If poverty is the mother of crimes, want of sense is the father. – La Bruyere
I was there when this monster was spawned. The Tortilla Flats Gang was born in Compton, Calif., about 1962. The Mendoza Mexican Tortilleria was on the east side of Willowbrook just off of Oris Street. After church on Sundays the Mendoza brothers (all of them very large and tall) and several of their friends, including my friend and schoolmate Ronnie Gutierrez, hung out outside the store and maybe drank a little beer.
Sometimes they would get out their slingshots (like David used in the Bible, and not the ones made with rubber bands) and launch rocks from the Willowbrook railroad tracks or cherry bombs at the passing freight trains. They could sometimes be a little intimidating, but Joe, the younger Mendoza brother, was also a friend and schoolmate of mine.
The city of Compton already had several African American and Hispanic gangs active in the area. The Compton Farmers, the Swamp Boys, the Slauson Village, and the Businessmen passed occasionally through the small primarily Mexican American Willowbrook neighborhood. The Compton Varrio Tres, Florence 13, Willowbrook Winos, and 155th Street gang were at war most of the time in this tiny corner of Compton. Gang members were killed, drugs were sold, and citizens were robbed or beaten every day, but it never made the paper.
One of the older Mendoza brothers had been reading a book for school by John Steinbeck called "Tortilla Flats." Early one Sunday morning while I was walking to church to serve Mass, I saw along the white wall north of the Mendoza Tortilleria in large black Old English letters the words "TORTILLA FLATS." The group now had a name, but it would earn its reputation later on.
After junior high school, Ronnie Gutierrez, like most of the T-Flats, dropped out of school to be a kind of leader of the gang. The gang continued to grow in numbers and violent reputation in my absence. I was gone into the service and for Vietnam (1966-1969), but in 1970 I joined the Sheriff's Department and returned to Willowbrook as a patrol officer in 1976.
Nobody in that gang today ever read Steinbeck. Like the other surrounding Hispanic gangs they have devolved into violent psychopathic thugs with drug fried brains and no honor or ethics, they victimize their own race, neighborhood, and even their own homeboys.
Chuckie was nine when he ran away from his home in South Gate to hang out with the Compton Tortilla Flats gang. He had been sexually molested by a neighbor after his father abandoned his mother. The T-Flats became his new family. For brothers he chose Midget and Woody, two Veteran members only a few years older than Chuckie. Both had been shot and seriously wounded by rival gangs before Chuckie got there in 1993. For a mentor and father figure he chose Rafael "Crook" Gamboa.
Over the years Chuckie became proficient in fighting, burglary, firearms, and grand theft auto. First his homeboy and adopted brother Woody and then later Midget spent time in the California Youth Authority (CYA) prison systems. This is the gang's higher education system and the T-Flats members were schooled and became loyal Sureños under the leadership of the Mexican Mafia prison gang there. Chuckie too spent years in juvenile camps and CYA facilities hardening his Sureño heart. After being sentenced to life in prison, and being told by the sentencing judge that he should "never be allowed to set foot in free society again," Midget became a Mexican Mafia associate.
In September of 2003, I was called to the LA County Jail by friends of Chuckie, Midget, and Crook. I interviewed Gamboa and learned that in 2002 the Mexican Mafia had dispatched Tortilla Flats member Dennis "Lil' Boxer" Gonzales, who was on the run for an attempted murder in Alhambra, to basically take over Oklahoma City, Okla., for the Mexican Mafia. The Eme had done this before in Albuquerque, N.M., a few years before this.
Plata o Plomo
This is the method of operation. The LA gang members from a particular gang or a coalition of LA-based gangs united under the Sureño or SUR 13 name will move into your town. They will be well financed and seemingly have an endless supply of drugs (speed or cocaine). A group of them will approach the local drug dealers and "make them an offer they can't refuse" to either sell the gang's discounted dope or be killed.
This is the old Mexican choice: "Plata o Plomo" (silver or lead). Greed and fear sway most to the Sureños' side. The few that resist are soon murdered. They also approach the local gangs and initiate them under the Sureño reglas or rules. In Oklahoma City this was the South Side Trese gang. South Side is another way of saying SUR and Trese is the number 13. The number 13 represents the 13th letter of the alphabet, "M" for Mexican Mafia. The T-Flats also utilized local women tattooing them with "LA" on their ankles even though they were not from Los Angeles.
Crook's job was to secure large quantities of drugs and drive them from California to Oklahoma City. The last shipment was 10 pounds of high-grade methamphetamine called "glass" or "ice" and 100 pounds of marijuana. Crook recruited more T-Flats (CVTF) and Compton Varrio 70s (CV70) members for muscle. His adopted "son" Chuckie arrived looking to "put in work" for the Sureños. They approached the local gang members that had relatives and homeboys in the prison system and began recruiting for the Mexican Mafia. Lil' Boxer Gonzales also supplied the local Mongol outlaw motorcycle gang with their dope.
Lil' Boxer Gonzales provided the T-Flats gang members with a hit list of local dealers and gang members that would not pay or resisted in some way his control. Some were Hispanic and one was an African American. But one was different; the target was in LA, and he was an LAPD police officer.
I later learned that this "green light" to hit a cop was for LAPD Officer Adrian Chin who had been involved in a shooting incident in Los Angeles in February of 2000 in which Compton Tortilla Flats gang member Oscar "Ghost" Figueroa was shot and killed. I made the notifications and warned Officer Chin personally.
The Tide Turns
Things were going great. Except for the few holdouts, the Sureños ruled Oklahoma City's gang underworld. Little Chuckie volunteered to be part of a team to hit the home of a local gang member and drug dealer who owed Lil' Boxer drug money. Crook Gamboa claimed that he had tried to stop Chuckie from being involved in the incident but failed. Crook did not trust Lil' Boxer and he felt that something was wrong.
At 19 years old little Chuckie was killed in the house of the local drug dealer. The OK City drug dealer was dead also, but rumors began that Crook and Chuckie's crime partner Clumsy had betrayed and killed their own homeboy.
After Chuckie's funeral in Palmdale, Calif., Gamboa was arrested for parole violation. He was very remorseful, and under religious conviction. This was not a false sorrow of someone who was caught. I believe he truly felt guilty for introducing that 9-year-old runaway to the Compton Tortilla Flats gangster life, and later to his homeboys Woody, Midget, and Lil' Boxer. Gamboa felt terrible that people were saying that he killed Chuckie, and yet he really felt that he had helped to kill him in another way.
Midget's life was over, condemned to solitary confinement in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) forever; Chuckie's life was over, as he lay in an unmarked grave forever; and Gamboa's life was over also, unable to return to his home and gang for fear they would murder him.
Rafael "Crook" Gamboa agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Attorneys Office in Oklahoma City, and testify against the Mexican Mafia and the gang he loved so much. I traveled to Oklahoma City to assist in obtaining Gamboa's cooperation and to try to explain the significance of his information on this huge conspiracy case. I don't think they really got it.
In the August 28, 2006 press release the U.S. Attorney said; "Cooperating defendants, witnesses, and confidential informants all provided information that led to surveillance, arrests, search warrants, and the seizure of significant quantities of crystal methamphetamine and cocaine. Investigators were able to document the importation of additional quantities of crystal methamphetamine and cocaine into Oklahoma prior to the investigation. The organization was held accountable for a total of 42 lbs. of crystal methamphetamine, conservatively estimated to have a "street" value of over $3.8 Million and 5 ½ lbs. of cocaine, conservatively estimated to have a "street" value of over $515,000. IRS investigators documented Western Union wire transfers totaling over $244,000 in drug proceeds between Oklahoma City, California, and Florida."
Rafael Gamboa was promised consideration. But he was a stranger in a strange land, and he became distrustful of the Federal and local officials after they "mistakenly" placed him with the gang suspects that he testified against on more than one occasion. He was stabbed and beaten by the bad guys and given more than 20 years in prison by the "good guys."