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Murder Sheds Light on L.A. County Jail's Vast Black Market

The boss of one of the most intricate and lucrative black market businesses in Los Angeles County, the jails themselves, was stabbed to death two weeks ago in the state prison from which he ran his business 400 miles away, the Los Angeles Times reports. Michael Torres, 59, who was serving a prison term of 133 years to life for attempted murder, conspiracy and witness tampering, likely fell victim to a battle for control within the Mexican Mafia gang as new players muscle in on the trade in drugs and extorted commissary items in the county jails. Torres did not create this economy, but interviews, testimony, records and wiretapped calls make clear that he refined it, ratcheting up the amounts of money that can be wrung from an imprisoned and largely poor customer base. Along with his monthly collections from San Fernando Valley gangs, Torres invested the money in legitimate businesses, creating a web of influence and wealth that emanated from one man, making phone call after phone call from his prison cell.

By driving out competitors and by the addictive nature of drugs, the Mexican Mafia can inflate the price of its most lucrative product without losing customers. A gram of heroin that costs $50 on the street sells for 20 times that in jail. The result is a circulation of a relatively small amount of drugs — a trade not of kilos but of “papers,” minuscule smears of heroin — that nets big profits. Torres saw the jails were a place where people who owed money or cooperated with the police would eventually end up. Behind bars, debts could be collected, discipline meted out, perjury suborned. The Mexican Mafia has two main schemes in the jails: the “kitty” and a drug tax. The kitty is a pot of snacks, clothing, and hygiene items collected from Latino inmates, who must contribute whenever they make a purchase at the commissary. The kitty is then sold within the jail, creating a secondary, cheaper market for commissary goods. The other racket is a tax on drug sales, chiefly heroin. When Torres first took over the jails 20 years ago, an inmate predicted his ambition would one day get him killed. “They step on each other’s face to get to the top,” he told detectives.


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