First of two articles
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 gang-banging 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 that 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 gang 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.
Mara Salvatrucha was begun by refugees from El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s, some of whom landed in the Washington area, which has the nation's second-largest Salvadoran population. But Mexican gangs already dominated the Latino districts of Los Angeles, and Salvadorans were not welcomed into the gang culture.
Mara means group or gathering of friends, although now it often takes on the meaning of gang. Some of the refugees had been guerrillas in the Salvadoran war, and police said salva signifies Salvadoran and trucha means someone to beware of.
The gang started inconspicuously, Zeigler said -- not with tattoos and weapons but with long hair and black T-shirts. The founding members were heavy-metal music fans, and Zeigler said the MS gang sign comes from the raised index and pinkie finger salutes that rock fans use.
Because they hadn't adopted the look used by other gangs, they flew under the police radar, Zeigler said. "That's how they got so big so quick," Zeigler added. Then MS began recruiting Central Americans from other gangs and using the intelligence from new members to wipe out their opposition. By the mid-1980s, MS had a significant presence in Los Angeles.
Still, police said, the Mexican Mafia dominates Southern California, in part because of its powerful control of inmates in the California prison system. Zeigler and other police officials said that gang members know their day in prison is inevitable, so smaller gangs pay taxes to the Mexican Mafia, for peace on the street and protection behind bars.
The tax can be as much as $10,000 a month, and Zeigler said the Mexican Mafia taxes "the hell out of MS." If a gang has paid its fees, it can place the number "13" after its name, for the "M" in Mexican Mafia, the 13th letter of the alphabet. Thus, in California, Mara Salvatrucha is known as MS-13.
The Salvadoran gang has its own resources, gained from drug dealing and extortion of businesses on their turf and also extortion of non-member drug dealers, according to Zeigler and Sgt. Curtis Woodle of the Rampart division. They said MS has a worldwide leader, Nelson Camandarie, who moves between Los Angeles and El Salvador and deploys MS members on various missions.
"He's the CEO," Zeigler said, adding that he had learned that Camandarie planned to send representatives to the East Coast to encourage MS members to focus on profit-making instead of violence.
Zeigler and Woodle also said that the MS and 18th Street gangs here "have kind of a treaty going right now" and have agreed to settle any disputes through meetings rather than violence. Woodle said the Mexican Mafia had ordered the truce, in part to preserve its own sources of profit.
Smith, the Fairfax gang sergeant, said Los Angeles "is still ground zero for MS in the United States." He said Fairfax was "the East Coast hub, but second fiddle to L.A. These guys take their marching orders from L.A."
Communication between the two coasts is frequent, Smith said. "On some levels, they're a lot more sophisticated than people think," he said. "L.A. and Northern Virginia communicate with El Salvador," although he did not think there was any pipeline of money or guns between Fairfax and the other two MS bases.
Although many cities have struggled to contain gangs, Los Angeles has devised a new approach that police said seems to be working. The city has filed lawsuits against specific gangs, and in March it obtained a public nuisance injunction against MS. The injunction prohibits two known gang members from hanging out publicly, establishes a curfew for known gang members and sets up safety zones.
Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo said in March that the safety zones defined by the MS curfew were the largest geographically of any of the previous 20 gang injunctions, including those against the Bloods and the Crips. He also called MS the second-largest gang in the city and said that 18 homicides had been linked to the gang since last year.
As Zeigler patrolled one night recently, he chatted with individual MS members, including one being investigated for a killing, but saw none in pairs. He has served dozens of gang members with copies of the injunction and made 50 arrests after documenting their gang history and subsequent injunction violation.
"It works," Zeigler said of the injunction. "I know for a fact I've saved at least a dozen lives, because they've gone to jail. The graffiti in the neighborhood has gone down. Crime has gone down."
De Jeda disagreed, as did Alex Sanchez, a former MS member who is program director of Homies Unidos, a gang assistance program. "It has pushed people away from the neighborhoods," Sanchez acknowledged, but he also thought that it had been used unfairly and too often on people who were trying to escape gangs.
De Jeda, now 33, escaped the 18th Street gang but only after several years in federal prison for drug dealing.
"I grew up with that gang mentality," said De Jeda. "I was 12 years old, selling drugs, using drugs, even sleeping in stolen cars," he said. "Everything was about the streets. I started going to jail in seventh grade."
He has been shot twice, including once in a drive-by, the only one of five to survive. Now he is chief of staff for a gang assistance group called "N.O. G.U.N.S.," an acronym for Networks Organizing for Gang Unity and Neighborhood Safety. He steers gang members into jobs and training programs and takes youngsters to amusement parks and other diversions from the street life.
"The only thing we knew growing up was gangbanging, selling drugs," de Jeda said. "We didn't know nothing about going to Magic Mountain, toys, having fun." He is trying to teach a new generation about those things.
Tomorrow: Gang detectives say they need more manpower, not overlapping task forces.