Killing for the Cartel

Police believe East LA high-school dropout Jose Saenz has killed a good friend and the mother of his daughter

Killing for the Cartel
Twelve years ago, Jose Saenz was a high-school dropout and run-of-the-mill tagger known on the Eastside of Los Angeles as Smiley, a nod to the way he flashed his trademark brilliant grin. At age 22, he sidled up to two young men peddling dope on North Clarence Street in Boyle Heights, pretending to be friend not foe. When Smiley got really close, he yanked out a hidden gun and killed Josue Hernandez and Leonardo Ponce, two members of the East LA 13 gang.

Worried about a Prizzi’s Honor-style scenario, police believe, Smiley feared that those close to him knew too much about the double murder—honor killings, in his mind, required after his two victims beat up his teenage buddy, Juan Pena. So 11 days after the Clarence Street murders, on a hot August afternoon in 1998, police say, Smiley raped and executed the woman who had intimate knowledge of him: his dark-haired estranged girlfriend, Sigreta Fernandez, 21, mother of his 2-year-old daughter.

He left Fernandez’s ravaged body sprawled in his grandmother’s bedroom in East Los Angeles, with an eerie, apologetic note scrawled on her wall.

Brian Stauffer
Saenz shoots the fallen Oscar Torres in the face at close range in Torres' front yard
Saenz shoots the fallen Oscar Torres in the face at close range in Torres' front yard

For years, nobody has had a death wish strong enough to rat out Smiley for these killings—save for young Juan Pena. Dying several years ago of childhood leukemia, he fingered his blood brother Saenz for the executions on North Clarence Street.

But Smiley, with his intense black eyes and his quick, deviant mind, vanished from the local cops’ radar for 10 years—to Mexico for some of that time, the FBI says, where he morphed from East LA tagger to a connected, Mexican-cartel drug “soldier,” a high-level executioner, and then trafficker, operating on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border.

Long periods of Saenz’s time in Mexico remain a mystery. But U.S. authorities believe Saenz hooked up in Northern Mexico with former Cal State Los Angeles business student Rolando Ontiveros, a nattily dressed former private-school student with a sharp brain who used his college education to ill ends south of the border.

Like Ontiveros, Smiley rose to operate in high-end, international drug-smuggling circles, where million-dollar coke transactions went down. He sometimes used Tijuana bars as a base, crossing to the U.S. regularly with a bogus Mexican passport to do business with dealers in Los Angeles and Orange counties, as well as in other states.

This phenomenon is not confined to the border and big-city gang hubs such as East LA. Last year, Operation Xcellerator—a massive sweep of 755 alleged dealers and other criminals—snagged 13 Orange County residents whom federal officials say were connected to the Sinaloa and other Mexican cartels and were hiding out in Irvine, Fullerton, Garden Grove and Santa Ana. Moreover, narcotics-related seizures of huge amounts of cash have exploded in Orange County, from $12 million between 1999 and 2003 to $60 million between 2003 and 2008. Then, last year, during mass arrests of 300 alleged members and associates of the La Familia cartel by a multi-agency group of law-enforcement agencies nationwide, the cops grabbed four suspected La Familia members in OC.

Bruce Bagley, a cartel expert at the University of Miami, says the “Arellano Felix cartel has been using gangs in Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County” to distribute drugs “at the street level and to mid-level dealers. They are the suppliers. It’s a lucrative trade and they have been recruiting gangs to operate in this fashion for a long time.”

The key operators move easily between Southern California and Mexico, according to Rene Enriquez, a former Mexican Mafia leader, and are principally Mexican-American men drawn from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties.

“It’s like coming to East Los Angeles” when they arrive in Mexico, surrounded by other Southern California Latino gang members and former convicts, many of whom met in California prisons, Enriquez says. “He’s walking right in the loop again, from one geographic location to another. . . . It’s the California gang world in Mexico.”

According to Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective Ron Chavarria, who is investigating the 1998 Clarence Street murders attributed to Smiley, “[Saenz] was pretty much on the run when he left here. He didn’t have a car or anything. Then, years later, he is an established drug dealer.”

In the intervening years, “he did something to get himself to that level. People are deathly afraid of this guy. You mention this guy’s name, and [potential informants] are done. They don’t want to talk about him.”

It is now known that during that “missing” time, Smiley, today 34, partied under the noses of LAPD and city and county police agencies throughout Southern California with his drug-dealer pals, frequenting nice, suburban Long Beach-area bars such as Lakewood’s Elephant Club, Hollywood Boulevard hot spots and other chic Southern California watering holes.

Life was fine. At one point, Smiley was ferried by a chauffeur employed by his gangster buddy Oscar Torres, a Los Angeles Hummer-limo-service owner, and wore upscale clothes, lived as “Sam” in a quiet, suburban equestrian community in Whittier—and sold prodigious quantities of coke to feed Southern California’s habit.

But Torres ended up on his friend Smiley’s execution list in 2008, after a careless screwup that for an average person would have resulted in a traffic ticket.

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