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Gangs Lay Low, Rake in Dough

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Fri, Sep 11, 2009 at 2:23 PM

Along the Olympic corridor between Koreatown and downtown, it's been a quiet year for crime. This despite the proximity of two of the largest gangs in the United States, 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, which used to be at each others throats.

click to enlarge Leeward Avenue in Koreatown is Mara Salvatrucha turf; 18th Street turf is but a block away - DENNIS ROMERO
  • Dennis Romero
  • Leeward Avenue in Koreatown is Mara Salvatrucha turf; 18th Street turf is but a block away
The former was declared the largest such criminal organization in Southern California by the Los Angeles Times; the latter has been called the nation's fastest-growing gang.

But in the Los Angeles Police Department's Olympic Division, which patrols the geographic borderline between the two organizations, gang-versus-gang crime is way down, and homicides are running about one-fifth of what they were in the area last year. 18th Street calls the area near the intersection of Olympic and Alvarado its ground zero. MS is closer to West Eighth Street and South Normandie Avenue. But the two come awfully close along South Hoover Street between Olympic and Wilshire.

One would think that two criminal organizations of this magnitude, in such a tight, dense area, with a history of bloodshed, would be at war. The calm on the street begs the question: Are these two groups operating under a ceasefire?

Alex Alonso, publisher of streetgangs.com and a widely quoted expert on the matter, says "I have noticed that area has been quite for several months going back to last year." But police and the district attorney's office could not confirm that an 18th Street-MS truce exists.

Tony Rafael runs the gang-intelligence blog In The Hat and last year authored the book The Mexican Mafia. He thinks many sets in the city have been lying low as a result of gang-thirsty law enforcement task forces -- and in the name of making a buck on the street. In other words, keeping the peace keeps customers coming to street corners known for narcotics.

"There isn't much warfare going on anywhere in the city except at the lowest, non-organized level," Rafael says. "There are two reasons for this. One, [U.S. Attorney] Tom O'Brien's various RICO prosecutions have a lot of the gangs keeping their heads down out of fear that if they elevate their visibility, they're next in line for the big hammer. In fact, there are more task forces in operation right now that at any time in history. What gets L.E. [law enforcement] attention is bloodshed. So they're consciously keeping that to a minimum. The second is that there's so much dope on the streets, [the gangs] are all making money. They're making enough money to at least keep themselves solvent and satisfy the Emeros [Mexican Mafia members] in prison with their cut of the proceeds.

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