In a dramatic show of muscle that has brought an uneasy calm to some of Los Angeles' most violent barrios, the Mexican Mafia prison gang has ordered thousands of Latino gang members to put a halt to drive-by shootings--or face the syndicate's deadly wrath.
The edict has been delivered over recent months at a series of tightly guarded meetings, including an afternoon summit on Sept. 18 attended by an estimated 1,000 or more gang members in Elysian Park, near Dodger Stadium. Under the new rules, gangs are still allowed to attack rivals with whom they have a personal beef, but they have been instructed to do it face-to-face, taking care not to harm bystanders.
"It was, like, this is for la raza, the Mexican people," said a gang member who attended the Elysian Park meeting. "If you have to take care of business, they were saying, at least do it with respect, do it with honor and dignity."
By using terror to impose some order on rivalries that were spiraling out of control, the Mexican Mafia has been credited with decelerating one of the bloodiest cycles in the long history of Mexican-American gangs. But in doing so, concerns have been raised about the influence of the clandestine organization, which is suspected of trying to use street gangs to expand its criminal enterprise outside the penal system.
"I'm all for peace, but what we're really looking at is the beginning of organized crime," said Lt. Sergio Robleto, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau homicide detail. "I just don't believe that a pact between people who are rapists, murderers and robbers should be hailed with accolades of peace."
In a confidential LAPD memo obtained by The Times, detectives contend that the Mexican Mafia--known simply as La EME, Spanish for the letter M -- is seeking to organize the gangs to boost its narcotics trade. "Due to the drive-by shootings, the street gangs have caused too much attention and the EME wants less publicity," says the document, which was prepared shortly after a July meeting drew an estimated 300 gang members representing two dozen rival barrios to Ernest E. Debs Regional Park in Montecito Heights.
Since then, according to authorities, meetings have also been held in Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties.
It is impossible to measure precisely what role the prison gang has played in slowing the pace of the bloodshed. But Latino gang killings are down 15% so far this year in communities patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, including East Los Angeles, Lynwood, Norwalk, Pico Rivera and La Puente. The LAPD's turbulent Hollenbeck Division, which covers Boyle Heights and El Sereno, averaged one gang killing a week last year; there has been only one in the last two months.
"It's none of my business why it happened, but I think it's beautiful that the killing has stopped," said anti-gang activist Art Pulido, a resident of Northeast Los Angeles, where there have been 13 gang slayings so far this year--compared to 25 in the same time span last year.
"Regardless of how the message is getting out . . . I think it's something positive," added Brother Modesto Leon, director of a school for troubled youths in the Pico-Union district, who had heard rumblings about the Mafia's move. "If the violence is down, I welcome anybody from anywhere to join the club."
The EME's push to unify Latino gangs, according to correctional officials and law enforcement authorities, is rooted in a complex tangle of racial politics, economic muscle and internal power struggles.
In many ways, the "no drive-by" rule is a tacit response to the ballyhooed truce last year between some black gangs, whose media celebrity status was clearly resented by their Latino counterparts. To many Latino gang members, the Bloods and Crips are latecomers to the gang scene, and the publicity surrounding their now-fractured peace accord grated against the quiet, defiant image of the barrio warrior.
Friction between black and Latino inmates has also been mounting behind bars, where life has long been deeply divided along racial lines. In recent years, as the number of Latinos has surpassed the number of blacks being housed in Los Angeles County jail facilities, brawls have become almost a weekly occurrence, often leaving dozens injured. Officials believe the order is designed in part to strengthen those racial alliances on the outside.
"People don't see it, but there's a war going on right now," said Lt. Leo Duarte, who is in charge of monitoring gang activity at the state prison in Chino. "It's starting to filter out to the streets."
Signs of the Mexican Mafia's play for power surfaced in early 1992, officials say, as hundreds of Orange County gang members began meeting in local parks and talking peace. At one August, 1992, gathering in Santa Ana, led by a reputed Mexican Mafia leader who is now facing federal weapons charges, an estimated 500 youths put down their weapons to sign a peace treaty that warned against drive-by shootings.
Anyone who breaks the rule, the handwritten document said, would be treated "as a child molester, a rat, a rapist, which all mean a coward."
The rule will most likely be enforced, authorities believe, behind bars after a gang member is arrested for a drive-by shooting. Jail and prison officials have already reported several stabbings, none of them fatal, directed against gang members who violated the Mexican Mafia's order or challenged the organization's authority.
Also possible, officials say, is that the Mexican Mafia could authorize the street gangs themselves to target any violators.
The edict "may save the lives of some innocent bystanders," said a veteran correctional official who asked not to be identified. "But I don't think their motives are so noble. It's kind of like the Italian Mafia donating money to the Catholic Church. They've got something else up their sleeve."
Most authorities believe it all boils down to drugs. Inside the penal system, the Mexican Mafia controls narcotics smuggling, gambling, prostitution and extortion. But on the streets, where it has long been tied to heroin distribution and, more recently, methamphetamine production, officials say the organization has never been able to flex the kind of economic muscle it would like.
With an estimated 60,000 Latino gang members in more than 450 gangs in Los Angeles County, authorities say, an agreement to work together for financial gain would be the underworld's version of the ultimate free-trade accord.
"When you got drugs, you got money," Duarte said. "And when you got money, you got power."
Although the Mexican Mafia has employed the rhetoric of cultural unity, they have also relied on fear and intimidation. A gang member who attended last weekend's gathering at Elysian Park described it as a mix between "the Chicano movement and prison terrorism."
He gave this account:
The event drew gang members from neighborhoods that have been involved in mortal combat for years, including 18th Street, probably the largest gang in Los Angeles County, and Mara Salvatrucha, a notorious Central-American gang that has clashed with many Mexican-American gangs.
Everyone was searched for weapons, and as a check against infiltrators all the men were forced to lift their shirts to reveal their gang tattoos.
Then they formed a tightly packed circle on a hillside in the palm-lined park, just a few dozen yards from the Los Angeles Police Academy. Unmarked patrol cars were seen on the street, police helicopters circled overhead and authorities videotaped the event from afar.
Without the benefit of a microphone, several Mexican Mafia members who appeared to be in their 40s or 50s stood in the middle of the mostly teen-age crowd and began to bark out the new guidelines for combat. Anyone who dared to ask a question was shouted down by the leaders. At one point, a gang member craned his neck to observe the crowd and was ordered by a guard to look straight ahead and pay attention.
"They were saying: 'No more drive-bys, they're cowardly. We're killing our kids and grandparents,' " said the gang member who was there. " 'Anybody who does this is going to pay the price.' "
The Mexican Mafia has also told the gangs that they should feel free to attack all graffiti taggers, who are generally viewed as small-time vandals who have been crossing out the more stylized gang logos with their scrawls. Authorities say that tagging crews have begun to arm themselves against this threat and curtail some of their spray-painting.
"The kids all know the green light's been put out against them," said Lt. Tim Murphy of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's police department, whose buses are a favorite target of taggers.
Despite the Mexican Mafia's intimidating tactics, there are many young men who feel they have been given an honorable way to let tensions cool.
"It's giving a lot of kids an excuse who really wanted to stop banging," said one longtime observer of Eastside gangs. "It's like, 'Oh, well, we have to stop.' I've seen relief in kids that's just astonishing."
The youngsters also may be flattered that such a notorious organization would seek to include them in its plans. "A lot of these kids look at it as, like, 'Wow, they're giving us a stake in something,' " said John Berge, who teaches a gang-awareness class at the California Youth Authority in Chino. "In that respect, the guys feel honored that the EME would be negotiating these things with them."
Founded in the late 1950s when inmates from several Eastside neighborhoods joined behind bars to form a "gang of gangs," the Mexican Mafia has an estimated 400 to 600 members in the penal system and perhaps twice that many affiliates or sympathizers outside.
The organization probably reached its greatest strength in the late 1970s, during a period of rampant speculation about its influence in community-based drug-rehabilitation programs and in the state and federal government. In one case, the director of an Eastside halfway house was accused of using Mexican Mafia influence to obtain state grants that had been denied. Later, he pleaded guilty to three slayings, including the shooting death of a special assistant to former state Sen. Alex Garcia.
In the 1980s, much of its leadership was broken up and placed in solitary confinement at maximum-security prisons around the state, notably the Pelican Bay prison near Crescent City in Northern California, where a group of inmates has filed a lawsuit alleging that the lack of human interaction violates their constitutional rights.
With the original leaders now in their 50s and 60s, correctional officials say, the Mexican Mafia is in the midst of a generational struggle as younger members try to seize a more active role. Some officials believe that the new push for unity is the work of the younger generation, which appears to be trying to bolster its strength by employing the street gangs as soldiers.
Those efforts may have received an unintentional push by Edward James Olmos' anti-gang movie, "American Me," which some officials believe helped revive interest in the Mexican Mafia among the younger crowd.
The film angered the Mexican Mafia, which viewed Olmos' depiction of sodomy and betrayal as being disrespectful to the organization. Three people who worked on the movie have been slain in what detectives describe as Mexican Mafia-related hits, although it is uncertain whether the film had anything to do with the attacks. The most recent attack was last month; it claimed the life of Manuel (Rocky) Luna, 53, said to be the Mexican Mafia's kingpin in the Ramona Gardens housing project, where several scenes were filmed.
"All the civilized people don't get it, but this is how things worked in the old days," said Los Angeles Housing Authority police Officer Kent Keyfauver, who patrols several Eastside housing projects. "Sometimes, when things get so bad and nothing else seems to work, you have to force people to do things. They just have their own rules and ethics and way of doing that."
Times correspondent Diana S. Kim contributed to this story.