LOS ANGELES — Sonia "Shorty" Apodaca entered the federal courtroom Tuesday afternoon with her shiny, jet-black hair hanging loose over her green prison Windbreaker. A thick chain hung from her waist. The 44-year-old mother of four looked nervous, with her eyes flashing wide and her brow furrowed.
Apodaca faces life in prison if found guilty of being part of a transcontinental criminal conspiracy to increase a Mexican drug cartel's narcotics trafficking in the United States. On Tuesday, Apodaca was in court to ask for bail before she stands trial.
But federal prosecutors say that she's too dangerous to be released on bond. Apodaca was one of nine people named in a federal indictment made public last week that outlined an alliance between the Mexican Mafia, a notorious 200-person prison gang largely comprising incarcerated senior members of Hispanic street gangs, and La Familia Michoacana, a Mexican drug cartel known for beheading and dismembering their enemies.
Apodaca, federal prosecutors charge, served as a "secretary" to the Mexican Mafia, a "highly trusted" records keeper who was the "mouthpiece" in communications between incarcerated leaders of the Mexican Mafia and cartel members about a joint venture to distribute hundreds of kilos of methamphetamine across the country. Unbeknownst to the cartel, one of those members was a government informant.
Along with her eight other co-defendants, Apodaca currently faces seven felony counts of attempting to distribute over 100 kilograms of meth and marijuana, and she faces a minimum of 20 years in prison. Her defense attorney claims she was just a "telephone."
In January 2011, the Mexican Mafia decided to expand its drug trafficking operations by working with La Familia Michoacana, a drug cartel with vast distribution networks of meth and marijuana in the United States. It called this joint venture "The Project."
The Mexican Mafia would grant La Familia "free reign" to sell meth and marijuana in the neighborhoods the Mexican Mafia controlled through unincarcerated gang associates. The Mexican Mafia would also provide protection and drug debt-collecting services on behalf of La Familia. In exchange, the indictment alleges, La Familia would provide thousands of dollars in drug proceeds reaped from neighborhood transactions, and as much meth and marijuana (at a discounted price) as the Mexican Mafia wanted.
But an immediate problem needed fixing if The Project were to succeed: How would the incarcerated leadership of the Mexican Mafia communicate with the drug-lord associates in Mexico?
That's where Apodaca — a civilian with a friendly relationship to Jose "Fox" Rodriguez-Landa, a 49-year-old Mexican national and alleged Mexican Mafia member already incarcerated in a Los Angeles County jail — came in. The indictment alleges that Apodaca was hired and paid by the Mexican Mafia to arrange phone calls, meetings, and money transactions with members of La Familia Michoacana.
The first bit of business Apodaca did for the Mexican Mafia was to set up a phone call between Landa and La Familia representative Freddie Montes. The phone call took place in February 2011. Apodaca told Landa she was seated next to Montes. Landa's directives about The Project were issued through Apodaca.
On April 19, 2011, Apocada allegedly facilitated a coded phone conversation among an incarcerated member of the Mexican Mafia named Raymond Lozano, an unincarcerated member of the Mexican Mafia named Michael "Boo" Moreno, and another cartel member — who nobody but the government knew was working as an informant. Speaking through Apodaca, Lozano told Moreno that he did not like the informant being a part of The Project.
Every time the Mexican Mafia takes on a wide-ranging operation such as The Project, they use a new rubric of code words. For instance, when there were suspicions about the informant, he was called a "leg-liker." According to prosecutors, Apodaca knew all the code words.
In September 2011, Apodaca allegedly conducted a phone call with an unindicted "co-conspirator" from the cartel and Landa. They coordinated a meth deal where some proceeds would go to Landa. Two weeks later, Apodaca called the unidentified cartel member and told him that she had deposited $1,000 from the drug transaction into Lanza's jailhouse account.
In January 2012, the indictment alleges that Apodaca met with the cartel informant, saying she works for Lanza. The informant showed Apodaca money orders from cash deposits into the accounts of incarcerated Mexican Mafia members, and she agreed to pass the information on to Lanza.
When Apodaca appeared in federal court Tuesday to plead for bond, her efforts were thwarted by evidence found inside her purse the day of her arrest. U.S. Attorney E. Martin Estrada presented a contraband prison letter, known as a "kite," found inside her purse to prove that she was more than a minor player in the gang's operations. The kite, Estrada argued, served as a decoder for slang used in drug transactions conducted on behalf of the Mexican Mafia with members of La Familia.
According to the kite, a "green card" is code for one ounce of meth. "Little Rascals" means half an ounce of meth, while "The Three Stooges" is an eight ball of meth. A "pink envelope" refers to a box cutter. One "Selma Hayek" equals $100, and a "Kate Upton" is a cell phone.
"The Mexican Mafia needs people on the outside to conduct business and pass information," Estrada argued in court. Estrada alleged that Apodaca was instrumental in setting up drug transactions between prisoners and the drug cartel, keeping records of those transactions, and transmitting messages between parties.
Apodaca's possession of the kite proves, Estrada said, that she is a "highly trusted" conduit for the Mexican Mafia, serving as a "mouthpiece" for a 200-member prison gang "that wields immense power in federal prisons." Estrada added, "She is a dangerous threat to the community."
Apodaca's attorney argued that his client was simply a messenger between two powerful groups, with no decision-making power or opinions on any transactions. "What you have is a minor player who facilitates calls between inmates and people," he said, further arguing that Apodaca is worthy of bond since she has three children under the age of 13 and a sick mother to take care of.
Judge Estrada denied the request for bond, saying that Apodaca's possession of the kite meant she's an "essential" player in the conspiracy and her knowledge of the Mexican Mafia's inner workings and coded language makes her a "danger" who must be kept in detention.
Here is the status of the other defendants charged in the federal indictment.
Jose Rodriguez-Landa, also known as "Fox" and "Fox Tapia," 49, of Michoacán, an alleged Mexican Mafia member currently in custody in a Los Angeles County jail.
Michael Moreno, aka "Boo," 55, of Fresno, an alleged member of the Mexican Mafia, arrested on Aug. 6.
Freddie Montes, 44, of Castaic, an alleged member of La Familia, arrested on Aug. 6.
Fred Anthony Montoya, aka "Fast Freddy," 46, of Antioch, California, an alleged Mexican Mafia member who is currently in custody in a California state prison.
Luis Gerardo Vega, aka "Little" and "Little One," 30, of the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles, an alleged Mexican Mafia member who is currently in custody in a Los Angeles County jail.
Manuel Larry Jackson, aka "Cricket," 49, of Monterey Park, an alleged Mexican Mafia member, arrested Aug. 6.
Jimmy Ruben Soto, aka "Rube" and "Old Man," 77, of Visalia, an alleged member of the Mexican Mafia, who was arrested Aug 6.
Raymond Lozano, 36, of San Diego, an alleged Mexican Mafia associate who is currently incarcerated in a federal prison.
Claudia Garcia, aka "Giggles," 42, of the Gramercy Park district of Los Angeles, an alleged associate of the Mexican Mafia, who was arrested Aug. 6.