Area Gangs Pushed Beyond Turf Battles
Impatient L.A. Bosses Urge Drug Sales
By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page C01
First of two articles
LOS ANGELES -- As George Avlos de Jeda cruises the streets these days, fresh graffiti still mark the boundaries of countless turf territories, but the clumps of ominous-looking thugs are disappearing.
"A lot has changed with gangbanging," the former gang member remarks as he drives through the Rampart neighborhood, the origin of the Mara Salvatrucha gang's empire. "A lot of guys, they're not fighting anymore. We got 18th Street," the city's largest Latino gang, "and MS working side by side."
This is not exactly a positive development. The two rival gangs, which have established formidable outposts in Northern Virginia in recent years, have realized that it's more profitable, and healthier, to focus on business -- drugs, extortion, prostitution -- than avenging petty turf struggles.
The result, police and former gang members said, is a lower public profile: more sedate cars, fewer tattoos and shaved heads, less overt menacing. And while internecine violence may be declining, the emergence of a lasting underworld is an even more daunting prospect.
"Before, you could tell who was gangbanging and who wasn't," said de Jeda, who now works to steer gang members off the streets and into jobs. "I think it's scarier now."
The evolution of Mara Salvatrucha and other Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles may foreshadow a trend in the Northern Virginia suburbs, gang experts said. At present, gang offshoots in Virginia have not shown a tendency toward such classic gang crime as drug dealing and extortion, specialties of the gangs in Los Angeles.
Although police in Northern Virginia have been seeing more drugs during arrests of local gang members, some question whether the younger members would ever be interested in establishing permanent criminal enterprises in the Washington suburbs.
But police on both coasts said Mara Salvatrucha is trying to export its business model to the East Coast. The gang's Los Angeles-based "shot callers" are reportedly impatient with the violent squabbles unfolding in Northern Virginia and are urging the leaders to get serious about making money.
Los Angeles Police Officer Matt Zeigler, who spends much of his time battling Mara Salvatrucha while patrolling the Rampart district, said he was told that MS leaders were "going to send a group of guys to the East Coast to teach them to do it L.A.-style." Sgt. Steve Newman, head of gang intelligence for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said the West Coast gangs "have migrated because it was easier to sell their dope there."
Fairfax County police have heard the same thing. "The L.A. gangs have been upset with the gangs in Northern Virginia because they haven't gotten into any kind of organized drug trade," said Sgt. Greg Smith of the gang unit. "They put pressure on them pretty consistently to do that."
Fairfax police say that Mara Salvatrucha has as many as 1,500 members in the large suburban county and possibly 1,000 more elsewhere in the region. The 18th Street gang and the South Side Locos, another L.A.-based gang, account for several hundred more members.
Police attribute a raft of violent attacks and killings in Northern Virginia to Mara Salvatrucha members: An MS member who witnessed one slaying and had agreed to testify about it allegedly was killed by other members in a murder-for-hire ordered from prison. A youth supposedly claiming allegiance to 18th Street was shot and killed by an MS member in Herndon in May. And a South Side Locos member was attacked by three alleged MS members wielding machetes in May, losing four fingers on one hand.
All of the Latino gangs in Northern Virginia have their roots in Los Angeles. And, L.A. police say, a gang that hasn't yet migrated to the East Coast -- the Mexican Mafia -- rules them all.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Los Angeles Police Officer Matt Zeigler points out details of a wall mural glorifying the notorious 18th Street gang, which has hundreds of members.
(Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
_____From The Post_____
Va.'s Gang Task Forces Overlap (The Washington Post, Aug 2, 2004)
Youth Changes Mind, Pleas on Machete Attack (The Washington Post, Jul 29, 2004)
Burke Man Gets 3 Years For Luring Teens to Gang (The Washington Post, Jul 24, 2004)
House Backs New Center For U.S. Gang Crackdown (The Washington Post, Jul 10, 2004)
In N.Va. Gang, A Brutal Sense Of Belonging (The Washington Post, Jun 28, 2004)