In the west-of-downtown neighborhoods ruled by the Mara Salvatrucha gang, crime is down. Experts have long observed détente between MS-13 and its longtime, next-door rival, 18th Street gang. In the 1990s and 2000s the war between them produced weekly casualties. Now violence is rare.
The number of shooting victims reported by the Los Angeles Police Department's Olympic Division, which covers core MS-13 turf, was down 50 percent at the end of April compared to the same time in 2015, according to LAPD data. Total arrests in the division are down 12 percent. Total violent crime is down 12.1 percent. An LAPD gang official agreed that MS-13 had by laying low, but he did not want to elaborate until diving deeper into crime stats.
Regardless, the gang continues to capture the imagination of politicians and federal law enforcement. Yesterday, a task force that has been investigating the gang's leadership for three years conducted early morning raids that netted 21 alleged members of MS-13 who face prosecution under a standing 41-count racketeering indictment, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Los Angeles.
"The indictment, which alleges violations of the federal Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, outlines the gang’s organizational structure, its affiliation with the Mexican Mafia prison gang, and its strict set of rules and punishment," according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Some of the gang's high-ranked members, however, were already in custody. They include Jose Balmore Romero, a suspect described as a former gang shot caller who "oversaw MS-13’s drug trafficking activities [and] coordinated the collection of extortionate 'taxes' and 'rent,' some of which was then distributed to Mexican Mafia members," according to the office.
The racketeering case targets 44 total members. Twenty were already behind bars when feds and local cops hit two dozen locations early yesterday. Three suspects remain fugitives: Irwin Garcia, Jesse Perez and Jorge Ram.
While the action came as the Trump administration has been vowing to crack down on MS-13, with the president falsely claiming that the gang took root after members crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and thrived under lax immigration policies in so-called sanctuary cities, officials were quick to point out that the investigation started long before he took office.
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LAPD Chief Charlie Beck told reporters that while some of the suspects were in the United States illegally, none were going to be handed over to immigration authorities. "These people are going to federal prison," he said. "Our sanctuary policies are what make us successful here, because we get people to talk."
Still, one gang expert questioned the effectiveness of such raids. Alex Sanchez, a former MS-13 member who now runs gang intervention nonprofit Homies Unidos, says this is at least the third federal racketeering raid against MS-13. (He was targeted in one but the case was ultimately dropped.) Officials claimed that the gang's leadership has been crippled and that L.A. membership is down to 800 from 1,200 at one point. But Sanchez disputes both assertions.
"You arrest 20 people now, there will be 20 people later taking their places," Sanchez says. "It's a mistake to think suppression will solve our problems when we don't look at the root causes — poverty, housing, education."
Sanchez argues that while this crackdown might not have been a formal Trump administration initiative, the effect is the same: Immigrant communities will come away afraid to cooperate with authorities. "If you bring a racketeering case into a community, it's going to put the gang on the front page and bring a level of insecurity to our community," Sanchez says. "It will undermine efforts to create safe communities for the undocumented."