Early Wednesday, Los Angeles police went throughout the San Fernando Valley and other parts of L.A. in search of several documented members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, or MS-13, who they believe are responsible for a recent spate of violence in North Hollywood.
Three people were arrested and several more remained outstanding after the raids, but authorities said there was no immediate threat to the community.
The Los Angeles Police Department said in a statement that the search warrant operation was the agency’s attempt to not only find out more about the death of a 34-year-old homeless man, who investigators believe might have been killed by MS-13 members in January, but also to send a clear message to the criminal street gang that its “presence will not be tolerated in the San Fernando Valley or anywhere within the city of Los Angeles.”
“Over the past year, tagging and other evidence of MS-13’s presence has been observed at multiple locations throughout the Valley,” the LAPD said in the statement. “Officials believe the gang is attempting to establish a foothold by directly challenging rival gangs in the area.”
Bradley Hanaway was accosted and shot as he slept at the Valley Plaza Recreation Center in North Hollywood.
Investigators believe that MS-13 members killed Hanaway as part of their attempt to claim the territory in and around the recreation center. Authorities have gathered information that suggests MS-13 members are responsible for at least five other violent assaults that occurred in the area of the recreation center shortly after Hanaway was killed, police said.
LAPD Det. Dave Peteque told The Times in January that Hanaway was in a park claimed by gang members.
“They shot him for no reason,” Peteque said of the killers, adding that those who went inside the park were subject to violence and harassment.
Alex Alonso, a gang expert and professor at Cal State Long Beach, said MS-13 has a significant presence in L.A. That includes an area in North Hollywood near Fulton Avenue, where MS-13 has been active for a few decades.
But Alonso challenged some LAPD contentions. He said that police officers are often too quick to identify the perpetrators of a crime as gang members and that when officers do make those claims, it is sometimes based on little evidence.
Also, he said, one of the biggest myths about gangs is the nature of territoriality.
“Cops will come to court and testify that this one gang is wanting to expand — ‘They want to expand for drug purposes’ — but a gang’s territory is defined by the residential patterns of its members,” said Alonso, who has researched gangs for 26 years.
“I always challenge the cops [in court] — ‘Give me an example of when Gang A went into the Gang B’s turf and took it over’ — and there’s no examples of that happening in Los Angeles. It’s a big myth. The gang is based on where the members live.”
During Wednesday’s operation, investigators seized several weapons, ammunition, electronic media and gang paraphernalia from about 10 locations.
LAPD officers worked with the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services on the raids because the agency believed there might be children at the targeted homes who could possibly be subjected to neglect or abuse, the agency said in its statement.
Twenty children were assessed, and as a result, three investigations involving nine children were initiated, according to the LAPD. No children were immediately removed from the homes.
The LAPD worked with DCFS and the Los Angeles County Probation Department to close the investigation, which officials spent about five months building.
Times staff writer Nicole Santa Cruz contributed to this report.