Even as the federal government announced this week that it would crack down on the Mara Salvatrucha gang, treating it as a “transnational criminal organization” on the level of a major drug cartel, L.A. police have had their hands full quelling an outbreak of violence on MS-13's home turf.
Since spring and as recently as Tuesday a spate of shootings has plagued the Koreatown area where the gang was born in the 1980s when El Salvadoran war refugees flooded the community.
The LAPD has been working hard in attempts to keep a lid on it:
MS and archenemy 18th Street, the other mega-gang in the Western Hemisphere, are based right next to each other, with Hoover Street serving as somewhat of a dividing line. They've gone to war in the past, making their territories a bloody mess during the 1990s.
(See map, below, with rough estimates of core MS turf to the left and core 18th Street turf to the right, with the caveat that both groups have satellite sets all over the city and many smaller gangs and subsets within their own neighborhoods).
View MS and 18th Street in a larger map
Police tell us the recent spate of shootings — at least a half-dozen — in Koreatown has brought in the troops, namely the 50-badge Violent Crimes Task Force.
Whether or not the violence marks a return to the old MS-vs.-18th Street rivalry, cops won't say. But most of the damage so far has been done on MS turf, with only one shooting that we know of happening over in traditional 18th Street territory during summer.
View Koreatown gang shootings in a larger map
Police believe the latest shooting in MS territory, which happened early Tuesday evening in the 3100 block of James M. Wood Boulevard, did not involve members of either gang but rather an outsider, the surviving victim, a member of Florencia 13 who had been in a personal dispute with the suspect.
In fact cops tell us that much of the latest violence in the area has been the result of squabbles among smaller gangs elbowing each other for turf and influence in the shadow of the mega-sets like MS and 18th Street. (And by mega we mean 38,000 MS members in the United States, Mexico and Central America, according to feds).
Gang Officer Ismael Carlos, who works the core MS beat in Koreatown out of the department's Olympic Division, says:
You have little gangs trying to claim some territory in that area.
Experts had indicated to us previously that things had been quiet in the area, even with the two largest gangs in America living side-by-side, possibly as the result of an unspoken truce aimed at creating a safer environment for business — street drug sales.
Police now say that still could be the case, but they also warn that a Central American truce between the two gangs doesn't seem to apply in the very neighborhoods where they were born.
Even though there's a truce down there, it doesn't seem to filter through to local areas and the uprisings here. It hasn't had the effect here that it has had in El Salvador. You have this 18th Street and MS rivalry always ongoing.
Det. Frank Flores, who works gangs citywide, says MS and violence in the area is affected by powerful forces, including gangsters who travel thousands of miles from Central America to be in Koreatown with the core set, “shot callers” who study police techniques in prison and then hit the streets, and other ego-driven leaders and street soldiers trying to make names for themselves.
Cops say the violence ebbs and flows and that even when a counterinsurgency by the Violent Crimes Task Force happens crime ticks up the minute the badges leave the area.
Things will quiet down because it's business. You have higher leadership that will influence them and try to keep things at a simmer instead of a boil. It's out of greed. It effects their bottom line.
The gang does brisk commerce at an open-air drug bizarre otherwise known as Leeward Avenue, which police say has been an intractable problem, with abandoned properties serving as storefronts and gang hangouts.
Will the U.S. Department of the Treasury's designation of MS as an international crime org worthy of its economic sanctions help things on the ground level?
“Any law, any extra hook we can get into these guys, it's a good thing,” says Flores.
In fact, the detective thinks neighboring 18th Street, which also has a transnational presence in Mexico, Central America and even overseas, is probably next on the feds' crackdown list:
I think 18th Street is not too far behind.