Deadly street gang of the future Prototype: Menacing and multiethnic, 18th Street is the gang of the 21st century, a gang one expert calls "worse than a cancer."

Sun Journal

November 26, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- It is the biggest and deadliest street gang in Los Angeles, the gang capital of the United States.

With as many as 20,000 members in California alone, the gang called 18th Street dwarfs even the notorious Bloods and the Crips. A band of unruly outcasts when it formed in the 1960s, 18th Street is also an ominous prototype. Although primarily Latino, 18th Street has broken with gang tradition, opening its ranks to comers of all races from many working-class neighborhoods. Its primary recruitment targets: immigrant youngsters.

Wherever 18th Street surfaces, the quality of life suffers. On average, someone in Los Angeles County is assaulted or robbed by 18th Streeters every day. Since 1990, the gang has left a trail of more than 100 slayings.

Police say 18th Street -- with its tight ties to the Mexican Mafia prison gang -- has become so influential in drug circles that it deals directly with the Mexican and Colombian cartels. Eighteenth Street also has pioneered a disturbing trend in gangs: renting street corners -- sometimes in hourly shifts -- to nongang dope peddlers, who are forced to pay "taxes."

"We recognize them as one of the most violent street gangs and one of the most prolific in the United States," says George Rodriguez, who until his retirement this month oversaw investigations for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"They're worse than a cancer. A cancer you can kill. These guys keep growing," says gang expert Gabriel Kovnator of the California Youth Authority, where 18th Streeters constitute the largest group of gang members in custody.

Although 18th Street's primary impact has been in Los Angeles County, transplanted 18th Streeters also have exported their criminal ways to other states and countries.

In Utah, officials say 18th Street has arrived with a vengeance. "Within the past two or three years, I've heard more and more gang cops telling me, '18th Street, 18th Street,' " says Sgt. Ron Stallworth, the state's top gang intelligence officer.

Eighteenth Street has become the largest and fastest-growing gang in Oregon. Its members have tried to assert control over the state prison drug trade. In El Salvador, church leaders have been working to broker a truce between 18th Street and its rivals. Authorities from Honduras, meanwhile, recently visited Los Angeles seeking advice from law enforcement on the gang.

There is no single 18th Street leader. Instead, the gang's central nervous system consists of older members -- "veteranos" -- who oversee a loose-knit network of cliques, whose members share an intense loyalty to the gang's values and ambitions. In clandestine meetings, the veteranos exchange guns, plot strategies, target enemies and share information on police.

Although 18th Street's structure has insulated it from racketeering prosecutions, authorities say it also has stopped the gang -- so far -- from becoming a traditional criminal syndicate.

On the street, the gang resembles a kind of children's army -- one of 18th Street's most striking signatures. While the veteranos remain in the shadows, youngsters are recruited to bolster the gang's numbers and carry out its criminal activity.

Indoctrination starts early. Strutting into a recreation center, a knot of 18th Street teen-agers proudly shows off a 4-year-old known as "Baby Midget." At an age when most children are learning ABCs in preschool, this toddler with the shaved head, and others like him, are learning to flash the gang's "E" sign.

The gang is a quintessential Los Angeles phenomenon: sprawling, multiethnic, a product of the region's changing economics and demographics.

"It's the gang of the 21st century an anomaly that breaks all traditions of the ethnic gang," says Jose Lopez, a California State University at Long Beach Chicano studies professor who has researched 18th Street. The gang has opened its arms to blacks, Samoans, Middle Easterners and whites.

"Lucky," 17, is an American Indian, a product of the gang's equal opportunity recruiting.

In the small southeast Los Angeles County city of Cudahy, Lucky and a dozen 18th Streeters drop down into the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River. Hiding from passing patrol cars, they gather for Lucky's brutal initiation.

On hand are his mother -- an 18th Street associate known as "Sky" -- and his stepfather, "Diablo," a 20-year veteran of the gang.

As Sky asks who is going to be the timekeeper for the beating, which is supposed to last 18 seconds, a handful of gangsters begin yanking off their shirts. They are muscled, covered with 18th Street tattoos.

Four of them jump Lucky, slugging furiously. He spins, breaking free, and swings back with full force. They lunge at him, landing dozens of blows to his ribs, head and shoulders. Lucky goes down hard on the concrete, but battles back to his feet.

"That's my baby!" his mother cheers, as blood trickles down her son's face.

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