An Inside Look at 18th St.'s Menace

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It is the biggest and deadliest street gang to rise from the nation's gang capital, reshaping Los Angeles' criminal underworld.

With as many as 20,000 members in Southern California alone, the gang called 18th Street is 20 times the size of the region's typical gang, dwarfing even the notorious Bloods and Crips.

"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.

A band of unruly outcasts when it formed in the 1960s, 18th Street has become 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 in a calculated move to boost its numbers. Its primary recruitment targets: immigrant youngsters.

Wherever 18th Street surfaces, the quality of life inevitably suffers, bringing despair to residents and presenting law enforcement authorities with challenges they seem unable to conquer.

Cars are stolen, homes burglarized. On average, someone in Los Angeles County is assaulted or robbed by 18th Streeters every day. The gang has left a bloody trail of more than 100 homicides in the city of Los Angeles since 1990--a pace three times that of many of the city's most active gangs.

Police say 18th Street--with its tight ties to the Mexican Mafia prison gang--has become so influential in narcotics circles that it now 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 non-gang dope peddlers, who are forced to pay "taxes."

"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 central Los Angeles County, the gang has taken root on the Westside, the San Gabriel Valley, Orange County, the South Bay and the San Fernando Valley. 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. "If these guys are here to the extent we think they are, we have to extend some very serious resources to get our ducks lined up."

Eighteenth Street has become the largest and fastest-growing gang in Oregon. Its members have tried to assert control over the state prison narcotics trade and are blamed for one of Salem's worst gang slayings: A 15-year-old 18th Streeter, who wanted out, was gunned down by his homeboys.

"It's just phenomenal what's happening here [with the gang]," says Ron Weaver of the Oregon Youth Authority.

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.

"Eighteenth Street is like a many-headed hydra," says Assistant U.S. Atty. Gregory W. Jessner, who oversees a prosecutorial task force targeting the gang.

A Children's Army

There is no 18th Street godfather.

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.

The gang is "probably not as developed or sophisticated, but I think you see many of the same roots you saw in early organized crime," says veteran Det. Kevin Rogers of the Los Angeles Police Department's West Bureau.

On the street, in sharp contrast, 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.

A Santa Ana recruiter for the gang says he scouts middle schools for kids 11 to 13 who appear to be on the fringes of gang life. He confronts them, instilling fear, then backs off. The next time, he softens the approach, making his unsteady targets believe that he is now their friend, their protector.

With their resistance eroded, he promises action and excitement as part of the region's largest street gang. "I tell them you can get guns and drugs. You get [women]. . . . You get backup."

The key, he says, is to "make it look glamorous," avoiding mention of jail and violence. "You'll scare them off," he says. "You've got to kind of bait them into it."

"Lil' Rusty" was a robust middle school student in the Fairfax district when his graffiti crew was drawn into 18th Street. Soon, he was hustling the gang's crack cocaine on the curbs of the Pico-Union area. By 14, he was a stick-thin addict.

His mother often travels on the bus searching for her son in hopes of bringing him back to the house and the adolescence he left behind.

It's a hot afternoon when she catches up with him at a Pico-Union community center frequented by 18th Streeters. In a moment laden with pain and possibility, she perches inches away from him on a ragged couch, wincing back tears. "I love you," she says to her withering boy, who has lost 30 pounds. "Please come home. There's food at home."

He tenses and glares. "Why don't you go home," he says, storming outside, then disappearing into the low-rent hotel he shares with prostitutes and junkies.

Heading home, the heartsick woman says 18th Street has stolen her son's soul. "They're using him to sell drugs," she says. "He follows the cholos. He doesn't follow me."

Gang members and workers at the community center say they have tried to help the young addict, but that the magnetism of the gang and the drugs is too powerful. He did return home once, his mother says, but he was gone within days. "I cradled him in my arms," she recalls, "and told him I loved him so much."

Youth indoctrination starts early, as gang members too young to shave pass their values to a generation too young to tie their shoes.

Strutting into a Huntington Park recreation center after an assault on a rival gang member, a knot of 18th Street teens proudly shows off its "little homey"--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. When asked where he is from, his small voice proclaims: "Southside 18th Street."

The young homeboys impart to Baby Midget the lessons of gang life. When asked whether he likes school and police, he shakes his head and says, "No."

Baby Midget's 21-year-old mother, an 18th Street associate who calls herself "Speedy," sees nothing terribly wrong with any of this--although she does concede that it sometimes makes her uncomfortable "because he is just a little boy."

Mirror of the City

Called Dieciocho by its Spanish-speaking members, 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 Cal State Long Beach Chicano studies professor who has researched 18th Street.

Although predominantly Latino, the gang has opened its arms to blacks, Samoans, Middle Easterners and whites.

"If you think 10 or 15 years from now . . . it ain't gonna be no brown this, black that," says one gang leader. "It'll be about who's got the numbers."

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

In the small southeast Los Angeles County city of Cudahy, Lucky and a dozen 18th Street homeboys 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 cement, but battles back to his feet.

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

When the rite ends, Lucky is embraced by his new homeboys. His mother calls for a celebratory toast of high-octane wine. "Let's bring the Night Train out!" she shouts.

The next day, his face scabbed and swollen, Lucky reflects on his decision to join 18th Street. It was this, he says, or return to live with his sister on a Wyoming reservation.

"I felt like I'd have the brothers I never had," Lucky says of his gang friends.

At one point he jokes about the criminal adventures awaiting him. Like robbing unlicensed pushcart vendors. "They don't have permits," he says. "They can't report it."

But is this how such hard-working people and their families should be treated?

"We're not supposed to feel for them," he says. "If you do, you're gonna feel bad. You're gonna feel weak. We don't want weak."

Once they join, many of the gang's members say they are in "por vida"--for life. So strong is the bond that no amount of violence can tear gangster from gang.

At 19, "Spike" hobbles around like an octogenarian. His body is a monument to the ravages of a life invested in 18th Street.

A thick gnarled scar runs down the middle of his stomach, ending in a pink open wound. To speak, Spike raises an index finger to cover the hole in his throat where a tracheotomy tube is inserted. He has been shot on four occasions. The worst damage occurred last year when a rival walked up to Spike's car at a red light, pumping seven slugs into his torso and leg.

"Each bullet felt like Mike Tyson was hitting me," Spike says inside his South-Central living room. He is pressing his baggy pants in preparation for another visit to the hospital, where he will undergo plastic surgery.

The irony of the scene escapes him. He laments the violent course of his gang life. But as his 9-month-old boy watches, Spike pauses and then notes excitedly that a song playing on his tape deck is the gang's anthem: "Soy [I am] 18 with a bullet/ I got my finger on the trigger/ I'm gonna pull it."

Long Arm of the Gang

Eighteenth Street was born more than 30 years ago in the impoverished but fertile neighborhood where the Santa Monica and Harbor freeways intersect, near 18th Street and Union Avenue. The area--Pico-Union--has long been a landing spot for newly arrived immigrants.

As these settlers moved out in search of better lives, 18th Street cliques sprouted in new neighborhoods. In time, the gang had branches across the county, essentially organizing itself in quadrants--west side, north side, east side and south side.

Membership surged in the 1980s, when Central American and Mexican immigrants flocked to the Pico-Union and Westlake districts. They were shunned and attacked by Chicano gangs, who viewed the new arrivals as inferior.

With 18th Street, they found refuge--and protection.

"They taught kids who came from other countries how to survive in [Los Angeles]," says Manuel Valenzuela, a veteran of the county's Community Youth Gang Services. "Eighteenth Street empowered a lot of kids [telling them]: 'This is how you do it in America.' "

Out of the membership estimated to be as high as 20,000, about 60% of them are illegal immigrants, according to a confidential report last year by the state Department of Justice.

In sections of South-Central Los Angeles--once almost entirely African American and home to some of the oldest Crips and Bloods sets--18th Street took over without firing a shot, thanks to the dramatic surge in the immigrant population.

"It's just demographics," says veteran South-Central probation officer Jim Galipeau. "Without anything ever going down, in terms of a gang fight, it just became 18th Street."

In some cases, however, the gang's growth has been more the result of calculation than happenstance. "What they do is look for opportunities," says John Berge, who teaches gang awareness classes at the California Youth Authority facility in Chino. "They go wherever the market takes them."

One of those places is Orange County.

An 18th Street operative remembers the night he walked into an alley in Cudahy to pitch his plan for a southern push.

Waiting for him in the darkness were two middle-aged veteranos with thick mustaches and wrinkled faces. Behind them were more than two dozen street toughs. He was frisked for weapons and ordered to show his "I.D."--his 18th Street tattoos.

Respectfully, he says, he told the veteranos that he had run with 18th Street in Los Angeles but recently moved to Santa Ana. "It's time to go after Orange County," he reported. "It's all fresh . . . just like virgin everything."

Skeptical, the veteranos questioned whether he was seasoned enough for the task, whether he was exposing the gang to unnecessary police heat. He pledged not to let them down and won cautious approval to recruit under their auspices. He was sent off with a grim incentive.

"You f--- up, it's all over," one veterano warned. "I'll put a bullet to your head."

Months and dozens of new recruits later, he has proved himself. He says he regularly consults with the Los Angeles County leaders as he advances the 18th Street banner in central Orange County. Their advice to him: maintain a low profile while building membership--unless rival gangs get in the way. "When you run into them," he was ordered, "deal with them."

Drug Trade Boom

Eighteenth Street's unity and criminality have created alarm at the highest levels of law enforcement. The gang has been the target of two task forces, one led by the FBI, the other by ATF.

Federal agents have arrested more than two dozen 18th Streeters for crimes ranging from selling guns to dealing crack cocaine to setting fire to a swap meet during the 1992 riots.

During a task force deployment last summer, gang members attacked an undercover LAPD detective. Sitting in his car, he had seen several 18th Streeters spray-painting a wall.

"What the f--- you looking at," they demanded to know. "This is our neighborhood."

Wanting to keep his cover intact, the officer quickly drove off--followed by the gun-wielding gangsters, who fired wildly from their car. After shooting holes in his window, they were arrested by police reinforcements.

"The sad thing," the officer later recalled, "this could have happened to anybody."

Much of the gang's violence revolves around clashes with its two fiercest rivals--Mara Salvatrucha and Florencia 13--and its burgeoning drug trade.

In central and south Los Angeles, the gang is suspected of selling hundreds of doses of heroin daily at busy drive-up locations, where customers include middle-class professionals, college students and suburbanites.

It was an 18th Street ring last year that sold heroin to two USC seniors whose overdose deaths dramatized the drug's skyrocketing popularity and availability. "There is no doubt in my mind that [18th Streeters] were supplying that dope," says Los Angeles Police Det. Al Kotero, a narcotics investigator.

Also of deep concern to law enforcement are the extensive ties between 18th Street and the Mexican Mafia, which rules the California prison underworld and exerts considerable power beyond the walls.

A sweeping federal racketeering indictment filed last year against Mexican Mafia leaders, who are awaiting trial, alleges that the prison gang and 18th Street collaborated in collecting protection payments from dope dealers. In one month on one block controlled by 18th Street, the Mexican Mafia collected more than $12,000, according to the indictment.

The indictment also alleges that a jailed Mexican Mafia leader ordered 18th Street to begin shaking down legitimate businesses to ensure a steady income should police begin intensifying arrests of drug pushers.

Although the two gangs have split substantial sums from their "tax" scheme, audacious 18th Streeters in Westlake sent a message to the Mexican Mafia two years ago that the prison gang was taking too big a bite.

In the shadows of an abandoned building splattered with 18th Street graffiti, two assassins lay in wait, AK-47 assault rifles at the ready. They had been alerted that Carlos "Truco" Lopez--a Mexican Mafia bagman--was cruising the area in his new $35,000 Chevy Suburban.

As Lopez rolled by, the gunmen unleashed a thunderous blast of more than 30 rounds. The Suburban, its steel doors strafed by thumb-size bullets, slammed into a pole spray-painted with the gang's calling card: XVIII.

It was a hellish scene even by the crime-hardened standards of the LAPD's Rampart Division. The bodies of Lopez and his girlfriend were slumped in the front seat. Shell casings and skull fragments were strewn over half a block.

"The sheer firepower was one of the worst I've seen," says police Det. Robert Bub, "almost akin to the old Chicago gangland killings."

Growing Tentacles

Eighteenth Streeters speak grandly about their place in Southern California. They use words such as "dominate" and "control" and "own."

Gang members everywhere are full of such bravado. But 18th Street homeboys have shown they know how to build, how to cast their net over disaffected youths of all colors from many neighborhoods.

So long as there are kids like "Chuco," the gang will thrive.

In the eyes of this reckless, restless 16-year-old, 18th Street is something so huge, so feared, so intoxicating that it transcends the drudgery of his life.

His Inglewood apartment building resembles nothing so much as a prison block.

Slipping by the screen door of his family's second-story unit, Chuco passes his mother, who is watching television from the couch. Neither says a word as the boy bounds quickly past the kitchen, a foul repository of dirty dishes and food spilled on the floor.

With a boombox blaring banda music from the bathroom, Chuco retreats to his bedroom.

The walls, mirror and dresser are covered with 18th Street graffiti. Stylized renderings of the gang's logos--18, Eighteen, E St., XV3--are everywhere. Homages to his homeboys and girlfriends circle the room.

This is his cocoon, where he drapes himself each night in the lore of 18th Street and the reassurance that he is part of something strong.

"Eighteen is the best. We have more respect and the most backup," Chuco says, reclining across a heap of dirty sheets and blankets on his bed. At his side is a small cardboard box with shards of his gang life--scraps of paper with homeboy phone numbers, gang drawings and a court order to appear on a strong-arm robbery count.

He says he needed money to party, so he snatched a gold chain from a young woman on the street. "Give me the chain, bitch," he lightheartedly recalls shouting.

Chuco is remorseless about his victim or about the infant he has fathered or another girl who is pregnant with his second child. He is almost stumped when pressed to consider the consequences of his actions. "Why should I think about that?" he says. "If I need to do it, I do it. . . . That's the life I know."

Times librarian Janet Lundblad contributed research to this story.

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18th Street Scenes: Tattoos The 18th Streeters from South-Central huddle curiously around their young homeboy.

A roving "tat" man is going to dress up "Gizmo's" tattoos--a 4-inch high, stylized 1 and 8 on the underside of each forearm.

A beefy marijuana joint is passed among some of the 18th Streeters. The tattoo artist fiddles with his battery-operated ink pen.

Gizmo had his tattoos drawn a year earlier by another artist. The numbers don't seem straight. They're too plain and the color has faded to a greenish hue.

Like an overstimulated toddler in a toy store, Gizmo, 14, is ricocheting from one possibility to the next.

"I want a collage. I want prison bars," he blurts out. "And jainas [women]."

But the artist says he will only do touch-up work because he has been stoned for three days and can't draw now.

For sanitation, Gizmo bums a cup of household bleach from a woman in a nearby apartment.

In slow procession, they all move to a parking lot behind an apartment building, next to an overflowing trash bin.

A homeboy is drafted to hold the four D-cell batteries bound with black tape. Tangled yellow and green wires lead to the motorized pen.

Squatted on a broken coffee table, in a small space between a tarp-covered wreck of a car and a cinder-block wall inscribed with "SC18," the tat man readies his pen.

With tissue dipped in bleach, he wipes a brown layer of dust and dirt from Gizmo's arm. Everyone laughs.

"Take a shower, homes," one gang member laughs.

The pen buzzes faintly as Gizmo takes deep drags off another joint.

For something that carries not only the risk of disease, but will mark a young boy for life, it's a chilling, casual scene.

Forty minutes and $20 later, Gizmo's tattoos are deeper, darker, and his skin is red.

He is neither pleased nor excited. As the tat man packs up, Gizmo mulls what should come next. "I've decided," he says finally. "I want weed plants."

Decades of Growth

While gangs usually remain confined to specific neighborhoods, 18th Street has spread across city, state and even international borders, becoming "a many-headed hydra," in the words of one federal prosecutor. Color coding shows how the gang has grown since the 1960s.

* Early 1960s: The 18th Street gang is formed in low-income, Mexican immigrant neighborhoods near the new crossroads of the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways, partly as self-defense against more established Chicano gangs.

* Late 1960s: Ridiculed by other gangs for taking anyone--including illegal immigrants and non-Latinos--18th Street gradually spreads through the Pico-Union and Westlake areas west of downtown Los Angeles and into El Sereno on the Eastside.

* 1970s: The gang fans out as upwardly mobile immigrant families seek new neighborhoods. Subsets sprout up in the San Fernando Valley and southeast Los Angeles County.

* Early 1980s: An influx of Central Americans into areas west of downtown allows the gang to grow rapidly. It becomes more violent as it moves into drug dealing. A census by gang leaders places membership in the 5,000 to 6,000 range.

* Mid-late 1980s: A string of new 18th Street cells form in South Los Angeles and Inglewood as the Latino population surges in traditionally African American neighborhoods.

* 1990s: The gang branches west to Culver City and West Los Angeles, east into Covina and south into Orange County. Law enforcement estimates its 1995 membership to be as manay as 20,000 in Southern California.

Sources: Law enforcement reports; interviews with investigators and gang members

18th Street Scenes: Baby Gangsters The boys--ages 9 to 15--are part of the 18th Street farm team. They are the "Baby Gangsters," a subset of the gang's Inglewood cell.

This is vintage 18th Street, which places a premium on recruiting young toughs who account for most of the gang's violence.

The 17 members of the Baby Gangsters are mostly in junior high. The youngest, "Lil' Man," is just 9 years old. They look forward to the day when they will be hanging with the "older guys."

"We're down for our neighborhood," says 14-year-old "Casper," as he and several young homeboys patrol Morningside High School after classes let out.

The boys boast about their exploits: stealing cars, beating a rival gang member unconscious, ripping off car stereos for party money.

The Baby Gangsters say they protect 18th Street from young challengers in the neighborhood.

"We kick their ass," Casper says. If they need help, they summon the older homeboys.

In Casper's arms is a tiny pit bull puppy. They call him Capone.

Like the boys, the puppy is in training for trouble. They want a fighting dog, with a big 18th Street tattoo on his soft underbelly.

Side by side, the Baby Gangsters walk the school's empty halls, sharing a joint.

The boys take turns exhaling streams of marijuana smoke into the puppy's mouth. When they put him down, he staggers along behind. They laugh.

"Silent," 13, who says he gets a kick out of setting fires, is trying to ignite a patch of dry grass.

He joined 18th Street after his mother died. His father started drinking, Silent says, and was "not taking good care of us."

Although his father stopped drinking and is doing better, Silent says "it's too late" because he has found another family--18th Street.

About This Series

Times staff writers Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez spent eight months exploring the culture and violence of the sprawling 18th Street gang. They spoke with hundreds of members, victims, experts and law enforcement officials for this three-part report.

* Today: Inside the gang, and the factors fueling its unparalleled growth.

* Monday: The devastation the gang has wrought on families and neighborhoods.

* Tuesday: Law enforcement stumbles in its campaign to stop the gang's advance.

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