carnales.
What Mundo and Sailor helped assemble – the beginning of the EME dynasty on the streets of L.A. – they effectively assisted in dismantling, at least for a while. Their combined intelligence debriefings lasted many months as investigators from multiple counties solved several cases from Los Angeles to Sacramento. They were primarily responsible for the removal from society of the highest placed EME members, some who would never again see the outside.
For approximately a decade, there was a vacuum in the gang areas once controlled by Mundo and Sailor and independent drug dealers freely operated until the Pepsi Generation, a newer and younger wave of EME shot callers, emerged. For many years, the mere mention of VNE generated mixed revues from the gang underworld and sour memories from Mexican Mafia. The roller coaster ride with VNE would continue as the love-hate relationship with a VNE partner who once produced solid members that went bad, once again returned to the EME fold.
For several years Ernest “Chuco” Castro atoned for the sins and betrayals of Mundo and Sailor by once again placing VNE on the Mexican Mafia map. Chuco evolved into one of La EME’s foremost leaders who, like Mundo and Sailor in the distant past, ruled with an iron fist in Boyle Heights. Chuco was highly respected by street and prison gangsters and his EME Carnales likewise held him in high esteem, especially the newer generation. After his 1993 arrest for possessing several illegal weapons, Chuco agreed to work undercover and assisted in setting up video and audio taped surveillance of Mexican Mafia meetings. Chuco later testified in a 1997 RICO case in which several defendants were convicted and received life sentences.
After Chuco Castro’s defection, Mariano “Chuy” Martinez carried the VNE torch and became a heavy mover and shaker on the outside. Feared and respected like his predecessors, he inherited and ran many street territories until he was indicted and convicted of RICO racketeering charges and sentenced to life plus 100 years in federal prison where he joined dozens of his fellow EME Carnales. Chuy was true to the underworld code to the very end. On June 14, 2014, Chuy died in a federal prison hospital of a liver related disease. Only Chuy and the Lord really know the final destination of his eternal soul.
While conducting business on the streets Chuy developed a fellow VNE gang member named Max “Mono” Torvisco, his right hand man. Mono was responsible for collecting all street gang taxes on the east side, south side and portions of the west side including MS-13. Because of newly-developed Mexican Mafia views discouraging its members from sponsoring fellow homeboys, Frank “Sapo” Fernandez, a “made” EME member from Pacoima and a Chuy ally, raised his hand and sponsored Mono for membership in 1998.
Mono had never done prison time and in the Mexican Mafia’s history only one other Carnal had ever been recruited who had not served prison time. In 1999, RICO indictments were handed down against a multitude of EME members and associates, including Chuy and Mono. Both were facing the federal death penalty, a punishment that had not been used in almost half a century. It came as a shock for Chuy to learn of the defection of his protégé Mono Torvisco. Mono’s testimony was powerful and instrumental in the conviction of Chuy and many other co-defendants.
Jimmy “Smokey” Sanchez and Eduardo “Dead Eye” Castro were two other VNE representatives to be recruited into the Mexican Mafia fraternity. Like Chuy, Smokey served La EME faithfully inside the California prison system and on the outside. He too was charged under RICO federal statutes, convicted in 1999 and received a life sentence. Like Chuy, his VNE homeboy, Smokey passed away in a federal prison hospital. Like many EME members before and after him, he was a victim of The Dragon, a popular term used to describe heroin, the ever consuming devourer of men.
From those generations of VNE Mexican Mafia Carnales, only Eduardo “Dead Eye” Castro, who ironically happens to be Chuco Castro’s brother, remains alive and functioning as an active EME member. Will Dead Eye remain true or will he take the roller coaster ride like Mundo, Sailor, and Chuco, men who were one-time poster boys for the Mexican Mafia, who served Satan well and were once on the road to destruction. Will Dead Eye someday decide to join the human race or will he ride off blindly into the sunset to meet his eternal master?
There is a famous neighborhood mural, untouched by street gang graffiti that stands today in the VNE housing projects. It is called, In Memory of a Home Boy. A 32 by 42-foot acrylic on stucco, it was created in 1973 by artist Daniel Martinez. Many believe it was a commemorative piece in honor of VNE member Thomas “Elmo” Duran, the EME member killed in February of 1973 in Folsom. Others in the Projects say it represents every fallen VNE homeboy who has “served” the neighborhood and died in the course of “barrio duty.”
For those of you in the Projects who believe in the gang life – death by overdose or liver related diseases, destruction at the murderous hands of street and prison gang heroes, or lifetime incarceration in prison – look into the eyes of your young ones, whether they be siblings, sons or daughters, and your grandchildren too. Tell yourself honestly this is the life you wish for them.
God bless you and God bless our young ones.
“There is a way that appears right, but in the end it leads to death.” Proverbs 14:12
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