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COLUMN ONE

An Inside Look at 18th St.'s Menace

Its size and ability to recruit across ethnic lines make the L.A.-based network one of the most prolific gangs in the nation, authorities say.

November 17, 1996|RICH CONNELL and ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Times librarian Janet Lundblad contributed research to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

18th Street Scenes: Tattoos The 18th Streeters from South-Central huddle curiously around their young homeboy.

A roving "tat" man is going to dress up "Gizmo's" tattoos--a 4-inch high, stylized 1 and 8 on the underside of each forearm.

A beefy marijuana joint is passed among some of the 18th Streeters. The tattoo artist fiddles with his battery-operated ink pen.

Gizmo had his tattoos drawn a year earlier by another artist. The numbers don't seem straight. They're too plain and the color has faded to a greenish hue.

Like an overstimulated toddler in a toy store, Gizmo, 14, is ricocheting from one possibility to the next.

"I want a collage. I want prison bars," he blurts out. "And jainas [women]."

But the artist says he will only do touch-up work because he has been stoned for three days and can't draw now.

For sanitation, Gizmo bums a cup of household bleach from a woman in a nearby apartment.

In slow procession, they all move to a parking lot behind an apartment building, next to an overflowing trash bin.

A homeboy is drafted to hold the four D-cell batteries bound with black tape. Tangled yellow and green wires lead to the motorized pen.

Squatted on a broken coffee table, in a small space between a tarp-covered wreck of a car and a cinder-block wall inscribed with "SC18," the tat man readies his pen.

With tissue dipped in bleach, he wipes a brown layer of dust and dirt from Gizmo's arm. Everyone laughs.

"Take a shower, homes," one gang member laughs.

The pen buzzes faintly as Gizmo takes deep drags off another joint.

For something that carries not only the risk of disease, but will mark a young boy for life, it's a chilling, casual scene.

Forty minutes and $20 later, Gizmo's tattoos are deeper, darker, and his skin is red.

He is neither pleased nor excited. As the tat man packs up, Gizmo mulls what should come next. "I've decided," he says finally. "I want weed plants."

Decades of Growth

While gangs usually remain confined to specific neighborhoods, 18th Street has spread across city, state and even international borders, becoming "a many-headed hydra," in the words of one federal prosecutor. Color coding shows how the gang has grown since the 1960s.

* Early 1960s: The 18th Street gang is formed in low-income, Mexican immigrant neighborhoods near the new crossroads of the Harbor and Santa Monica freeways, partly as self-defense against more established Chicano gangs.

* Late 1960s: Ridiculed by other gangs for taking anyone--including illegal immigrants and non-Latinos--18th Street gradually spreads through the Pico-Union and Westlake areas west of downtown Los Angeles and into El Sereno on the Eastside.

* 1970s: The gang fans out as upwardly mobile immigrant families seek new neighborhoods. Subsets sprout up in the San Fernando Valley and southeast Los Angeles County.

* Early 1980s: An influx of Central Americans into areas west of downtown allows the gang to grow rapidly. It becomes more violent as it moves into drug dealing. A census by gang leaders places membership in the 5,000 to 6,000 range.

* Mid-late 1980s: A string of new 18th Street cells form in South Los Angeles and Inglewood as the Latino population surges in traditionally African American neighborhoods.

* 1990s: The gang branches west to Culver City and West Los Angeles, east into Covina and south into Orange County. Law enforcement estimates its 1995 membership to be as manay as 20,000 in Southern California.

Sources: Law enforcement reports; interviews with investigators and gang members

18th Street Scenes: Baby Gangsters The boys--ages 9 to 15--are part of the 18th Street farm team. They are the "Baby Gangsters," a subset of the gang's Inglewood cell.

This is vintage 18th Street, which places a premium on recruiting young toughs who account for most of the gang's violence.

The 17 members of the Baby Gangsters are mostly in junior high. The youngest, "Lil' Man," is just 9 years old. They look forward to the day when they will be hanging with the "older guys."

"We're down for our neighborhood," says 14-year-old "Casper," as he and several young homeboys patrol Morningside High School after classes let out.

The boys boast about their exploits: stealing cars, beating a rival gang member unconscious, ripping off car stereos for party money.

The Baby Gangsters say they protect 18th Street from young challengers in the neighborhood.

"We kick their ass," Casper says. If they need help, they summon the older homeboys.

In Casper's arms is a tiny pit bull puppy. They call him Capone.

Like the boys, the puppy is in training for trouble. They want a fighting dog, with a big 18th Street tattoo on his soft underbelly.

Side by side, the Baby Gangsters walk the school's empty halls, sharing a joint.

The boys take turns exhaling streams of marijuana smoke into the puppy's mouth. When they put him down, he staggers along behind. They laugh.

"Silent," 13, who says he gets a kick out of setting fires, is trying to ignite a patch of dry grass.

He joined 18th Street after his mother died. His father started drinking, Silent says, and was "not taking good care of us."

Although his father stopped drinking and is doing better, Silent says "it's too late" because he has found another family--18th Street.

About This Series

Times staff writers Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez spent eight months exploring the culture and violence of the sprawling 18th Street gang. They spoke with hundreds of members, victims, experts and law enforcement officials for this three-part report.

* Today: Inside the gang, and the factors fueling its unparalleled growth.

* Monday: The devastation the gang has wrought on families and neighborhoods.

* Tuesday: Law enforcement stumbles in its campaign to stop the gang's advance.

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