Joe Morgan was born April 10, 1929, to Croatian immigrants in San Pedro, California. Shortly after, he and his mother moved to the Maravilla Projects in East Los Angeles, and in the late 1930s he joined Ford Maravilla — a Chicano (Mexican American) street gang, and one of the oldest documented gangs in Los Angeles.

‘held at the Los Angeles County Jail’

When Morgan was 16 he became romantically involved with a 32-year-old woman. Even at a young age he had a thirst for blood, and he demonstrated this when he beat the woman’s husband to death with a tire iron and buried him in a shallow grave in the Malibu hills. He was eventually caught, and although a minor, he was held at the Los Angeles County Jail. While awaiting trial, however, the criminally crafty Morgan posed as his cellmate, who was awaiting transfer to a juvenile facility, and escaped. He was recaptured shortly after, convicted of second-degree murder and sent to San Quentin State Prison, where he served 9 years.

…began referring to Morgan as “Pegleg,”

Morgan paroled in 1955, but just a year later he robbed a West Covina bank using a machine gun. He made off with $17,000, but was ultimately caught and sent back to prison. According to Mexican-Mafia-member-turned-FBI-snitch, Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, Morgan was shot in the leg during the robbery, which caused him to lose his leg. (William Dunn, police officer and writer, says Morgan was shot in the leg while hiding from law enforcement for murder.) Prison officials began referring to Morgan as “Pegleg,” though nobody called him this to his face, and he certainly didn’t let something as “minor” as the loss of a leg slow him down: “He was the one-legged man that you hear about in the ass-kicking contest,” says Richard Valdemar, a retired 33-year Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department veteran gang investigator. “He was a champion on the prison handball courts. He was physically fit and very able to move around and fight.”

…The Mexican Mafia, transferred a number of the young Eme members to San Quentin State Prison…

In 1957, at Dual Vocational Institution (DVI), a California Youth Authority that is now an adult prison in Tracy, California, a group of young Chicano street-gang members came together to create The Mexican Mafia, or “La Eme” as it’s often called — a gang of gangs — as a way to protect themselves from prison predators and other gangs, such as the Blue Birds — the original members of the Aryan Brotherhood (AB). By 1961, however, according to famed crime reporter Chris Blatchford, administrators at DVI, alarmed by the escalating violence committed by The Mexican Mafia, transferred a number of the young Eme members to San Quentin State Prison in hopes of discouraging their behavior by intermingling them with the older, more seasoned convicts. However, it backfired. According to legend, Rodolpho “Cheyenne” Cadena, one of the young Eme members transferred to San Quentin, who was already in prison for stabbing someone to death, was met be a six-foot-five, 300-pound black prisoner who kissed him on the face and declared that the scrawny 18-year-old would be his “bitch.” A short time later, Cheyenne returned with a shank (a prison-made knife), walked up to the unsuspecting predator, and brutally stabbed him to death in front of more than a thousand inmates on the yard, all of who refused to step forward as witnesses. This not only got the Mafia an enormous amount of respect on the yard, it solidified the wise-beyond-his-years Cheyenne as a fearless leader of the gang.

Also, in 1961, Morgan was transferred from Folsom State Prison to the Los Angeles County Jail so he could testify on behalf of another prisoner. However, this was just a guise so the criminal mastermind could escape. He ended up leading eleven other inmates through a pipe shaft, reportedly using hacksaw blades he hid in his prosthesis. The escape was the largest break in Los Angeles County Jail history and featured on the front page of The L.A. Times. Morgan was caught a week later, however, while shopping for groceries, but not without bolstering his legend as a certified criminal mastermind.

… many claimed Morgan as one of the founders of La Eme…

Upon Morgan’s recapture, he was sent to San Quentin. Already from a Varrio (Chicano street gang) and running with Chicanos, Morgan began running with members of La Eme, becoming best friends with their leader, Cheyenne. With Cheyenne’s reputation built on blood, and Morgan’s also built on blood (having already done time for murder and suspected of having committed others), along with jail breaks, their friendship seemed a perfect match. Morgan, 14 years older and a more experienced criminal than Cheyenne, became his criminal mentor. Morgan helped him build upon the newly-formed Mafia. Because of this, many claimed Morgan as one of the founders of La Eme, but others say he wasn’t one of the founders, though he was a major part of its architecture and organizing.

“As far as we were concerned, he was Mexican,”…

“Joe wasn’t an official member until 1972, after Cheyenne was killed. Don’t get me wrong, he was one of the fellas and highly respected, but he wasn’t officially brought in until after Cheyenne was killed, because originally you had to be of Mexican decent to a member,” says Danny “Pache” Nava, a former member of La Eme who was brought in in 1977 by first-generation member Abraham Hernandez and Robert “Robot” Salas. “After Cheyenne was killed, though, they wanted Joe to officially take the chair since he had the majority of connections anyway, and that’s when he was formally inducted.” “As far as we were concerned, he was Mexican,” says former Mexican Mafia hitman Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza. “If anybody ever called him a ‘white boy,’ I have no doubt he would have killed them. He knew what he was as far as his genes were concerned. But his heart was Chicano.” Morgan spoke fluent Spanish, studied Mexican and Aztec history, and taught himself how to speak Nahuatl, an ancient Aztec dialect.

Morgan, known for his skin-shaved head, wooden leg, dark piercing eyes and appetite for blood, led the Mafia along with Cheyenne to prominence in the California prison system by terrorizing unorganized ethnic groups, primarily other Mexicans and Chicanos, and gaining control over things such as drug sales, porn, extortion, prostitution and even murder for hire.

…claiming them to be just a bunch of “farmeros” – farmers.

As the Mafia’s power increased, the gang spread like wildfire throughout California prisons. They became a major power player in the proverbial “game” of prison. Eventually, however, like oftentimes when people acquire an enormous amount of power, an abuse of such power can follow, and Chicano prisoners who were not affiliated, and therefore open to prey by The Mexican Mafia, became fed-up with members of La Eme bullying them, stealing their valuables, and sometimes even stabbing and killing them. As a result, in the mid-60s, a group of them in Soledad State Prison secretly came together to form their own gang, which they called “Nuestra Familia,” — Spanish for “Our Family.” Many of the early members of Nuestra Familia (NF) were from southern California, but they soon began to attract Chicanos from northern California, who the Mafia treated as inferior, claiming them to be just a bunch of “farmeros” — farmers. Tension arose, eventually boiling over in 1968 when Robert “Robot” Salas, an Eme member from East L.A., “stole” a pair of shoes from a “northern” Chicano. This kicked off a riot in which 19 prisoners were stabbed and one Eme associate murdered, and from this point on, the NF was established as a major rival of The Mexican Mafia.

He was extremely business savvy and charismatic.

Morgan continued to expand La Eme, creating alliances with other crime syndicates like the Aryan Brotherhood, Mexican drug cartel members who were incarcerated in California, and even the Italian Mafia that was operating in Los Angeles. He was extremely business savvy and charismatic. “His ability to forge relationships with the Italian Mafia, the Aryan Brotherhood and Mexican drug cartels was due to his people skills,” says Rodrigo Ribera D’Ebre, author of Urban Politics: The Political Culture of Sur 13 Gangs. “Joe Morgan was known to be a leader.”

“With his savvy, his manipulative skills, his intelligence, his charisma and his knack for being profitable, he could easily have been the president of a major corporation,” says Mendoza. But while there was a side to Morgan that was humane and personable, Mendoza says “Part of him was cruel and coldblooded.”

He did his share of killing.

“Joe Morgan had two personalities,” says Valdemar. “One level-headed and diplomatic who intended to do business the right way, but if you crossed The Mexican Mafia, he’d be the first to go to war. He did his share of killing. When he killed he became a different person. He was very, very violent when he wanted to be and participated in plenty of stabbings. It’s not like he was the financial arm, or the diplomatic arm, he was just a good soldier for The Mexican Mafia. Just as violent as any of the other gang members.”

“Buy our dope and pay us a tax or die,”…

When Morgan got out of prison in the late 60s, early 70s, he did so with the objective of taking the gang to new heights. He didn’t only want to control prison, he wanted to control all of Los Angeles, starting with East L.A. He began taxing Chicano street gangs. If they wanted to sell dope, they had to buy it from La Eme; if they wanted to engage in other profitable crimes, they’d have to kick a portion of the profits to the Mafia. Failure to do so and they’d face the gang’s wrath when they went to prison –where they’d surely end up eventually. Morgan sent this message clearly: “Buy our dope and pay us a tax or die,” explains. “You hear about the Italian mob sometimes breaking your leg or intimidating you or threatening you, but The Mexican Mafia guys just kill you. There were all these deaths that were occurring on the streets in the 70s and that was The Mexican Mafia taking over the drug industry in East L.A. and the surrounding areas.” Morgan used the underworld network he built to further the Mafia’s agenda: He outsourced Mafia murders to the bloodthirsty Aryan Brotherhood; he used his Mexican drug cartel contacts to smuggle kilos of heroin and cocaine into Los Angeles; and he collaborated with the Italians on white-collar crimes, and by supplying them with drugs from his Mexican contacts.

In 1971, Morgan committed the first prison-gang street execution in Los Angeles when Eme member Alphonso “Pachie” Alvarez began collecting taxes from street gangs without kicking up a share of the profits to Mafia members behind bars. Morgan shot him twice in the head; his body was later found in a secluded area in Monterey Park.

One theory is that the Eme only wanted to sabotage the peace talk…

Meanwhile, in prison, Cheyenne, who was active in Latino political organizations like the Brown Berets, had a vision of statewide dominance, both in prison and out, and wanted to unite La Eme with the Nuestra Familia. This was reportedly looked down upon by Morgan and other members of the Mafia, and this is where a couple conspiracy theories take place. In December of 1972, Cheyenne arranged to be transferred to Chino State Prison for a peace discussion with NF member Death Row Joe Gonzalez. Reportedly, in an effort to sabotage the mission, Eme leaders had two NF members killed, essentially ending any possibility of peace. In response to the two NF members being killed, on December 17, the NF stabbed Cheyenne over 50 times, beat him with a pipe, threw him over the third tier onto the concrete floor, then ran down and stabbed him several more times. One theory is that the Eme only wanted to sabotage the peace talk, unaware that Cheyenne would still be put in a position to be harmed. Another theory is that the Eme had turned their back on Cheyenne and knew they were putting him position to be killed. Those who believe La Eme had not turned their backs on Cheyenne, however, point out that as a result of his murder, La Eme put a “kill on sight” order on all members of the NF, and in just the first year after the murder, 31 prisoners were killed in a tit-for-tat war.

What actually happened regarding the murder of Cheyenne, we may never truly know. What we do know, however, is that Morgan became the official Godfather of The Mexican Mafia from this point forward, until he died.

In 1977, Morgan was convicted or trying to arrange the murder of a Seal Beach drug dealer for failing to pay the Mafia money. Unaware that Eme member Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza had turned on him, he asked Mendoza to commit the murder, supplying him with a picture of the intended target, a house key, and a .45 caliber pistol inside a brown paper bag. Mendoza testified against Morgan and Morgan received a life sentence.

In December of 1989, California opened the doors to the notorious Pelican Bay State Prison which contained a new, state-of-the-art lockdown “Security Housing Unit,” or “SHU” (pronounced “shoe”) as it’s often called, where California would send its high-profile, prison gang members, including Morgan. Morgan continued to manage The Mexican Mafia from his prison cell in Pelican Bay, despite being locked down 23 hours a day and having virtually no physical contact with other humans.

In the movie, members of the Mafia killed Santana very similar to the way Cheyenne was killed by the Nuestra Familia in real life.

In 1992, Morgan and other members of The Mexican Mafia, including Cheyenne, were cast into the public eye with the release of actor-and-producer Edward James Olmos’s movie American Me, which was fictional, but based on actual events. Morgan and other members of the Mafia were outraged by the movie, especially by the portrayal of Cheyenne, who was called “Santana” in the movie, and played by Olmos himself. In the movie, Santana was sodomized by a white inmate, who he immediately retaliated against by killing (probably inspired by the story of Cheyenne being kissed by the black inmate who he later came back and stabbed to death), and also because, in the movie, Santana was killed by members of La Eme after falling out of favor with them (probably inspired by the theory Morgan and the Eme had set Cheyenne up to be murdered by the NF). In the movie, members of the Mafia killed Santana very similar to the way Cheyenne was killed by the Nuestra Familia in real life.

As a result of American Me, Morgan ordered the murders of three past and present Mafia members and associates who served as consultants for Olmos and movie producers.

Charles “Charlie Brown” Manriquez, a member of La Eme, was murdered in an L.A. housing project in March, 1992, less than two weeks after the film premiered. In May, Aria Lizarraga, known as “The Gang Lady,” who played a grandmother in the movie and used to run drugs for La Eme, was shot to death right in front of her own home. And a little over a year later, Eme member Manual “Rocky” Luna was murdered. Olmos received several death threats, and was so worried that he contacted the FBI and even went into hiding for a period of time.

It’s been reported that Olmos offered Morgan’s wife $5,000 as a settlement, but that she refused it.

Morgan filed a lawsuit against Olmos and movie producers for $500,000 for basing one of the characters (“JD,” played by actor William Forsythe) on his life without his permission. It’s been reported that Olmos offered Morgan’s wife $5,000 as a settlement, but that she refused it. Olmos also reportedly requested to speak with Morgan, but Morgan refused to speak with him. The suit was ultimately dismissed, but it’s said that Olmos had been “greenlighted,” meaning placed on The Mexican Mafia’s hit list. Some say, however, that Olmos ultimately paid the Mafia a large sum of money to remove the greenlight, arguing as proof that he is still alive today.

In 1993, Morgan became ill, and on October 4, he was transferred from Pelican Bay to the hospital ward in Corcoran State Prison, where, on October 27, he was diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. Conspiracy theorists argue that Morgan was poisoned by prison authorities because he’d become too powerful. Morgan ultimately died on November 9, 1993, at the age of 64.

Morgan’s legacy lives on today as “one of the best who’s ever done it.” “When you were in Joe’s presence, you could feel it. You could tell he possessed not one false molecule,” says Nava. “Joe even had politicians in pocket. We maintained it for as long as we could, and we did well, but things were never the same after Joe died,” he adds.

Even Mendoza, the turncoat who put Morgan away for life was impacted by Morgan’s death. “When I heard that Joe died, I felt a small twang of guilt,” he says. “I didn’t really want to give him up. He had an option of choosing a different path. But he made his commitment and he took it to the grave.”

“He had his own sense of honor, whether you agreed with it or not, and he lived by it,” says DEA agent Joe Moody, who headed the state prison gang task force in the mid-1970s. “It would be nothing you’d want to hand down to your children. But in his world, he walked above a lot of people.”

Mike Enemigo is America’s #1 incarcerated author, with over 25 books published, and many more on the way. He specializes in writing about prison, street crime, and how-to info for prisoners. His book Loyalty & Betrayal: My War with The Mexican Mafia, with Armando “Chunky” Ibarra is available now. For more info on Mike end his books, visit, where you can follow his blog, on IG @mikeenemigo, or by sending a SASE to The Cell Block; PO Box 1025; Rancho Cordova, CA 95741.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]