Maria ‘Chata’ Leon, mother of 13 kids, ruled over a criminal empire with connections to a human smuggling ring.

From these headquarters, Maria Leon and her family had turned the neighborhood into a hellhole.

By Christine Pelisek |
Five days after a wild gun battle in Los Angeles that sent school children streaming out of their classrooms, and left a gang member dead in the street, the phone rang at the home of Eduardo Alvarez-Marquez.

The reputed mastermind behind a human smuggling ring, Alvarez-Marquez had brought many unlikely deliveries across the Mexican border, including a three-month-old baby and a truckload of Chinese workers hidden in a freezer truck.

This call, however, was for a “special job.”

Maria “Chata” Leon, the then-44-year-old mother of 13 children, and the much-feared head of a drug-dealing dynasty, was stuck in the border town of Mexicali. It was one of her children, Danny “Clever” Leon, who, wielding an AK-47, had died in the 2008 shoot-out with police, and now she wanted to attend his funeral in the United States.

Eventually, she would get her way—paying respect to her son at the cemetery where Michael Jackson and Walt Disney are also buried—right in front of LAPD gang officers. As politicians on all sides of the political spectrum argue about illegal immigration, an ongoing federal case in Los Angeles, prompted by an earlier investigation into the Leon family’s criminal activities, shows the extent to which some gang members and human smugglers in Southern California have established a parallel—and largely invisible—reality, shifting like shadows across the Mexican border, eluding capture for crimes committed on both sides.

In this world, law enforcement officials say, gang members collaborate closely with human smugglers, and those smuggled across the border, sometimes end up on the streets, trying to pay off their debts to these coyotes by dealing drugs.

Before she got stuck in Mexicali, Maria Leon sat like the queen spider in a web spun across the border from north to south—head of a massive criminal enterprise of drug-dealing and murder, some of it backed by the militant revolutionary group known as the Mexican Mafia, according to investigators.

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