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."