Despite a drop in gang warfare, police and government officials said Monday that they are putting little faith in the Mexican Mafia's attempt to impose a "no drive-by shooting" rule on hundreds of Latino street gangs, contending that any reduction in bloodshed will probably be temporary and not necessarily attributable to the prison gang's influence.
While applauding any lessening of violence, authorities were also circumspect about the Mexican Mafia's ability to control tens of thousands of Latino gang members from behind bars--an effort disclosed Sunday in The Times. Although some older gang members have an appreciation for the Mexican Mafia's deadly wrath, officials said, there are too many younger members with disdain for all authority.
"The Mexican Mafia is a business, street gangs are a lifestyle--and there's a big difference," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Wes McBride, a veteran of the department's anti-gang unit. "The Mexican Mafia tends to be structured, with an identified leadership and codified rules of conduct. Street gangs come purely from emotion. They rebel against any authority, even among their own."
Authorities expressed concern that the Mexican Mafia is trying to expand its criminal enterprise beyond the penal system, but said they know of no effective way of cracking down on the underground syndicate, which has been handing down its edict to thousands of gang members in recent months at a series of meetings across Southern California.
"We haven't been all that effective in dealing with gang violence over the years as it is," said Barry J. Nidorf, head of the Los Angeles County Probation Department. If the Mexican Mafia has begun to unify the gangs, he said, "it's probably too late to do anything about it anyway."
Mike Genelin, head of the district attorney's hard-core gang division, added: "I'm concerned with stopping the violence on a permanent basis. The only way to do that is attack the causes that lead to gang activity in the first place . . . and not get sidetracked over something else that might or might not happen in the future."
Mayor Richard Riordan's office had no comment. A spokesman for Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams said only that the reduction in violence was welcome. "As it relates to any other pressures or issues involving any organized crime or gang activities, we certainly would not be making any kind of public comment," Cmdr. David Gascon said.
Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, said he planned to question Williams about the Mexican Mafia's edict at today's regularly scheduled commission meeting. "I want to know what it means and how it should be handled--in terms of capitalizing on an opportunity for some peace without playing into the hands of convicted felons," Greenebaum said.
Under its mandate, the Mexican Mafia--usually referred to as La EME, Spanish for the letter M--has told gang members that they can still attack rivals but have to approach them face to face. The indiscriminate nature of the drive-bys, the gangs have been told, needlessly hurts their community.
It is widely believed that the prison gang will try to enforce that edict behind bars; jail and prison officials have documented several stabbings of gang members who are believed to have committed drive-by shootings or rejected the EME's authority. It is also possible, officials say, that the Mexican Mafia will try to turn the street gangs against those who disobey the order.
Although it is difficult to measure the impact of the EME's threat, it has coincided with the only respite after years of record-setting death counts. Latino gang killings in communities patrolled by the Sheriff's Department are down about 15%, while gang homicides in some Los Angeles Police Department divisions are down as much as 50% from this time last year.
"The difference is tangible," said Father Tom Smolich, a Jesuit priest at Dolores Mission, which is surrounded by eight gangs from the Pico-Aliso housing project. "I don't know if I'd call it a truce. Let's just say it's an acknowledgment that the differences we have aren't worth shooting one another over."
That is the message also coming from two Latino gangs based in southern Los Angeles that held a news conference attended by about 100 gang members at Ross Snyder Park to announce a peace treaty of their own.
The accord between the Florencia and 38th Street gangs is the result of talks that began 1 1/2 years ago and is not related to the EME's no drive-by order, said Harry Warren, a crisis intervention worker for Community Youth Gang Services, which has been involved in the negotiations.
But Warren conceded that the Mexican Mafia's edict may be having an impact on some gang members' willingness to lay down their arms. Like other anti-gang activists, he said he would welcome the help of the EME or anyone else with influence over the gangs.
"My hat's off to anyone willing to work for peace," Warren said. "Hopefully, we can all join hands."
On the Eastside, however, there are signs of resistance to the Mexican Mafia's order. A week after the EME drew more than 1,000 gang members to a summit in Elysian Park, an estimated 500 gang members from the notorious Maravilla barrios met Sunday at Belvedere Park, reportedly to unite against the Mexican Mafia.
The Maravilla neighborhoods, which have had a long and contentious history with the EME, object to what gang members perceive as the prison gang's scheme to muscle in on narcotics trafficking in their community.
"Maravilla is the one that's fighting against the EME because the EME is using the so-called gang drive-by shooting thing as an excuse to collect money from all the different neighborhoods," said a Maravilla gang member who contacted The Times anonymously. "Maravilla is not going for that."