Author and reporter Sam Quinones has a fascinating long-form piece in this month’s L.A. Magazine which he calls “the product of a decade of waiting.” Quinones tells the story of Arlene Rodriguez, the first female shot caller for the Florencia 13 gang, and a well-known member of the community who served in the Navy and worked as a real-estate agent. Eventually, as things got too heated in the streets, she fled to the East Coast and lived under a different name, starting a completely different chapter in her life.
Quinones’ story is complex and multi-layered, but essentially traces the rise of the Mexican Mafia and the relationship between Arlene Rodriguez and imprisoned gang leader Arturo “Tablas” Castellanos. The turning point in Arlene’s life was when she drove 14 hours to the maximum security Pelican Bay prison to complain about the local F-13 llavero (key-holder or local leader) that was causing problems in her neighborhood, violating terms of the gang truce brokered by the Mexican Mafia. Castellanos’ surprising response was to put Arlene in charge.
Then she began getting calls: drug dealers inviting her to lunch to talk, a bar owner asking her to do something about the homies fighting in his place, guys saying they were owed $10,000 and if she collected, they could pay half. It seemed like everyone wanted to take her out for a drink. She changed her number, but the calls kept coming. The owners of casitas—unlicensed after-hours houses that offered gambling, drugs, and alcohol—called about gangsters taxing and robbing them. “I was trying to sell real estate, but my sales went down due to the stress of what was happening. It was living in a shark tank,” she says.
A llavero’s job, she discovered, was like babysitting or social work: taking care of the world’s messy details. “Everybody’s denying that they’re doing any illegal sales or taxing,” she recalls. “Everybody has bills to pay. Somebody in the streets disrespected so-and-so, and he wants permission to do this or that. Every day someone from other barrios would try to come tax a bar in the district.” She had a mini stroke that left her face briefly paralyzed.
What happened next has to be read to be believed, including an appearance before a congressional health-care subcommittee chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders, a new identity, a political conversion and a return to Los Angeles. You can read the whole story here.