It’s East Los Angeles, California, 1943. On the night of the Zoot Suit riots, Esperanza Santana was raped by racist sailors. Sixteen years later, her son, Montoya and white friend, JD initiate Mundo into their cliqua — La Primera. The characteristic teardrop is ceremoniously tattooed onto Mundo’s hand. They break into a bar to escape a rival gang, but the owner there confronts them and shoots JD in the leg. All three are sent to a youth detention centre.
In Juvie, Montoya is raped one night at knifepoint. Immediately afterwards, he stabs his aggressor to death. From that moment on, his respect levels escalate. Together with Mundo and JD, the three are serving 10–25yrs in the notorious Folsom Prison. They control extortion, gambling, prostitution and drugs within the prison. While the Black Gorillas and the Aryan Brotherhood control the yard, it’s understood that Folsom belongs to the oldest cliqua of them all, La Eme — the Mexican Mafia.
In a surreptitious move, JD’s visitor uses the bathroom and excretes and flushes a small balloon filled with drugs. Another prisoner waits along the sewage pipeline and catches the valuable package. The drugs are then put in a sock and swung cell-by-cell along the row, with hand mirrors glinting as they watch for the guards. Each prisoner is told to discreetly “pass the wire” when the guards aren’t looking. This time, one of the prisoners in the chain quickly swaps the drugs with something else and passes this along instead. The next day, the drug user at the end of the chain complains he didn’t get what he paid for. The weak link is isolated, petrol is thrown in the man’s cell and he burns to death.
Since the drug-swindler was black, The Black Gorilla Family want revenge. A riot ensues and Montoya is thrown in solitary confinement, but he continues to run things from there. To sustain La Eme’s control, a renegade Mexican, Pie Face, is stabbed to death. New recruit, Lil Puppet is then asked to kill someone as initiation — and he does so. It’s understood that, in these situations, you can’t even begin to think about showing weakness. If you control the inside, you own the outside.
Montoya and JD are released and threaten Italian crime boss Mr Scagnelli at the pool by his villa. As soon as is practical, Montoya’s men in Folsom get Scagnelli’s convict son drunk on prison-made alcohol. The son is raped by the men and also with a vicious, Christmas tree-shaped knife — then killed.
In retaliation, Mr Scagnelli sends out through his dealers in East LA one hundred percent pure heroin. He’s killing his own customers, but he knows they’re mainly Mexicans. Thirty or forty overdoses happen that night. Montoya’s brother is luckily not among them.
Next, we see some Mexicans dividing up a large amount of cocaine. The Black Gorilla Family burst in and force the Mexicans to inhale piles of the drug at gunpoint until they die. La Eme outsources the retaliation for this to the Aryan Brotherhood. The white supremacists burst into a packed bar, killing indiscriminately and shooting one person in the manhood.
Lil Puppet is released and married the same day. He’s urged to calm down when he starts on about the dodgy dealings in prison of le Eme. Montoya and JD disagree about the excessiveness of force shown by the Aryans. JD thinks they were justified in what they did and that Montoya is showing weakness. Lil Puppet is carried off drunk.
The police find drugs in Lil Puppet’s jacket that he left behind and Montoya is back in jail. JD now wants Lil Puppet dead — Montoya disagrees. Ultimately, Lil Puppet’s older brother is told he must take him out. Lil Puppet collects Puppet from jail. But, the older brother soon strangles the younger brother. In jail, Montoya is frenetically stabbed to death by other gang members just outside his cell. His body is then thrown over the railings several storeys to the floor below.
Kids in East Los Angeles still tattoo each other proudly on the hand with the distinctive teardrop design. As night closes in, the next generation of la Eme is armed and getting high — driving around gang-neutral neighbourhoods. As his initiation, one young person yells “la Primera lives!” and opens fire on a group of random people.
Starring Edward James Olmos. William Forsythe. Sal Lopez. Rated 18. Dir Edward James Olmos. Released in the UK 1992. Runtime 2hrs 5mins