A Look at the 18th Street Gang

A Gang that has Exploded on the Scene in South America has its Roots in the Barrio’s of Los Angeles.

In the chronicles of California street lore, the 18th Street gang, also known as M18, Calle 18, Barrio 18, La18 or Mara-18 in Central America, reigns supreme as one of the granddaddies of Los Angeles gangster culture. An iconic underworld brand that has spanned countries and even continents, becoming a mainstay of the American Dream aka gangster version. 

Estimated to have close to 15 thousand members in Los Angeles county alone, the various “clicka’s” that operate in the greater metropolitan area, form the nucleus of multi-ethnic transnational criminal organization steeped in “vato loco” history, “Eme” edicts and “cholo” culture. The gang originated and came to power in the Pico Union area just east of the Staples Center in downtown LA, home to the scandalous Rampart Division, as an act of defiance around 1965. 

“Barrio 18 grew out of the Clanton Street gang, which was formed back in the 1920s in Los Angeles.” Ioan Grillo, author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, tells Real Crime. “Barrio 18 stood out from other Chicano street gangs by letting non Mexicans in. Others including Filipinos and even Indians joined. Later, many Salvadorans, who arrived as refugees from the civil war, got in the mix.” 

Situated between the Santa Monica Freeway to the south and the Harbor Freeway to the east, original members were part of the Clanton 14th Street neighborhood, but when that gang started kicking out anybody who wasn’t Mexican-American, former members broke off and started a new gang, Clanton 18th Street, which eventually morphed into Barrio 18th Street.

“One of the reasons why original Clanton members began to reject the 18th click, was because it was being led by a non Mexican-American, named Rocky Lee Glover,” Alex Alonso, editor at Streetgangs.com, said. “The new click members had to make a decision between falling in line with Clanton 14 and the strict rule of Mexican-Americans only, or take a defiant position to start their own gang and create Barrio 18th Street.”

Barrio legend holds that Rocky Glover and his supporters dropped the Clanton off their name and became rivals against their former cohorts. Over the years 18th Street grew and came to dominate numerous Los Angeles county barrios. From Pico Union to West Adams to South Los Angeles to Inglewood to the San Gabriel Valley to East LA. Their policy of jumping in members, even those not of Mexican descent, fueled their growth in numbers rapidly. 

“Because of its aggressive recruiting techniques the name of this gang has caught on and has been copied and mimicked in several other cities and countries around the world.” Alonso said. “Contrary to popular belief, not all of the 18th Street neighborhoods operate in unison, know each other, or even get along.”

It’s the biggest and deadliest street gang to ever rise from Los Angeles’ criminal gangscape, a city infamous for its street gangs. Eighteenth Street is 20 times the size of the notorious Bloods and Crips, noted LA gangs. The gang broke with Latino tradition and opened its ranks to all races from the neighborhood in a calculated move to boost its numbers. It’s primary recruitment targets have remained immigrant youngsters.

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Gangster Reputation

The FBI has reported that the gang currently has 65,000 members nationwide with “clicka’s” in 120 cities and 37 states. In California, upwards of 80 percent of the gang’s membership is illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America. They stream in over the border from their home countries transporting drugs, raping and pillaging, and committing murders. All sanctioned crimes in the millennial gangster handbook.

“Loyalty is gained by spilling blood.” Grillo says. “If you want to join in Honduras or El Salvador you have to kill people to get in. And it might not be one person, it might be three of even five. That level of violence is not commonplace in the United States, but south of the border it’s anything goes and that makes a world of difference.” 

In Central and South America gang tactics differ from those in the US. With more room to get away with crime, the criminals are bolder. The police are more corrupt too, willing to murder a gang member rather than arrest him. With the stakes that much higher, t a new gangster’s loyalty is put to the test in the ultimate fashion.

“In the US they don’t do that.” Grillo says. “When they recruit people in the US they will say go do this job, like take this kilo of cocaine over there. Do this job with risk, but not murder because they can’t get away with that level of murder in the United States. They can’t kill people in the US like they do in Honduras or El Salvador because the police will come down on them to hard. There is so much more they can get away with down there which makes a world of difference.”

The gang concentrates it efforts on the street-level distribution of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. Gang members also engage in crimes such as gun trafficking, assault, auto theft, carjacking, drive-by shooting, extortion, homicide, identification fraud and robbery. Someone in Los Angeles County is assaulted or robbed by an 18th Street gang member every day. The gang has left a bloody trail of victims, the body count rising each year as guns, drugs and money comes into play.

In the mid-1990s the Los Angeles Attorney’s office filed a complaint that said 18th Street gang members were a public nuisance. Prosecutors asked the court to grant an injunction that would prohibit gang members from congregating. They “terrorize and intimidate” law-abiding residents in their neighborhood “by engaging in murder, attempted murder, drug sales, residential and car burglary, robbery, attempted kidnapping, and assaults with deadly weapons.” The complaint said.

The gang’s wide-ranging activities even put the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement on alert. In the early 2000s up until the present day, the feds have initiated wide-scale raids against known and suspected gang members, resulting in hundreds of arrests across the country.

“Defendants fire guns at members of rival gangs and members of the public at large . . . to show their ‘bravado’ and mastery over their ‘turf,’ ” the Superior Court complaint stated. “18th Street is a well established gang that is involved in all areas of street-crime.” The gang’s stronghold remains in Los Angeles, but countless gangs outside the city have appropriated the moniker. “With that brand name,”  Alonso said. “They get instant recognition.”

Code of Conduct

Law enforcement says that 18th Street has strong ties to the Mexican Mafia prison gang and deals directly with the Mexican and Colombian cartels. They’ve also pioneered the renting of street corners to non-gang dope peddlers, who are forced to pay “taxes,” sometimes at an hourly rate.

In 18th Street there’s no Godfather or Don Dada. Instead, the gang’s older member “veteranos” oversee a chaotic network of cliques, whose members share an intense loyalty to the gang’s values and ambitions. Which include abiding by a strict set of rules. Failure to obey the word of a superior or to show proper respect to a fellow gang member can result in an 18-second ass whooping, or even an execution, for more serious offenses.

Through their affiliation with the Mexican Mafia, 18th Street has asserted control over the state prison’s narcotics trade. A lot of money was generated from the prisons through drugs. The “big homies” from 18th Street who graduated to the Mexican Mafia in prison act as the “shotcallers” while the “soldado’s” in the street “put in work.” Following all the edicts sent out via “kites” from the career prison gangsters.

On the street the gang resembles a kind of children’s army, with many juveniles involved in gang operation. While the “veteranos” remain in the shadows, often times in prison, the youngsters bolster the gang’s numbers and carry out it’s criminal activity. In secret meetings, the “veteranos” exchange plans, plot strategies, “greenlight” enemies and share information on rats, snitches and investigations. 

The gang’s structure and layers of “soldado’s” has insulated it from racketeering prosecutions, but also kept 18th Street from becoming a traditional criminal syndicate. They regularly turn to elementary and middle-school aged youth. Looking for kids between the ages of 11 and 13 who’re on the fringes of gang life. By offering protection, brotherhood and friendship they recruit fresh blood and bait for their ongoing gang wars.

When 18th Street surfaces, the quality of life suffers, causing despair for locals and problems for law enforcement. Cars are stolen, homes burglarized. Drugs sold and murders committed. Drug dealers robbed and denizens of the street killed. It’s a violent, violent world.

International Reach

Since the 1990s 18th Street has been one of the largest street gangs in Los Angeles with cells, or cliques, across a number of neighborhoods. Gang leaders deported in the 1990s also helped spread the gang across Central America and into Mexico. Transplanted 18th Streeters also have exported their criminal ways to other states and countries.

“When gang members were deported back to Central America, they took the gang with them.” Grillo says. “But in El Salvador and Honduras and Guatemala, they found they could get away with more than in the United States, as the police forces were much weaker. So they mutated becoming much more violent. They got heavier guns and they recruited more people and this new generation of gang members they don’t know the United States, they know the gang was originally brought there. They might have an American gang name, but they’ve never been to Los Angeles and the level of violence is crazy.”

The major gangs operating in Central America with ties to the United States are 18th Street gang and their main rival, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). As members of the rival Mara Salvatrucha also grew in Central America, they fought a bloody turf war with 18th Street that cut right across the region. Barrio 18, as they are known, and Mara Salvatrucha have helped make El Salvador and Honduras into two of the most violent countries in the world.

“In Honduras, I asked when these guys got so violent,” Grillo says. “Someone told me it was after they saw the movie Blood In, Blood Out dubbed into Spanish. The young gangsters all know that movie by heart.”

Global Brand

As part of Los Angeles’ storied gang culture, 18th Street stayed true to the tenets of gang banging. Green lighting enemies, disciplining their own members severely and taxing their own territories ruthlessly. The gang of now mostly second generation and third generations hispanics has seemingly achieved the notoriety of a brand. A recognized force in gang and drug politics.

“Eighteenth Street is like a many-headed hydra,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory W. Jessner, who oversaw a prosecutorial task force targeting the gang, said. The LA gang has become one of the largest youth gangs in the Western Hemisphere. It’s size and ability to recruit across ethnic lines make the L.A.-based network one of the most prolific gangs in the nation, and even the world.

In El Salvador today the gang has over 60,000 members and is responsible for the gang crisis that’s making international headline news. Eighteenth Street and MS-13 have the country gripped in fear as they kill each other off. Despite a truce, formed from the prisons outward, the violence is getting worse, with over 23 Salvadoran’s killed per day in 2016. The gang has been known to light buses full of people on fire, engage in guerrilla urban warfare and kill police. 

El Salvador is the murder capital of the world right now. Last year there were close to 7000 murders. The failed gang truce led to rivers of blood flowing in the country and the government, at the end of their rope, are now arresting gang members on site. Getting them off the street and in prison, one way or another.

“You can follow guns that travel from the United States and Mexico all the way to Central America.” Grillo tells Real Crime. “You have these physical connections that you find, but also you see the similarities of the situations. It’s not a coincidence that suddenly you have cartel-related violence in Mexico killing 17,000 people a year, and organized crime violence is killing tens of thousands in El Salvador and Honduras, too.”

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