SACRAMENTO, Calif. - California parole officials have approved the release of a notorious former Mexican Mafia prison gang leader who has been cooperating with law enforcement for nearly 20 years.
Two consecutive governors previously blocked parole for Rene "Boxer" Enriquez in part based on the argument that he is safer in prison than on the streets, where he may be targeted as a snitch by his old cronies.
"They can’t deny him parole based on, ‘He might be in danger.’ That’s kind of his risk to take," his attorney, Laura Sheppard, said Tuesday.
Authorities have taken extraordinary steps to protect him over the years, once booking him into custody under a false name on a bogus charge of possessing a swordfish without a license.
In 2015, the Los Angeles Police Department used SWAT officers and a police helicopter to secure a downtown building so Enriquez could speak to a group of police chiefs and business leaders about the gang’s growth and operations. Just last week, prison officials refused to provide his current photograph, citing security concerns.
"With his knowledge of the mafia, it’s his belief that if he stays out of their way ... that he’ll be fine," Sheppard said. "He doesn’t believe they’re going to chase him down like you see in the movies, hunt him throughout the world."
Yet Enriquez plans to keep cooperating with federal authorities as they are again prosecuting the leadership of the prison-based gang that began in the 1950s in a juvenile jail and has since grown into an international criminal organization.
"It’s how he makes amends," Sheppard said. "He’s probably prevented more crimes than he was ever involved in."
He has been in prison since 1993, serving a life sentence for two second-degree murders, multiple assaults and drug trafficking conspiracy.
Enriquez joined the Mexican Mafia — nicknamed the Black Hand or "La Eme," its Spanish language initial — in 1985 while serving an earlier prison stint for rape and armed robbery, according to parole records. He spent nearly the next two decades building a reputation within the gang through murder, drug-running and terror, both in and out of prison.
Gov. Gavin Newsom turned over the final decision on the fate of Enriquez, now age 60, to a hearing by a 12-member panel of the 21-member parole board.
Rene Enriquez, former member of the Mexican Mafia, laughs during conversation at the State Prison in Lancaster on 04/05/2005. He is serving life for two murders committed while he was part of the Mexican Mafia. He had said that he wasn't anti-social
He cited in part the "unique security threats." Enriquez has revealed "the inner workings of large-scale gang associations, and informed on individual gang members. He testified for the prosecution in numerous cases," Newsom wrote.
Officials including a retired assistant director for the California prison system told the parole panel during a hearing Monday that Enriquez is a changed man who will continue contributing to law enforcement’s battle against the gang.
"I’ve seen the worst of the worst and I know that he has definitely changed his world," said retired San Diego Police detective and gang expert Felix Aguirre.
But relatives and friends of Cynthia Figueroa Gavaldon lined up to argue that he is still dangerous and they fear for their safety upon his release. She was a 27-year-old mother of two young children when Enriquez ordered her killed on Christmas Eve 1989.
Enriquez "has nothing to offer the community. All he ever has known and touched has died," said her father, Raymond Figueroa, referring to Enriquez as a "monster."
He had two gang associates, including Figueroa’s daughter, killed for violations such as stealing drugs and money. In the second case, he and an accomplice first forcibly overdosed their victim with heroin before driving him to a remote area where Enriquez fatally shot him.
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He and another man also stabbed Mexican Mafia leader Salvador "Mon" Buenrostro 26 times with inmate-made weapons in 1991 in an interview room in the Los Angeles County Jail, though Buenrostro survived.
Enriquez has said he quit the gang in 2002 when he discovered its members were killing children and innocent relatives of gang members who fell into disfavor. He has said that he would have help from a witness protection program if he is released.
And over the years, Enriquez has had dozens letters of support for his parole from the FBI, local law enforcement officials, multiple state and federal prosecutors, and a deputy state attorney general.
Newsom previously blocked Enriquez’s parole twice, in 2019 and 2020, and then-Governor Jerry Brown blocked it three times, in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
"He personally molded and shaped the Mexican Mafia’s expectations of its members and expanded the gang’s reach outside the prison," Brown wrote in 2016. He said that included pioneering the gang’s control of a vast network of drug dealers and gang members outside the prison walls.
Newsom this time said he was leaving a decision to the parole board because of its "unique procedural and appellate history" and "other unusually complex factors." He asked parole officials to consider both Enriquez’s "particularly violent criminal history and his singular rehabilitative record."
A Los Angeles County judge overturned Newsom’s 2020 parole reversal in August, saying the governor hadn’t shown proof that Enriquez is still dangerous. The Second District Court of Appeal had blocked Enriquez’s release while it considers Newsom’s appeal.
Sheppard said she hopes the appeals court still rules on the case, even with Enriquez paroled, to set a legal precedent that "the governor can’t just make a decision based on speculation and historical issues."
Commissioners late Monday separately ordered new parole hearings for two inmates of some renown.
Donald Bohana, 85, is serving a life sentence for the 1994 murder of Delores "Dee Dee" Jackson. She is the ex-wife of Tito Jackson, a member of the Jackson 5 musical group.
Curtis "Wall Street" Carroll, 43, is serving a life term for a robbery-murder in 1996, when he was 17. He helped start a financial literacy program in San Quentin State Prison where he, other inmates and volunteers taught money management. He gave a TEDx talk in 2016 that has more than 4.1 million views.
Both men were denied parole in March, Carroll for the first time and Bohana for the sixth time.