Local police and the FBI have teamed up to take down some key players in the violent gang world in Los Angeles.
The final story of NPR's four-part series on gangs looks at how law enforcement has targeted the 18th Street gang, a Latino street gang that is considered the largest in Los Angeles.
The FBI has been trying to take down the 18th Street gang for more than a decade. But generations of gang leaders have made it difficult. The gang has as many as 30,000 members spread across Los Angeles and even as far away as Central America. It is made up of a collection of smaller groups, or cliques.
One of those cliques is the notorious Columbia Lil Cycos.
LAPD gang Detective Magdaleno Gomez says the Columbia Lil Cycos has ruled the streets of Los Angeles' MacArthur Park neighborhood since the 1960s.
"They're known for murders, robberies, kidnappings," he says, adding, "They make a lot of money selling dope."
Gomez says the 18th Street cliques offer protection from rival gangs in exchange for kickbacks from illegal street sales on narcotics, fake green cards, passports or driver's licenses.
Gomez says the Columbia Lil Cycos also tax illegal vendors. The gang takes a cut from people who sell food, anything counterfeit or anything illegal that goes on in the street.
Gomez's partner, Edgar Hernandez, says dealers and vendors understand the consequence of refusing to pay those taxes to the clique.
"Individuals that didn't want to pay for selling illegally on the streets have got shot, stabbed and even been murdered," Hernandez says.
Last September, one DVD vendor stood up to the gang. He was shot, as was a 23-day-old baby in a stroller nearby. Six Columbia Lil Cycos members will soon stand trial in connection with the baby's death.
A month later, the FBI arrested the leader of that clique — the so-called shot caller — along with his wife and 17 alleged associates and drug dealers on federal charges of distributing crack cocaine. His name is Sergio Pantoja, but he's known on the streets as "Tricky."
Hernandez alleges Pantoja operated a tattoo parlor that was actually a front for an elaborate drug dealing and extortion racket.
Pantoja's tattooed back, chest and arms are filled with Aztec and Mexican symbols, Hernandez says, possibly to show alliance to the Mexican Mafia — a huge Latino prison gang made up of leaders from many street gangs.
Pantoja is the latest alleged shot caller in a tangled hierarchy running from the streets to the prisons.
Running the Streets
At the top of that chain is a man they call "Puppet." Francisco Martinez allegedly belongs to the Mexican Mafia. In the late 1990s, he was said to be pulling the strings from federal prison while serving time for immigration violations.
In 2002, the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office helped convict Martinez on racketeering, murder and other charges. He received three life sentences and is serving time in the nation's highest-security prison.
Bruce Riordan, who handled the Martinez case as a federal prosecutor, says federal informants and wiretaps make it possible to lock up top-tier gang leaders in federal prison. The cases "are no different in scope and significance from the cases that many people are familiar with that have taken down the five families of New York," Riordan says.
Experts say that like the Italian Mafia, the so-called Mexican Mafia operates and runs the streets from federal prisons.
"They enjoy a huge reverence in the prison system; they're like little gods," says retired L.A. Sherriff's Deputy Richard Valdemar.
Valdemar was on the FBI task force to take down the 18th Street gang in the 1990s. He argues that locking up gang leaders has only strengthened the Mexican Mafia, whose members find ways to send out orders to the street gangs from behind bars.
"The system itself tries to isolate them and take away their privileges, but the underground, covert system makes them powerful," Valdemar says. "Some of these guys are brilliant, too. We can't think of gang members as being dumb kids who failed in school and just took up the thug life. No, these guys that reached the top of the prison gang food chain — these guys are brilliant and they could run corporate organizations if they had a mind to do that."
The Next Shot Caller
Gang researcher Alex Alonso, who runs the Web site Streetgangs.com, says that with each takedown by law enforcement, new and sometimes more violent shot callers rise up in the ranks.
"Within a short time, there's gonna be new guys from 18th Street to replace the old guys that were removed — sometimes within minutes or hours," Alonso says.
Even so, federal and local authorities believe they've put a dent in the 18th Street Gang's criminal enterprise, at least for now. They're on the lookout for who might be the next shot caller. And there will be another one, says ex-gang member Alex Sanchez.
"Those are our local heroes," says Sanchez, shaking his head. "It's sad to say those are our role models. How many children are looking out for those role models in those neighborhoods and they want to be like them?"
The lure of the gang culture, he says, may be stronger than any federal-local anti-gang collaboration.