18th Street Gang – Government Or Not?

Around the 1960s, due to an influx of immigrants to L.A., especially from South America, the 18th Street Gang was formed. It started near the 18th Street (hence the name) and Union Avenue in the Rampart District of L.A., and was originally part of a gang called Clanton 14. However, because the group that would become the 18th Street Gang wanted to start a new division called Clanton 18 that would allow immigrants to join, and Clanton 14 rejected this proposal, the group broke away and formed the 18th Street Gang. Since that time, Clanton 14 and 18th Street Gang have been enemies, though not nearly on the same scale as 18th Street Gang and MS13.

The 18th Street Gang (also known as Barrio 18) allowed other nationalities and races to join, making it one of the first multi-racial and multi-ethnic gangs in L.A. At first, the gang was mostly comprised of second-generation Hispanic immigrants, but as they began to fight other gangs, they started recruiting non-Hispanic members. The tactic of recruiting from many different ethnicities/nationalities helped the gang as it moved into other nations.

In the 1990s, the U.S. made a change to its immigration policy, which led to the deportation of many foreign-born residents. This was especially prevalent in California for the 18th Street Gang, many of whose members were not citizens of the U.S. Thus, many 18th Street Gang members were deported back to Central America, where they started more divisions of the gang. Currently, the 18th Street Gang, although mostly operating in Southern California, also has cliques/divisions in about 37 other states and the District of Columbia as well. Internationally, there are divisions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Philippines, Lebanon, Spain, Germany, England, Canada, France, Italy, and Australia.

The 18th Street Gang acts like a government in the way that they can locally control transportation systems or demand protection fees, but does not act like a government in the way that it does not enact rules for the local citizens to follow, or even behave in exactly the same manner from place to place. The 18th Street Gang has no centralized government for itself or one overall leader, or even much interaction between different branches. Each branch tends to remain localized and focused on its own territory.

While the 18th Street Gang mainly focuses on distributing drugs (such as marijuana and cocaine) on the streets as a way to make money, members and divisions have branched out into: “murders, murder-for-hire, assaults, arson, copyright infringement, drug trafficking, extortion, human trafficking, illegal immigration, kidnapping, vandalism, drug smuggling, people smuggling, prostitution, robbery, and weapons trafficking” – and that’s just the shortened list.

The most recent incident in the news directly concerning the 18th Street Gang exemplifies the local nature of the 18th Street Gang, and was a deliberate attempt by U.S. federal authorities to catch members of the 18th Street Gang in the middle of trafficking drugs. It was part of a larger investigation into the gang itself, which was in of itself a larger investigation into trafficking of drugs/firearms in Northern Virginia. Undercover agents pretending to be Miami drug traffickers set up the trap, in which they flew a plane full of fake cocaine to the unsuspecting members of the 18th Street Gang, and then arrested six members when they showed up to pick up the goods.

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are the areas where the 18th Street Gang is on the attack, and not on the defense like it is in places like the U.S. In researching the Guatemalan operations against the 18th Street Gang and their rivals MS-13, which led to a decrease in the homicide rate when combined with other methods, and in Honduras, an attempted truce like the one in El Salvador (as explained in the next paragraph) failing, leading to no decrease in the rate of violence, there was no mention of interaction between any of the branches in those countries, leading to the conclusion that the tendency of the gang is to remain local.

One example of how powerful the 18th Street Gang is in certain places, and how much it affects things like the homicide rates and such, is El Salvador. In March 2012, the 18th Street Gang division (Barrio 18) in El Salvador and MS-13 took part in a truce, “mediated by local NGOs and the Catholic Church and facilitated by the government;” because of this truce, the homicide rate decreased. Before the truce, there were about 14 murders every day on average, whereas after the truce, this rate fell to about five a day. The truce was broken off in 2014, leading to increased homicide rates; but in April 2016 “a non-aggression pact” between the two gangs in El Salvador was announced. At the time of the “non-aggression pact,” the government had started a security crackdown, which the government later attributed to a drop in violence, rather than the pact between the two gangs. In 2017, the murder rate was about ten people a day until the 13th of January, where El Salvador had its first twenty-four hours without any murders in two years.

Some factions of the gang, the FBI says, “have developed a high level of sophistication and organization,” and seem almost governmental in their conduct, while others remain more unstructured and less organized. For most factions, while hierarchy exists, a central leadership is not as powerful since the gang’s organizational structure is more of a decentralized system. However, members are bound by a strict code. For instance, if a gang leader is not obeyed or if another member is not respected, the punishment may be a beating or even death for worse offenses. They even have specific ways to identify themselves, from colors (blue and black – blue represents the oldest California barrios, and black represents the gang’s original color) to numerical symbols (XV3 or XVIII, 666, 99, (9+9=18)) to patterns (3-dots) to, of course, the number 18. Often these signs and colors will appear in the gang’s outfits, tattoos, and graffiti. Interestingly enough, members will also identify themselves with sports clothing from teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, the Oakland Raiders, or the Los Angeles Dodgers, although it is unclear whether this is just the American based members or international members as well.

The 18th Street Gang’s power varies from place to place; while it does have certain codes and distinguishing items/marks that most, if not all, gang members use, it tends to vary in how its crimes are committed – from drug trafficking to faking papers to human trafficking and more. Overall, while some factions are stricter and more governmental than others, the 18th Street Gang is too decentralized, with no major central power, for the whole gang to be called a government. In conclusion, it seems more like a gang with governmental traits than a true government.

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