The Queen of Florencia

A mother of four, Arlene Rodriguez lived a double life as the first female shot caller for the Florencia 13 gang and a real estate agent

When Irene Rodriguez died last year at 72 of complications from Parkinson’s, Calvary Mortuary in East Los Angeles filled with mourners. A video screen showed photos of her beaming at various ages, for Irene was a woman who made her house a center of family and community life in the Florence-Firestone district of L.A. County. She and her husband, Raymond, a factory foreman in City of Industry, raised three daughters there, and as Irene’s siblings fell into drugs and gang life, she raised two of her nieces and a nephew as well.

One of those nieces sat in the second row of the chapel during the service. Dark-skinned with dark eyes, Arlene Rodriguez is an effervescent 45-year-old, yet she can quickly revert to double negatives and the finger-wagging “bitch, please…” swagger of the Florence streets where she grew up. Wearing a low-cut black dress that revealed a scar not far from her heart, she nodded to cousins, nieces, and ex-uncles, pointing out those who were down for the hood back when things were raging in Florencia 13, the dominant street gang in the area. Several of the men at the funeral had been to prison; a few women had husbands who were still locked up. Some people kept their distance from Arlene. Others approached to say hello. “My friends, they care about the person I am, not about the rumors,” she said to me quietly. “They’ve matured. They’ve moved out of that street thinking and barrio code of ethics.”

Arlene Rodriguez

Photo by Shayan Asgharnia

She’d joined Florencia 13 at age ten, and though she was never far from it, she tried to move on. By 2006, the thirtysomething mother of four sons had become a real estate agent. Houses in the area were going for hundreds of thousands of dollars. FOR SALE signs bearing her photo went up all over the place. Business was good. Then Arlene Rodriguez was appointed by the Mexican Mafia prison gang to run Florencia 13. The gang’s first and only female shot caller, she reigned as Queen of the Barrio, managing both her real estate business and the gang’s tax-collection efforts on behalf of the Mexican Mafia. When hood gossip turned against her, Arlene fled to the East Coast with a new identity, a new life. To the surprise of everyone, though, she came home.

TO TRACE RODRIGUEZ’S story, the best place to start may be in the early 1900s, when Florence Avenue was taking shape. Four freeways eventually crossed the thoroughfare, which had become an artery through South-Central Los Angeles, a sprawling black neighborhood by the 1960s. Heading east, the street cut through white enclaves—Huntington Park, Cudahy, Bell, Bell Gardens, and Downey—formed decades earlier by white migrants from the Midwest and South who found work at the dozens of unionized factories. Diners, car washes, and dentist offices that dotted the street, there to serve people optimistic about life now that they had good jobs and sunny winters.

Through the 1980s, all that changed. The high-wage factories had left, taking with them virtually all of the whites and many of the blacks. In their places—coming from the Mexican states of Michoacan, Jalisco, Sinaloa, and Zacatecas—large families of immigrants jammed into the small houses, working two or three jobs per household. “This train-track neighborhood where nothing was thriving, which was nothing but beat-up warehouses, all of a sudden it took off,” Arlene told me when we spoke outside of her aunt’s funeral. “The paisas [Mexicans] started coming in, bringing in the drug money, and people started opening businesses.” The businesses that once dotted the streets gave way to taco stands, rim and muffler shops, iglesias evangélicas, and money-wiring places. By the early 1990s, a mosaic of Florencia 13 cliques was replacing most of the once-powerful East Coast Crip cliques in the Crip world east of the 110 freeway.

Born in 1971, Arlene grew up watching the area’s transformation. Her parents separated before she was born, but in a way the divisions that split the family still haunt Arlene today. Her mother’s side of the family had been in California for several generations—Arlene’s grandmother was evicted in handcuffs from Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium—and was well-known in the unincorporated neighborhood that emerged around Florence Avenue and Firestone Boulevard. In the 1970s, several of Arlene’s uncles gravitated to the Florencia gang for protection from the black gangs that were powerful at the time. One uncle was said to have been a major drug trafficker in Huntington Park. Her mother, meanwhile, struggled to hold her life together, working at a bar and remarrying.

Her father’s side of the family was different. The Rodriguezes were from Mexico. They all had visas, and many ran their own small businesses; an aunt owned a Downey beauty salon where pop singer Karen Carpenter would get her nails done. They taught Arlene to aspire to be something more than a hood rat. But she says her stepmother didn’t want her around. So the girl was shuttled between family members who would have her. She watched The Brady Bunch and yearned for that kind of family—warm, polite, cheerful. If Florencia 13 streets ran in her veins, the world of white people, of comfort and respectability, tantalized her.

When she graduated from Huntington Park High School in 1988, Arlene, like so many of her friends, had a kid. But while other girls opted to go on welfare or sell drugs to make ends meet, she left her son with a cousin and joined the navy to forge a future for herself and her child. During Operation Desert Storm, she served as a cook on the USS Shenandoah, helping feed 1,200 sailors a day. She was the ship’s only Latina, and when her service was up in 1992, Arlene promptly joined her son back in the neighborhood she knew best.

Rodriguez grew up eating at Avila’s El Ranchito in Huntington Park

PHOTO BY SHAYAN ASGHARNIA

By then Florencia 13 had bulged to include three dozen cliques—roughly 2,000 members in all—and joined 18th Street and the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha as some of Southern California’s largest Latino gangs. Made up now mostly of immigrants or children of immigrants, F13 had connections to Mexico that allowed it to develop relationships with Sinaloan and Tijuana drug traffickers that many other gangs could not. Arlene partied in Tijuana and Mexicali. Membership in Florencia was, she says, “like having a huge family with enormous sprouts to every part of Mexico.” As gang violence spread across Southern California, drive-by shootings became a constant. Then came the Peace Treaty.

FEW EVENTS CHANGED Southern California Latino street gangs like the Peace Treaty, which was brokered in 1992 by the Mexican Mafia. La Eme (Spanish for the letter m) formed in 1957, when prison inmates from various Southern California Latino gangs joined forces to defend themselves. As more and more Latinos swore allegiance to La Eme, the organization grew to dominate prison yards.

In the 1990s, a younger generation of Eme members looked to extend their power beyond those yards; they saw the money black gangs were making from the crack trade and viewed the tens of thousands of Southern California Latino gang members as potential employees.

So Eme representatives organized large-scale meetings of gangsters, many of them mortal enemies, across the region and laid down new laws: no drive-by shootings, no more Latino gang feuds—a peace treaty among barrios. Gangs were to begin taxing neighborhood drug dealers, and each gang would answer to an Eme member or risk the Mexican Mafia’s wrath, whether on the street or in prison.

The tax system remains in place today, as dozens of federal indictments make clear, and amounts to the only region-wide organized-crime syndicate in Southern California history. It also created a new job: the llavero, or key holder to the neighborhood. As the street-side emissary of the incarcerated Eme member, the llavero decided who would be taxed and then distribute the proceeds according to Eme edict. Though often inept and low-rent, the system transformed scruffy barrio cliques into bands of revenue-generating soldiers accustomed to taking orders from outsiders. Most added “13” to their names to show allegiance to La Eme, m being the 13th letter of the alphabet. Gangs became hives of gossip—about who was in, who had stolen money, who was taxing in the name of La Eme, who was “no good” and “had to go.” Lives were ended, crime waves were created, and city budgets drained as agencies fought the side effects of the taxation system.

Arlene Rodriguez was nine when Arturo “Tablas” Castellanos was sent to prison for murder. She knew him from his days on the streets. Like everybody else, he called her “Raisin,” owing to her dark skin, and he acted as her protector. Once he even took her to buy candy at the store. Sentenced to life, Castellanos ultimately wound up at maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison in Northern California, where he took the reins of Florencia 13.

Photo Courtesy of California Department of Corrections

Castellanos showed himself to be a gang modernizer, apparently seeing in Florence an enormous business opportunity that was being squandered in petty bickering, lack of discipline and order, and tit-for-tat gang feuds. “He was the godfather of that neighborhood,” says Peter Hernandez, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “He controlled individuals who had never seen him, people who didn’t know anything about him—the [gang’s] up-and-coming teenagers and twenty-somethings. These folks knew they would eventually go to prison and that this mythic figure would control how they survived prison.”

Prosecutors contended that to issue orders, Castellanos (he did not respond to my letter requesting an interview) sent “kites”—tiny missives written in microscript and typically smuggled out in the rectum of a paroling inmate or in the binder of a cooperative attorney. Among other things, Castellanos was said to have used the kites to promulgate rules—reglas—as to how the gang should behave. When reglas attributed to him were seized in a 2004 raid on the home of a Florencia 13 member, they became fodder for a federal RICO indictment of 102 Florencianos, one of the largest racketeering cases of its kind in L.A. history. “At the street gang level you had never seen articles of incorporation being let out onto the street,” says Hernandez, who worked on the case, which went to trial in 2008.

Castellanos allegedly instructed F13 members to tax Mexican drug dealers as well as prostitutes and the miqueros—vendors of phony ID cards—on Pacific Avenue. Forty percent of the money should go to the collecting crews; 20 percent, to women in the gang to pay for post-office boxes, cellphones, and other expenses; 40 percent, to three incarcerated Eme members from Florencia, including Castellanos.

The kites also directed Florencia to unite against the “Cripos”—the East Coast Crips. What supposedly prompted the order was a tale on the street that Crips had stolen a load of Castellanos’s dope. The story stands among the great urban legends of L.A.’s gang world. One version even has it that the real thieves were Florencia and 38th Street gang members, who painted their faces black as a disguise. Whatever the truth, Castellanos’s order kicked off a war with black gangs in 2004.

Latino gangs had been attacking blacks for years outside of Florencia turf, in a swath of Southern California that stretched from Ontario to Azusa and Harbor Gateway to Pacoima, transforming those gangs into Southern California’s most prolific hate criminals. And, as with other Latino gangs, Florencia members interpreted the new rule to mean they should shoot any black man, not just gang members. It got to the point where black men could not step outside without looking both ways for young Latino men with shaved heads. At the 2008 trial, a defendant is heard on a tapped cellphone saying he was traveling the streets, looking for blacks to shoot. “Somebody got to be a victim around [here],” he says. Murders in the unincorporated Florence-Firestone area, which had a population of around 60,000, skyrocketed to 41 in the year the order was issued.

How far the decree was intended to go is unclear, but a gang member testified that the idea was “to blast at them…to go shoot them. Take over, block by block. Take them out of our neighborhood.” A black drug dealer testified that he remembered “a time when East Coast and F13s drunk a beer together.” The kites put an end to those days.

THE SAME YEAR that authorities discovered Castellanos’s alleged kites, Arlene got her realtor’s license and began racking up sales. Folks from the hood were cashing in and moving out. Arlene moved to Whittier, where others from Florence were relocating, to raise the three other boys she’d given birth to since 1987. But she kept selling in her old stomping grounds. Things took a turn, though, when a man I’ll call “Oso,” or bear, (to protect his identity) arrived in Florence. One Florenciano later testified about going to two meetings where a well-known associate introduced Oso and told the gangsters that Oso was going to be calling the shots, based on Castellanos’s orders. A U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent testified that she concluded from cellphone wiretaps that Oso was there “to run the neighborhood,” and Arlene told me the same thing: “[Oso] was the shot caller for Tablas.” He had grown up in the area and got to know Castellanos in Pelican Bay. Prosecutors would allege that Oso ran Florencia 13’s affairs from a local storefront. To law enforcement, using a businessman like Oso seemed part of Castellanos’s plan to slap a modern face on Florencia 13.

According to the Florenciano’s testimony, Oso laid out the new rules at those meetings. Among them, each Florenciano would be given drugs to sell; each clique had to collect $300 in tax revenue a month from every dealer in its area. Arlene didn’t like Oso. To her, his first offense was that he began to tax the gang members who had grown up in the hood. That was against the Peace Treaty. He was taxing their girlfriends, too, who were selling weed to support their children. Worst of all, he was taxing the fruit, flower, and Popsicle pushcart vendors. She felt that taxing was supposed to be limited to Mexican dealers operating in the area. Moreover, his tax collectors were said to have raped a couple of girls. “What’s wrong with you? Smoke this motherfucker,” Arlene began telling the homies from the Jokers, a Florencia clique. But nobody wanted to touch a llavero.

When Oso taxed her, too, Arlene refused. So, according to her, he green-lighted a hit on Arlene. (His lawyer said Oso had no comment for this story.) She spoke with Oso’s assistant, reminded him of who she was: Raisin. Arlene. Tablas was her protector growing up. One afternoon, she says, Oso and two of his guys met her at a Chuck E. Cheese’s in Lynwood. Arlene brought two of her young sons as a cover. “I’m taxing everybody,” she remembers him saying. “You’re from Florence; you buy weed in the hood, you got to pitch in.”

“I’m not giving you a dollar,” she told him. “I’m going to the Bay.”

So it was that on the Friday before Labor Day 2006, Arlene piled her aunt, mother, and two youngest sons into the car and drove 14 hours to Pelican Bay. She hadn’t seen Castellanos for decades. He was in good shape—rare for an inmate in solitary confinement for so long. Through the thick glass and plastic phones, they talked haltingly about the old neighborhood. He remembered their trip to get candy. They were a long way from that now. Oso may have been sent to straighten out the hood, she told him, but he’d let his title go to his head. He was trying to tax people who weren’t supposed to be taxed, including her, a legit real estate agent. She claimed that gang members weren’t passing the money from taxes up the chain either. “It’s really bad,” she told him. “Your boy’s causing a lot of drama.”

Castellanos seemed surprised. She returned to the prison the next two days to continue the conversation. “I’m going to need you to come back here in two weeks as I do my investigation,” she says he told her. “Meantime, can you pick up the money? Fire anybody you want. [Oso’s] benched. You’re in charge.” A llavera? Arlene had never heard of a female shot caller. Castellanos likely saw in her everything the typical llavero was not. Llaveros were usually parolees or criminals with drug addictions. She had a real job, with no drug problem and not much of a criminal record (Arlene was convicted of smuggling marijuana from Mexico in 1999).

“OK,” she said, not knowing what other answer would work, and that afternoon, as she steered her car south, she wondered what she had gotten into. One week later, she says, Castellanos wrote a kite to a connected friend of hers: Arlene’s in charge now, it read.

“Damn!” said the friend. “A female.”

Then she began getting calls: drug dealers inviting her to lunch to talk, a bar owner asking her to do something about the homies fighting in his place, guys saying they were owed $10,000 and if she collected, they could pay half. It seemed like everyone wanted to take her out for a drink. She changed her number, but the calls kept coming. The owners of casitas—unlicensed after-hours houses that offered gambling, drugs, and alcohol—called about gangsters taxing and robbing them. “I was trying to sell real estate, but my sales went down due to the stress of what was happening. It was living in a shark tank,” she says.

A llavero’s job, she discovered, was like babysitting or social work: taking care of the world’s messy details. “Everybody’s denying that they’re doing any illegal sales or taxing,” she recalls. “Everybody has bills to pay. Somebody in the streets disrespected so-and-so, and he wants permission to do this or that. Every day someone from other barrios would try to come tax a bar in the district.” She had a mini stroke that left her face briefly paralyzed.

Still, Arlene seemed to take to the job, which combined her street smarts and business acumen. She said she put an end to the taxing of OGs, street vendors, and hookers. “The big drug dealers who lived in Downey—I didn’t let them get taxed because I knew I was going to need them someday,” she tells me. “I didn’t know how, but I knew I was in an environment where they were important.” Instead, she says, she focused on the smaller-time drug dealers in the Florence-Firestone area, tapping a friend named Marcos Lopez as her crew chief. She says she also called on Jesus Cervantes, a childhood friend known as “B-Bad,” to help out. Soon they had a crew of five guys collecting taxes from dealers in Florencia territory.

Arlene isn’t forthcoming about how entangled she got. “I was told [by Castellanos] not to get involved in any illegal activity,” she says when I ask, though of course shaking down dealers for taxes is illegal. “He wanted me to be the one to make the rational decisions. He didn’t want direct contact with any of the guys on the street. He wanted to make sure that the fools in the hood never took control again.” She wasn’t afraid to get tough. When a Florenciano called “Bluebird” started using her name without permission to collect taxes from dealers and vendors of phony ID and Social Security cards, Arlene sent Marcos and B-Bad to talk to him. They found Bluebird walking his little white dog, Rocky. Instead of threatening him with a beating, she told Marcos to take Rocky. “Now he’s crying,” she recalls. “ ‘How can I get my dog back?’ I said, ‘Pay $2,500, and you can have the dog back.’ Within 15 minutes he called, and he had the money.”

For close to two years (law enforcement officials say somewhat less), Arlene Rodriguez was La Jefa in the hood where she grew up. She drank cognac and received the VIP treatment at El Parral, a nightclub in South Gate. Before the building was razed and replaced with an elementary school, city officials viewed El Parral as a curse: Like other small bars and clubs in the district, it was a suspected conduit for the drug trade. Traffickers, trafficker wannabes, and Florencianos gathered there, served by waiters who were often coke and meth dealers. Legendary norteño accordionist Ramón Ayala sang at her table.

A frequent performer was Los Herederos del Norte, a norteño band led by bass player Chava Benitez. The son of a tuba player, Benitez left the hills of Sinaloa to settle in Compton. In 1999, he formed Los Herederos, playing corridos at backyard parties and small clubs around Los Angeles. Once members of Florencia 13 began to hire him, they became a big part of his business. “They pay you to play, you play,” Benitez says. “If they call you, you gotta go.” Like Renaissance artists seeking the favor of kings and princes, corrido singers in southeast L.A. County had major patrons, too, only theirs were connected to gangs and drugs. In time the singers began writing about local traffickers and gangsters, recounting how they lived and died, often praising their exploits, their taste in women, guns, and trucks.

One night at a party, a few Florencianos informed Benitez that a woman was now running things. He should write a corrido about her, they said. Benitez didn’t ask many questions—“I find it’s better to know less,” he says—but he liked the idea. So he penned “La Reina del Barrio,” or “Queen of the Neighborhood.”

“…Due to family inheritance and because she earned it//She was given the keys to the streets of Los Angeles//To run the business, now she’s the Queen of the Neighborhood…”

It became the band’s most requested song. She was flattered. For a while that’s how life was for Arlene Rodriguez—real estate agent, mother of four, and Mexican Mafia llavera of one of the region’s largest Latino gangs. The beginning of the end came in 2007 with the federal RICO indictment, alleging that Florencia 13 was involved in extortion through its taxation scheme and that it had waged a war on blacks. Castellanos was named as an “unindicted coconspirator,” but he wasn’t prosecuted in the case because he was already serving life in prison; nobody wanted him in a Southern California jail as the trial took place. While many of the guys indicted pleaded guilty rather than go to trial, a dozen top Florencianos, including Oso, fought the charges.

Robinson Chavez, Michael ññ ñ LOS ANGELES, CA. June 18, 2009 Police ready themselves for a raid on a home in South Los Angeles in search of suspected Florencia gang members. “They are so deeply rooted,” said Adan Torres, a veteran Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective. ” You can’t go on any block without encountering one of them.” (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times)

Photo courtesy of Michael Robinson Chavez, the Los Angeles Times

When the ATF agent who’d testified about Oso and the wiretaps took the stand, she noted that she had driven Arlene Rodriguez and a sheriff ’s deputy around for an hour or so. Arlene insists to me that she didn’t know the agent and that she was simply showing homes to the deputy, an acquaintance who was in the real estate market. She also claims the ATF agent said nothing during the entire excursion, but while the agent didn’t offer the courtroom specifics about the outing, the defendants understood the testimony to mean that Arlene Rodriguez, the llavera of F13, was an informant for the ATF.

In Washington, D.C., five years later, on October 10, 2013, a woman named Aniela Russo appeared before a congressional health-care subcommittee chaired by Senator Bernie Sanders. The hearing was about coverage for preexisting health conditions and the potential effects of defunding Obamacare. Russo had undergone two surgeries to repair her heart. Beside her sat doctors from around the country and a former Cigna health insurance executive, a whistle-blower now with the Center for Public Integrity.

Russo, who once sold makeup at Macy’s, was there because she’d recently been featured in a Washington Post story. In it she described how, the year before, she’d had a heart attack while working on behalf of Macy’s at an American Heart Association benefit in Baltimore. “I wasn’t feeling well, I had numbness in my right arm, I felt really fatigued,” she told the reporter. “I was one of the senior makeup artists there and my boss said to tough it out.” But after reading a pamphlet on heart-disease symptoms that a local hospital was handing out at the event, Russo headed to the ER, where she learned she was having a heart attack. As Russo recovered from the attack, someone at the heart association asked whether she would speak publicly about cardiovascular health. Soon she was addressing doctors at a fundraiser at Johns Hopkins University and being featured on Today and Good Morning America. Bubbly and blunt, she had a compelling story. “If I had been treated in 2007 for cholesterol,” Russo said at the congressional hearing, “I probably wouldn’t have had double bypass and aortic bypass surgery.” What nobody knew was that Aniela Russo was a former gang shot caller in hiding.

When that ATF agent had testified years before, she saw how the gang members reacted, and she plucked up Arlene the next night. “Your life is in danger now,” the agent told her. “They’re going to think you’re a snitch.” Over the next year Arlene moved several times around Southern California, until, she says, Castellanos sent her a kite telling her to leave. “I did as I was told,” Arlene says.

In October 2009, she bundled her three youngest sons onto a flight to Baltimore. The ATF agent had given her airfare and relocation money. “She didn’t do it as a cop. She did it as a mom and a female,” says Arlene. “She felt responsibility. I owe her my life. She saved me. There was no one else willing to step up at that point.” Stripped of connections and living in a different world, she asked the ATF for money to get therapy. “I told them I needed mental health counseling,” she says. “I read books and tried to stay sane, but when you disconnect people from all they know, the transition is not easy. The counseling, transition from identity to identity—I didn’t get any of that.” The way Arlene tells it, she didn’t receive the extra help because she didn’t testify in court and therefore didn’t qualify for federal witness protection. The way some in law enforcement tell it, she didn’t want to go into witness protection because doing so would also require leaving the hood forever.

A year of selling real estate at the bottom of the Baltimore market wore Arlene out. Living in an African-American neighborhood, the family was often called “wetbacks” on the street, and teens jumped one of her sons. She gave Miami a shot, but she felt that Cubans also treated Mexicans poorly, and a year later she returned to Baltimore as Aniela Russo, the name of her great-great-grandmother, an Italian immigrant to Mexico. She found a house in a historic, predominately white neighborhood in the upscale suburb of Towson. The place was a revelation. People said hello to one another on the street. Gone was the culture of poverty, the hood’s frantic zero-sum game, getting-over as a way of life. She went out with her kids for Halloween. Walking the quiet streets, she remembered Halloweens in Florencia, with drive-bys and lurking homies, and she cried.

One son especially took to this new life. In high school he enrolled in AP classes, became president of the model United Nations, and joined the Young Republicans. Arlene registered as a Republican. As years passed, she came to view La Eme as a welfare state for gang members, something they depended on for protection, an alternate government for the hood. “I’ve been respected in L.A., but in a bad way—for everything that happened in the hood,” she tells me. “In Towson it’d been because of my character. Not because I had balls or had the word of Tablas or because I stood up to [Oso]. They judged me on my work performance, the way I treated people.”

PHOTO BY SHAYAN ASGHARNIA

When Arlene spoke at that fund-raiser at Johns Hopkins on behalf of the American Heart Association, she found herself standing before a well-heeled crowd of 150, talking about the stress that exacerbated her condition, the heart attack, the pain still suffered, and how she had no way to afford the surgery that she’d been told was necessary. People without the means to pay for this kind of surgery need help, she told them. The crowd erupted in a standing ovation. That night the wife of the CEO of Sinai Hospital in Baltimore introduced her to Dr. Paul Gurbel, one of Maryland’s leading cardiologists. She had the first of her heart surgeries on Valentine’s Day 2012. An older couple in the neighborhood tended to her children.

She was lucky to be alive: Gurbel found her aorta to be clogged; he diagnosed her with Takayasu’s arteritis and handed her over to Dr. John Meyerhoff, a rheumatologist who treated the arterial inflammation. Meyerhoff helped her get insurance to pay for the years-long treatment, but he also served as a psychologist of sorts to her. She told him something of her past and the stress of life on the run. “It felt like such a relief,” she says. “I didn’t need a therapist because I had Dr. Meyerhoff.”

Meyerhoff treated the woman he knew as Aniela Russo for more than two years. “She clearly was under a lot of stress of various kinds,” he tells me. “She told me she had had to leave L.A. because of something related to drug activity. It was upsetting to her that she wasn’t able to get back to L.A.”

She returned to real estate, again selling houses in some of Baltimore’s tougher neighborhoods. Eventually she joined the Chris Cooke Team, one of the leading realtors in the city. “She was a very good agent—very pleasant to deal with, well-spoken,” says Cooke of the realtor he called Aniela. “She hustled, definitely gave off that vibe that she was a hard worker and not afraid to get her hands dirty. She would have an edge and didn’t like to be pushed around by anybody, mainly other agents.”

Arlene had made a home for herself. She started a book club—the Heart Socialites—and became a regular during happy hour at the Grand Cru wine bar downtown. Continuing as heart association spokesperson at various events, including a mayor’s press conference supporting Heart Month, she was a local medical celebrity. She felt liberated. “What I found in Towson was what I dreamed of as a child when I watched The Brady Bunch,” she says. “It changed my whole perspective about family, culture, and values. I became whole there. I got rid of a lot of bad habits, learned how to respect people. I grew up in Towson as Aniela.”

During Arlene’s time away, the public behavior of street gangs—the drive-bys and the carjackings, the attacks on blacks and the congregating in parks—faded across Southern California, and one beneficiary of this has been the Florence-Firestone district. Even the babble of graffiti has quieted, though it’s wise to assume that F13 cliques, like many other L.A. gangs, remain active in less-visible criminal activity—above all, drug sales and taxing drug dealers.

L.A. street gangs also remain some of the best examples anywhere of collective attention-deficit disorder. Unlike the Italian Mob, street gang members come and go. A gang reconstitutes every five to seven years. New “pee-wee” generations form; older members die, go to prison, get jobs, marry, fade away. Few are left to care what happened years before.

Perhaps that’s why Arlene Rodriguez began to hear word that it was safe to come back to L.A., that all was forgiven, or that nobody had believed the rumors in the first place, or that there never had been an issue to begin with. Depended on whom you asked. Over the next couple of years she began by dipping her toe in the region, returning quietly, letting only a few people know. Then she showed up in Florence and smoked weed with an old homey, talking about how things were back in the day. It felt good. She luxuriated in the gossip, in the slang she couldn’t use in Towson. In 2016, she moved back to Southern California. The son who’d just graduated from high school stayed in Maryland, while her youngest, who was never really exposed to gang life, is heading into high school with plans to go to college.

Arlene doesn’t try to explain why she would give up a comfortable life in Towson. Maybe the familiarity of the hood had more pull than the white suburb where she was still an outsider. Maybe she couldn’t resist a yearning for those days when she was queen. One law enforcement official puts it another way: “She craves attention.”

After Arlene fled, a second Florencia investigation led to a RICO indictment alleging that Tablas Castellanos made her henchmen, Marcos Lopez and Jesus Cervantes, his new llaveros. Both were convicted of racketeering in 2015 and are serving lengthy federal prison sentences. All the defendants in the 2008 trial are doing the same, except Oso, whose trial resulted in a hung jury. (In a retrial he was acquitted, and he has never been convicted of a gang-conspiracy charge, though he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.) Arlene was never charged with anything. “The reason she didn’t get indicted is that she wasn’t on the wire all that much,” says prosecutor Peter Hernandez. The judge’s wiretap authorization for the first Florencia case ended in October 2006, about the time Arlene says Tablas was giving her the keys to the neighborhood. Had a wiretap been going, she might have been heard a lot more.

Whatever the case, shortly after returning to L.A. for good, Arlene rerecorded Los Herederos’ corrido. She hopes to create a career in music management by filming a video for the song. It’ll tell the story of how a woman once saved people from an L.A. street gang, and protected street vendors from illicit taxes.


Sam Quinones is the author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.


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