Page last updated at 09:10 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 10:10 UK

Gang turncoat reveals violent secrets

Rene Enriquez is serving a double-life sentence for murder. He was a leader in one of the US's most notorious and violent gangs, the Mexican Mafia. Radio 4's Crossing Continents has been given access to a series of extraordinary audio diaries made by Enriquez from his jail cell in Southern California.

Rene Enriquez
Rene Enriquez is serving a life for double murder
"Once we got into gangs, we understood that the homeboys that got out of prison were well-respected. You go there, and you learn in prison, so we all wanted to go there."

Rene Enriquez got his wish.

"My whole adult life has been a continuous period of incarceration for the past 26 years, with brief periods of parole, which add up to about six months."

Heavily tattooed across his arms, back, stomach and chest, Enriquez looks like a typical LA gang member.

What sets him apart is the black hand tattooed on his chest. It is the symbol of the Mexican Mafia.

"I believe I'm a cut above the rest," says Enriquez proudly.

"As a Mafioso, you have an elitist, arrogant mentality. That's how you carry yourself in the Mexican Mafia. You walk into a room and everybody knows you're a leader."

Evolution of the mafia

Formed in the California prison system in the 1950s, the Mexican Mafia has a reputation for extreme violence.

Enriquez - or "Boxer" as his fellow gang members call him - became known as one of the gang's most unforgiving members.

Enriquez's rise from low-level street hoodlum to major player in the Mexican Mafia came about as his reputation for violence grew.
While doing time in infamous Californian prisons such as San Quentin and Folsom, the young Enriquez impressed mafia bosses.

On their request, he carried out a series of brazen attacks on other inmates, and in 1984, he was secretly inducted into the Mexican Mafia.

During the periods he was released on parole, Rene continued to act as enforcer for the Mexican Mafia, and in 1989 he carried out the execution of a renegade Mafioso.

Rene and fellow inmates
We would all gather around, get our sodas, have our cigarettes, and watch a guy get killed. It was a form of entertainment
Rene Enriquez
Arrested and put on trial, the prosecutor pushed hard for the death sentence, but Enriquez pleaded guilty in exchange for two life sentences.

On becoming a lifer, Enriquez had nothing to lose, he couldn't be punished any more, and certainly wasn't going to change his ways.

"You get strung out violence. You get as addicted to that as anything else. The more notches you have on your belt, the more ferocity people see you as possessing, the greater you become."

Violence was part of daily life in prison for Rene.

"We would all gather around, get our sodas, have our cigarettes, and watch a guy get killed. It was a form of entertainment."

A middle-class Mafioso

Having grown up in a comfortable middle-class home in suburban Los Angeles, Enriquez was never a lead candidate for the position of mafia crime boss.

He showed great promise in high school, but instead of following his father into the family business, Enriquez fell into the local street gang, and explored opportunities for more illicit enterprise.

It was his mixture of intelligence, business sense, and propensity for violence that helped the Mexican Mafia formulate their greatest-ever power move.

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In the early 1990s, the Mexican street gangs in Los Angeles were out of control, with daily drive-by shootings between rival gangs bringing unwanted attention from the city's police.

Heavy police surveillance meant it was nigh on impossible for the gangs to carry on with the lucrative drug trade on which they depended.

The Mexican Mafia infiltrated the street gangs, brought some discipline into the organisations and, crucially, began creaming "taxes" from every Mexican gang in LA.

This generated huge profits for the gang leaders pulling the strings from their prison cells. Cheques and money orders were sent regularly, and Enriquez even began investing in high interest accounts and government bonds.

Growing tired of mob

But this lucrative scheme began to unravel, as greed and paranoia infected the Mexican Mafia leadership, who began to plot against each other. Thye even put hits on their rivals' wives and children - a huge violation of the gang's code.

This erosion of "honour" that had governed the gang had an effect on Enriquez, too, and he began to have doubts about his commitment.

"They call it 'mob fatigue'. Everybody goes through it," he says.

Then in 2003, Enriquez made an off-the-Richter-scale decision which was to leave the Mexican Mafia, the prison authorities, the judiciary, and entire criminal underworld of California absolutely dumb-founded.

Rene Enriquez

He turned informant and decided to confess to everything. Everything he knew about the Mexican Mafia.

Every murder, every drug deal, he decided to go on record and finger everyone he knew.

He confessed every detail on the gang's business links between the prisons and the outside world.

But it wasn't easy.

"After we get done, I get up and it just struck me, you're squealing," Enriquez says.

"I got a lump in my throat, like, you know, I never thought I'd do this."

"I had this surreal experience that I was mourning my own death. That's how I felt. I had depression during the first few weeks, and felt like I was mourning my own death."

Enriquez's confession was a coup for the cops, but it also put him straight to the top of the mafia's hit-list.

Consequently, he was transferred to a prison on the fringe of the Mojave Desert, where there's a special unit for gang dropouts.

Life on the other side

Since his decision to turn informant, Enriquez has struggled with the readjustments he has had to make.

"Sometimes I regret leaving the organisation. It's hard to walk around saying 'Yes sir, no sir'. It's hard not to meet a challenge when somebody calls me out.

"For me to walk around, and bite my tongue and not lash out is difficult. I don't want to bow down to anybody".

Still, Enriquez has been rewarded with a degree of freedom, and is no longer housed in solitary confinement.

He has a few new luxuries in his life, such as a TV and video games.

He even has a new wife - an old girlfriend he reconnected with - and married her while on day-release at the Los Angeles federal courthouse.

Enriquez in leg irons
I'm aware of what I did. I wish I could take it back a thousand times over
Rene Enriquez on his violent past
For the time being, their relationship is largely conducted down a phone line.

While Enriquez holds out that one day he might be given parole, he knows it's hard for anyone to forgive him for his past actions, including his new wife.

"Criminals talk about crimes in off-handed ways that dehumanizes people, and she became angry with me" he says.

Enriquez says she told him "the people you were convicted of killing were somebody's son, or somebody's father, or mother or daughter. You took that person away from them. You had no right to do that".

"That really struck me," he says.

"There's nothing that I could say that can diminish my responsibility for what happened. I'm aware of what I did. I wish I could take it back a thousand times over."

Enriquez says nothing can erase his past, but his credibility with the US government has grown.

Three years after he started working for the cops, he finally cemented his reputation as a co-operating witness and agreed to testify against his former Mexican Mafia associates.

Will this eventually work in his favour? Enriquez tries to remain optimistic.

"For years I've been on this plateau of just this is it for me. And now I have my wife, I've got all these aspirations and I build them up and it's this foreboding feeling of what if they say no?"

"What if they deny me? How is that going to crush me? It would be like starting a whole new life sentence."

Crossing Continents: Confessions of an LA Gangster was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, September 11 at 1102 BST.

This documentary is a co-production between American Public Media and the BBC.

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