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A guide to the creation, rise and rule of Latino gangs in the U.S.

By Nick Wooldridge


The murder of a Latino gang member reported this past May in Vice serves as the backdrop to the widespread attention currently being pushed on California’s record dryness and its struggling agriculture production, much of which is found in the Central Valley.

Despite gang-related crime in Los Angeles dropping, the same can’t always be said for smaller towns. At the heart of most of the crime are Latino gangs. Driven out of Los Angeles by several factors, drowsy little towns like Modesto aren’t so sleepy and safe anymore.

The small towns—Modesto is home to approximately 200,000 people—cities and farms that lie across the valley provide a sizable percentage of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. But in some of the region’s minority communities, young Latinos suffer from hopelessness extreme enough to drive them to join illegal organizations run by men living in penitentiaries hundreds of miles away.

Three Latino gangs that consistently appear in law enforcement’s crosshairs are M-13, Sinaloa Cartel, Sureños X3 and the Mexican Mafia.


Mara Salvatrucha also known as MS-13 is a global criminal gang that started in Los Angeles, California. It has expanded to other sections of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. The bulk of the gang is ethnically formed of Central Americans (mostly Salvadorans) and operating in metropolitan and suburban neighborhoods.

In America, the MS-13 has an unusually massive membership in Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California, and Washington, D.C. A heavy presence of MS-13 is also found in Maryland, New York, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Members of MS distinguish themselves by tattoos wrapping the body and also frequently the face.They are infamous for their use of force and a subcultural moral code that predominantly consists of ruthless vengeance and cruel reprisals. This cruelty of the prominent members of the “Maras” or “Mareros” earned them a route to be selected by the Sinaloa Cartel clashing against Los Zetas in a continuing drug war south of the United States border.

Sinaloa Cartel

The Sinaloa Cartel is a global drug trafficking, money laundering, and organized crime organization. Founded during the mid-1980s, the Sinaloa Cartel is based principally in Culiacán, Sinaloa.

The United States Intelligence Community recognizes the Sinaloa Cartel “the most dominant drug trafficking organization in the world” and in 2011, the Los Angeles Times called it “Mexico’s most powerful organized crime group.” The Sinaloa Cartel is connected with the label “Golden Triangle”, which applies to the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. The region is a major generator of Mexican opium and marijuana. According to the U.S. Attorney General, the Sinaloa Cartel handles shipping and distributing over 190 tons of coke into the US.

Sureños X3

Sureños, Sur 13, or Sureños X3 are associations of loosely associated gangs that give tribute to the Mexican Mafia while in American federal prisons. Many Sureño gangs have disputes with one another and the only time this animosity is forgotten is when they enter the prison system. Thus, combat is prevalent among various Sureño gangs even though they share the same general identity.

Mexican Mafia

The Mexican Mafia is a highly organized Mexican-American criminal organization in the United States. Despite its name, the Mexican Mafia did not originate in Mexico and were entirely an American criminal prison group. Law enforcement officials report that there are currently 155–300 official members of the Mexican Mafia with around 990 associates who assist in carrying out its illegal activities in the hopes of becoming full members.

Besides the restraining effect of brutal gangs, other dynamics are at work as well to reduce overall gang violence.

Gang Violence Declines

The “decade of death” lasted from 1988 to 1998. A thousand people a year were killed in Los Angeles during that decade. Gangs didn’t rule all of the neighborhoods, but the ones they ruled, they terrorized. Drugs were moved in the open on street corners, drive-by shootings were frequent and wearing the wrong color on the wrong street was seen as a death wish.

It seems unlikely now. There are still sections of Los Angeles that are disastrous, where blight reigns and brutality rules, but to believe that LA is unchanged is to ignore the statistics.

In the four years — 2008 – 2012, violent crimes dropped nationally by an average of 16%. In Los Angeles, the drop was sharper, even in gang areas:

• Compton 30%

• Bell Gardens 50%

• El Monte 50%

Gang-related murders in LA have dropped over 66%, and gang-related crimes have dropped 55%.

What’s behind the decline? The only answer on which everyone can agree is, there’s no single answer. There are several theories. If the theories are considered and how they build on each other, it can be easy to see why Los Angeles is safer than it’s been since Eisenhower was in the White House.


Prison Gangs are Rational

David Skarbek, author of “The Social Order of the Underworld,” argues that gangs offer protection and governance where established institutions have failed. Skarbek argues that it makes sense for prisoners to join gangs.

Gangs, in prison, weren’t around until the early 50s. Inmates were ruled according to the “convict code,” which consisted of unwritten rules and followed by everyone. With a small prison population, it worked. Reputations, fear of ostracism and assault kept everyone in line, and there was no need for gangs.

As the prison population grew, the code started to fall apart. It wasn’t possible to keep a “badass reputation” with the huge numbers of inmates. Violent inmates made the prisons more dangerous. And corrections officers couldn’t be relied on to keep everyone safe.

Gangs began to provide protection. Later, they developed businesses that controlled the prisoner’s illegal market in products such as guns and drugs.

Even the division of gangs along racial lines is reasonable. To function properly, all members of a prison gang accept responsibility for the actions of the other members. The ability to identify other gang members is critical to keep outsiders from damaging the group’s reputation and race provide a way of doing so. In an all-male environment where everyone wears the same clothes, race provides a lot of information — fast. It is impossible to hide or change; segregation prevents inmates from moving from group to group.

More Police

When William Bratton took over the LAPD in 2002, he immediately hired 1,000 new cops. They weren’t brought on to bust heads. Instead, the department’s new mantra became: “We can’t arrest our way out of the problem.”

Bratton encouraged cops to get involved in the lives of the people in the neighborhoods they were policing. Bratton even tied officers’ careers to their success in community outreach. The division commanders became community problem-solvers and lobbied on behalf of residents for city services even for mundane things like repairing potholes and trimming trees.

CompStat was something else Bratton brought in besides an attitude change. CompStat offers real-time statistical monitoring of criminal activity and has helped shift commanders better deploy resources.


When the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act passed in 1970, the target was organized crime groups such as the Genovese and Gambino families. RICO sent John Gotti, and others, to jail.

RICO has morphed into a tool used against street gangs. Prosecutors charge a person even if that person was nowhere near the crime scene, but instead conspired with those who actually did the crime. Additionally, a pretrial financial restraining order can be issued to seize all of the defendant’s assets. With forfeitable property gone, the gang is kept from liquidating its ill-gained profits.

A RICO conviction will land the convicted in federal prison where sentences are not reduced, and parole isn’t an option.

As written in Pacific Standard, “To my eye, the results of most RICO prosecutions against Southern California gangs have been climactic, as if a series of anthills had been not just displaced but dug up whole.”


In Los Angeles, real estate is a factor. Rising home prices throughout the city have changed the demographics of many neighborhoods. Even the worst neighborhoods where Crips once resided are now filling up with young white hipsters or new immigrants. Gang neighborhoods have become less insular and less territory-obsessed. Real estate prices have also forced some of the worst out of town and into places where they don’t know as many people.

It can be hard to be a thug when you’re stuck in traffic on the 405.

Corner Boy

Intersections in South Central LA were among the most vicious area of during the “decade of death.” City Council passed the gang injunction that made it a misdemeanor for gang members to hang out in public. The logic is simple. When you don’t have kids hanging out, there’s no one to shoot or do the shooting.

Mexican Mafia

There are less than 300 members of the Mexican Mafia, but they are known for the murders, human trafficking and drug dealing that they orchestrate from behind bars. In 2011, for example, the Mexican Mafia ordered an Azusa, California, gang to carry out the racial cleansing of all blacks from the largely Latino city.

Ironically, the Mexican Mafia has helped clean up the LA gang problem. Its brutality has frightened off potential members who would otherwise be seeking to join other gangs. The awesome specter of retribution by Mexican Mafia has also changed criminal behavior in prison. The Pacific Standard notes that most prisoners who seek protective custody in America are Latino gang members from Southern California. The reason? They are afraid of the Mexican Mafia.


Some of the credit for reducing gang violence goes to the city’s network of faith-based groups. When it comes to intervention programs, Homeboy Industries has been the most successful. Homeboy Industries helps keep 15,000 a year from returning to street life by providing job training and hiring former gang members in one of its businesses.

“We provide an exit ramp from street life,” said Reverend Greg Boyle, Homeboy Industries’ founder. “Community always trumps gangs.”

Race-Based Gangs

Simple demographics leads to the mostly race-based gangs. Individuals who live in the area inside gang’s territory tend to be of the same racial makeup due mainly to socioeconomic issues.

Most, modern-day, gangs don’t care about race. At least race isn’t their main focus.

Gangs are not sitting around theorizing in academic ivory towers about race relations and studying power dynamics. They’re mainly concerned with survival and money and the acquisition of more money.

Admittedly, though, some prison gangs do care about race. Often inmates tend to fall out along racial lines and have developed powerful racial alliances. Gangs such as the Black Dragons, Wah Ching and the Vietnamese Asian Boyz, Puerto Rican Latin Kings, Bloods, Crips, and Pirus best illustrate the racial lines along which gang affiliations are made. Both gangs were formed in response to harassment from Mexican gangs in California.

Despite this, in the California penal system, one of the more powerful racial alliances has been between Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood. The alliance wields considerable power and reaches to the street.

Almost all other minority gangs in America were formed initially to combat systematic white on minority racism. points out that Latino and black gangs in South Central Los Angeles were formed in response to white racism.

The site says:

“The biggest of these groups were the Spook Hunters. “Spook” is a pejorative expression used for Black people. Throughout the 1940s, the Ku Klux Klan also appeared in LA. The initial Black and Latino gangs were in answer to these white gangs. The gangs served as security for Black and Latino neighborhoods. “

There may be some truth to that. Following the Watts Riots of 1965, “white flight” left a lot of South Los Angeles to become mostly Black or Latino. This led to many of the gangs beginning to battle each other since there were no longer white gangs. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, gangs almost completely ended as many of the gangs became active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Nick Wooldridge is partner in the law practice Bukh & Assoiciates, PLLC, which protects the rights and interests of the minority and immigrant populations of New York.

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