As a journalist who has covered the street gangs of Los Angeles off and on for the past 17 years, I have often stated, with perverse pride, “L.A. has the best street gangs in the United States,” the way someone might boast about Yosemite’s waterfalls. Big and gaudy and violent, they’ve been rapped about and emulated the world over. But lately if you don’t live in a gang-infested neighborhood, you’d be forgiven for thinking that thugs are forsaking the thug life. Annual city homicide totals are down dramatically from the early 1990s, when there were more than 1,000 killings (nearly half of them gang related), to fewer than 300 in 2012.
But don’t be mistaken. The gangs are still here causing nightly heartbreak. They just aren’t as flagrant as they once were. Among the reasons: the huge drop in crack use, intense gang intervention efforts by former gang members, and police strategies that include upping their presence (along with surveillance cameras) in the Watts projects and bettering their relations with community leaders. There’s also the sheer number of dead and imprisoned gang members to consider as well as the exodus of thousands of others to “expansion cities.”
Those aren’t the only theories. “I think it’s more about business,” says Los Angeles Police Department sergeant Richard Lozano, who works in the Rampart gang unit that oversees the area around MacArthur Park. “The violence brings too much attention from us, and that ruins the potential for making money.” In the park itself several gang factions manage to sell their drugs without killing one another. You’ve got the Columbia Lil Cycos, the most notorious clique of the 18th Street Gang, in the northeast quadrant. Almost half the park is held by two large factions of Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS13. Another large chunk belongs to the Crazy Riders, and several other gangs exist in the surrounding area. This year’s death toll so far? Zero.
Miles south of MacArthur Park, the quest for illicit financial gain has produced some strange partnerships. “It’s not unheard of anymore for some guy from Grape Street to team up with a Hoover [Street Criminal] to go rob someone or break into a house,” says LAPD detective Chris Barling, head of homicide at the 77th Street Division. Acting on street intelligence that no one will be at a residence, members from two or three gangs clean the place out—what they call “flocking.” Or they might get together for a little “OTM,” as in Outta Town Money: Someone has connections in, say, Phoenix, and L.A. gangsters go there to burglarize houses with the local as their guide.
Gangs aren’t just less openly hostile to one another, though. They’re less specialized than they used to be, too. In the 1980s, the Rollin 60s and Rollin 90s were infamous for brazen bank robberies. Inglewood Family Bloods did “smash and grabs” at jewelry stores. The Bounty Hunters, operating out of Nickerson Gardens, robbed motorists along Imperial Highway on an hourly basis. In Boyle Heights, Big Hazard from Ramona Gardens earned a reputation for their convenient “drive-ins,” where customers copped drugs without leaving their cars. Home invasions? They were a trademark of Asian gangs. But these days “there’s no secrets in the gang world,” says Cleamon “Big Evil” Johnson, who led the 89 Family Bloods and won an appeal in 2011 after spending 14 years on death row and is now in county jail awaiting retrial. “When other gangs heard that someone was doing good with a crime, they’d be on it, too.”
That said, no gang can do credit card or medical fraud like Armenian Power (I’d recommend paying cash at a 99 Cents-Only store). The Avenues have a notorious specialty as well: The region’s preeminent gangster racists, they’re known for trying to rid Highland Park of blacks through intimidation and murder.
But no matter how heinous the Avenues’ crimes, for sheer violence Highland Park can’t compare to the LAPD’s Southeast Division, which encompasses Green Meadows and Watts, among other neighborhoods. During the first four months of this year, there were 16 killings in 11 of the LAPD’s 21 divisions. In Southeast there were 17. In fact, the last gang-related funeral I went to, back in February, was for a guy from Southeast, and I can tell you nobody at the church that day was celebrating that gang deaths are down.
One Park, Three Worlds
Macarthur park is too big, crowded, and profitable for a single street gang to control. So for many years a détente of sorts has existed that allows three or four gangs to run the drug trade—nowadays mostly meth—in a park that in the 1990s saw several killings a year.
The Wanderers had a presence in the northwest portion of the park, but this less-trafficked area has been taken over in recent years by cliques of the Mara Salvatrucha, aka MS13.
Running the quadrant at 7th and Park View streets, the MacArthur Park Locos and the Rampart Locos are factions of MS13, the gang whose members are as well known—and feared—for their face-covering tattoos as for their violence.
The busiest section of the park, by 6th and Alvarado streets, has long been the bastion of the Columbia Lil Cycos, a clique of the 18th Street Gang. Though 18th Street is considered L.A.’s largest gang, with as many as 15,000 members, it’s actually an amalgam of 20 cliques.
The Crazy Riders, a mix of mainly Mexicans and Central Americans but also some blacks and whites, control the park’s southeast section. Far smaller than MS13, they began as a group of guys who played American football in the park.