JACKI LYDEN, host:
At the peak of his power, Rene Enriquez could order murders and conjure elaborate drug deals from an 8-by-10-foot cell inside one of the country's highest-security prisons. He was a leader of the Mexican Mafia, a brutal gang based in California's prisons that exerts a powerful influence on the streets. Then Enriquez defected, and now he's a government witness.
Yesterday on this show, we charted the rise of Rene Enriquez and his decision to turn against the Mexican Mafia.
Today, Michael Montgomery of American RadioWorks explores Enriquez's new life: working for the government, newly married, and still behind bars.
MICHAEL MONTGOMERY: Last year in a jail cell in California, Rene Enriquez began recording his world as a gang leader turned government witness.
(Soundbite of audio recording)
Mr. RENE ENRIQUEZ (Former Leader, Mexican Mafia): Okay, today's date is 2-12-07. I'm in my cell with my cellee, Eric(ph). That's all I'll identify him by. We're just testing this right now and this is a little toy we got, a digital recorder. It's kind of funny being taped, huh?
ERIC (Cellmate): Hell yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTGOMERY: Enriquez is serving two 20-to-life sentences for murder. We agreed not to reveal the location in Los Angeles where Enriquez is being held, but it's unlike any prison he's ever been in.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: It's kind of like we're buried. We're subterranean.
MONTGOMERY: Enriquez was transferred here several years ago from state prison after dropping out of the Mexican Mafia, a powerful criminal gang active in more than a dozen states. He joined the ranks of convicted criminals who agree to provide information against their former peers. Cooperating with the government has its perks - like video games and a razor to shave with. But it means living a secret life.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: The only time that we have any environmental stimulation is when we go for a ride like under the United States Attorney's Office, doctors' appointments, and then we go under the escort of the United States Marshal; special escort. I go under special escort with SWAT team members due to security breaches or security concerns.
MONTGOMERY: For his security, Enriquez now depends on his former enemies: law enforcement agents like Jeff Bosket.
Detective JEFF BOSKET (L.A. Sheriff's Department): Almost everybody I work with always say that you have to really be careful. You know, this guy's a huge Mafioso, you know, he's killed, you know, people, he's had people killed, I mean, you know, all the stigma, you know, imaginations that you have from the Mexican Mafia.
MONTGOMERY: Bosket is an L.A. Sheriff's Department detective and Enriquez's chief handler. That means he coordinates assignments with various law enforcement agencies, and he acts informally as a sort of guardian, counselor, and therapist rolled into one.
Det. BOSKET: When I first learned about Rene, they had said that he had been passed through numerous law enforcement agencies. Numerous cops have worked with him, taken, you know, extrapolated information from him and then basically done the, you know, what Rene says hump and dump. You know, they get the information from him and then just leave him and don't give him anything. When I first met Rene, I told him that he doesn't know me and I don't know him, so all I have to give you is my word as a man and then we'll just see what works out from there.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: For the most part, we sit back and we play video games and we watch TV, work out. We do our visits and, you know, we see our handlers - handle the assignments they give us, do trial preparation, review transcripts, review audio tapes. It's kind of like a job, really.
MONTGOMERY: Enriquez is using his insider's knowledge of the Mexican mafia to help several large investigations into surging gang violence in the L.A. area. He decodes gang members' conversations from surveillance tapes and he helps identify suspects in photographs.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: You want some, some pictures, some of the heavies?
MONTGOMERY: Bosket and other agents meet with Enriquez in the jail's interview or I-room.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: I know this guy is dead; Junico(ph). That's my crime partner, Benjamin Peters. He's dead now, too. Oh, Rock-on Louie(ph), he's dead now. Tati's(ph) dead too, they killed him up in Florence. I know a bunch of these guys.
MONTGOMERY: Convicted criminals like Enriquez who cooperate often do so in the hope that it will improve their chances for freedom. But it's a vexing path. For one, law enforcement agents and prosecutors are limited in what, if anything, they can offer in exchange for information.
Richard Valdemar is a retired L.A. sheriff's sergeant who spent years trying to bust Enriquez. He says cooperation requires a leap of faith for both sides.
Mr. RICHARD VALDEMAR (Retired Sergeant, L.A. County Sheriff's Department): We have this strange and very strained negotiation about, I have to trust you as a bad guy and you have to trust me as a law enforcement person, which goes against both of our, you know, whole personas. But we have to establish some kind of trust there, and frankly, it's not easy to trust the FBI or the U.S. attorney. I don't trust them.
MONTGOMERY: Trusting the cops is only one of Enriquez's challenges. As a gang turncoat, he struggles with the stigma of being branded a snitch. And he has to resist daily temptations like drugs, which seem to be everywhere. Enriquez has already had one major backslide. Soon after dropping out, he was back on heroin and dealing drugs with other gang dropouts in state prison. That's where he met Jeff Bosket.
Det. BOSKET: And when I first saw Rene, I saw, you know, the addict in him and that he was absolutely clearly not clean. That was a fear for me when I first met him because if you're going to work with me, then I've got to know that you're 100 percent honest, clean and true to both me and yourself because otherwise it's just not going to work.
MONTGOMERY: Enriquez went clean. But drugs aren't the only temptation. Through glass doors in the front of his cell, Enriquez watches a procession of ordinary prisoners: street drunks, prostitutes and illegal immigrants. As a former mob leader, they get on his nerves.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: There's a guy over here standing at his door. He's right across from us. He's bothering the hell out of me. Every time we'd get up, every time we'd eat, he's at the door staring at us. It's bothersome to be stared at for long periods of time. You want to - it makes you want to react. It's hard for me. Before, these small slights, they would be dealt with immediately. Immediate reprisals, boom, without hesitation.
Now, an individual is on the tier that is drunk and pops off at the mouth, I look at them and in the back of my head, I think, I could hurt this guy, but I'm just a regular Joe now. I can't do that anymore.
MONTGOMERY: Working with the cops can bring benefits beyond a more comfortable cell. On occasion, agents pull favors for their informants, as they did for Enriquez.
One morning the inmate put on a suit and tie for the first time since his murder trial 18 years ago. Then heavily armed U.S. Marshals put cuffs and chains on Enriquez and drove him to a federal court building in downtown Los Angeles.
(Soundbite of singing)
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: And you're a beautiful bride.
MONTGOMERY: Enriquez was getting married to an old friend. He reconnected with her after his transfer to the L.A. jail.
Father GREGORY BOYLE: How do you feel?
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: How do I feel? Elated. I mean I think how I feel is ineffable. I feel like this is where I'm supposed to be at this moment in life. I am happy.
Fr. BOYLE: You have come together so that the Lord may seal and strengthen your love...
MONTGOMERY: Marrying the two was Father Gregory Boyle. Boyle is a prominent Catholic priest in Los Angeles. Years ago, Enriquez tried to con Father Boyle. Now, the two talk about the power of redemption through good works.
Fr. BOYLE: I believe so strongly in the sense of somebody redeeming themselves and being able to say, you know, I was this - there's a certain amount of disavowal of my past, you know, a rejection of what I was - thought was important before. And here's a way of marking a change that says, you know, I want to move on, I want to start another chapter.
MONTGOMERY: Enriquez's wife asked that we not use her name or voice out of safety concerns. But she told us she believes her husband has changed and expects to share a life with him outside prison. They see each other several times a week, but they aren't allowed conjugal visits. Enriquez credits his long talks with his wife for changing the way he sees things. In his diary, he recalls an argument they had when he referred to a person he killed, another gang member, as a nobody.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: Criminals talk about crimes. They do it in offhanded ways. This way that dehumanizes people, and she became angry with me. She said, Rene, you impacted so many people. You know, the people that you're convicted of killing were somebody's son, or somebody's father, or somebody's mother, or somebody's daughter, or their friend, their brother or sister, you know, and you took that person away from them. You had no right to do that. And it really struck me. There's nothing that I could say that can diminish my responsibility for what happened. I'm aware of what I did. I wish that I could take it back a thousand times over.
MONTGOMERY: Enriquez tries not to look back, but to focus on his new life. His credibility with the government has grown. He sees more of the outside world now, though he's always in chains.
Unidentified Man #1: Can we take our seats please?
Unidentified Man #2: I did.
MONTGOMERY: Enriquez finds himself speaking to large gatherings of law enforcement agents like this one in a high-security government building.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: As you all know, my name is Rene Enriquez. Excuse me, I have to straighten out these leg irons. My name is Rene Enriquez. I was a Mexican Mafia member for 17 years and I became part of the upper echelon of that organization.
I have a currency that nobody has. I have knowledge about the Mexican Mafia that the public's never heard. They've never heard it expressed the way I can express it. I lived it.
MONTGOMERY: Three years after he started working for the government, Rene Enriquez finally faced the challenge every gang witness dreads: testifying in open court. The case was a large federal trial of Mexican Mafia associates in San Diego. Detective Jeff Bosket says Enriquez entered the courtroom wearing a prison jumpsuit, but he carried himself like a business executive.
Det. BOSKET: And when Rene took the stand and talked about exactly what the Mexican Mafia does and what their abilities are, the jury went to the prosecution and to the judge with great fears of retaliation thinking that if they can do this, they can get at us too.
MONTGOMERY: Bosket says the jurors weren't afraid of Enriquez, but they were disturbed by the brutal world he described. All seven defendants were found guilty. They were sentenced earlier this year to life terms in federal prison. Enriquez says his work against the Mexican Mafia has damaged the group, though not fatally. And a host of law enforcement officers say Enriquez should be rewarded for his efforts. Since he's serving two 20-to-life sentences, he could have a shot at parole.
Richard Valdemar is one of Enriquez's supporters.
Mr. VALDEMAR: It's the classic battle between good and evil. Rene was an agent for evil and a very good one in a very powerful and violent organization. When he became disillusioned with that organization, we were obliged to do everything we can to help him come out of that. And, you know, that can only help us and society in general. And he shouldn't be punished for that. He should be rewarded for that.
MONTGOMERY: But should that reward be freedom? Frank Johnson isn't sure. Johnson prosecuted Enriquez for murder years ago. He's now a judge. He still remembers how the grandfather of one of Enriquez's murder victims came to court every day.
Judge FRANK JOHNSON (Los Angeles): I don't know if you can ever earn your way back from a double murder. And those are just the only two murders I know about. I just don't know if you can ever climb out of that hole. And I don't know how you test someone's sincerity when they come back from such a bad place.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: Every man is more than the worst thing he's ever done. There has to be something more than the worst thing you've ever done; that doesn't define every person. I think really I'm a man in his nascency. I'm learning how to become a man again, because I've never really learned that aspect of life. I've always been incarcerated.
MONTGOMERY: From his jail cell, Enriquez engages in an almost daily mental exercise. Weighing his past deeds - his murders, assaults and drug dealing -against his prospects for the future. He says his work for the government has boosted his hopes. But he concedes his chances for release are still slim.
Mr. ENRIQUEZ: I had this nice little file here of documents. They're all laudatory in nature. These are the things that I've done since my defection. Laudatory documentation from the highest levels of the Department of Corrections, from law enforcement agencies, from my participation of their training videos. But this is one little file. Consider the volume - the sheer volume of documents that are adverse, that they have in my central file. Consider my whole life in the Mexican Mafia. This only tips the scale a little bit. That other weight - the weight of my other file, my criminal file, is so huge that this is nothing here. This is nothing. These are just pages.
MONTGOMERY: Rene Enriquez is still cooperating with several law enforcement agencies from a secret location in Southern California. When that work is done, Enriquez's handlers say he might get transferred to federal prison. It's safer there, and he could stand a better chance for release. He continues to tell his story to juries. And a 300-page biography of Enriquez is due out this fall.
For NPR News and American RadioWorks, I'm Michael Montgomery.
LYDEN: You can hear the first part of Michael Montgomery's series, plus a video of Rene Enriquez talking about life in the Mexican Mafia, on our website at npr.org. Michael's stories came to us from American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media.
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