Tom Diaz

Posts Tagged ‘18th Street gang’

Why the Los Angeles Gang Tour and the Sicilian Mafia are Bad Ideas

In bad manners, Corruption, Crime, Cultural assassination, Drugs, Ethics in Washington, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Marijuana Debate, politics, Transnational crime, Turf Wars on January 31, 2010 at 3:44 pm

Survivors of Gunshot Wounds Suffer Pain, Indignity, and Often a Life of Daily Horrors

“This isn’t the Boy Scouts. It isn’t the chess club. It’s a world of violence.”

Los Angeles Police Department Detective and gang expert Frank Flores, quoted in article on MS-13 trial in Charlotte, NC, Charlotte Observer, January 14, 2010

Just when you thought Los Angeles couldn’t get any goofier or more self-defeating, an entrepreneurial former gang member turned “anti-gang activist” has started a gangland bus tour.

Alfred Lomas, 45, a former gang member and the creator of the tour ($65, lunch included), said this drive-by was about educating people on city life, while turning any profits into microloans and other initiatives aimed at providing gang members jobs.

“A Gangland Bus Tour, With Lunch and a Waiver,” The New York Times, January 16, 2010


Like the mudslides and wildfires that remind us the Los Angeles Basin was intended by its Maker for other than human habitation, this idea roared through the arid mind canyons of the Left Coast and swept thoughtful analysis into the Pacific Ocean like so much polluted runoff.

Not on the Tour

First, let’s be clear about one thing.  Lomas’s “tour” is going to skip the fundamental reality of gang life in Los Angeles.  You know, the inconvenient bits – drug and human trafficking, extortion, robbery, theft, armed violence, and most of all the visible toll of the dead (think funerals) and the limping, less visible trail of walking or wheelchair-bound wounded (think spinal injuries and those little plastic waste bag appendages).

This You Tube video fills in that weak point of the enterprise.

NOTE:  Some idiot at You Tube  disabled the video I had posted here some months ago — without warning — on the grounds that the images of actual gunshot victims in the video were merely shocking.

You Tube’s Google owners have learned well from their Chinese masters.  I’ll find another venue to host the video and add the link back here when I get it.

Meanwhile, I took down my You Tube site in protest of this idiotic and heavy-handed censorship.  Be warned.

I assume that one of the LA gangster world’s bought-an-paid-for-politicians got to YouTube, or some other thug-hugger.  In a paraphrase of Gen. Douglas MacArthur:  The Video Shall Return.

Superficial Rationales Sufficient for the Chattering Class

Rationale # 1. “Hey, it’s America, right?”

“What the heck, market what you got,” said Celeste Fremon, who writes the criminal justice blog Witness L.A. and has studied the city’s gangs.

Although she disputed whether several of the sites had a solid gang association, she said, “if it makes money for a good cause, more power to them.”

Rationale # 2. “Hey, his heart’s in the right place!”

Kevin Malone, a former general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who came to know Mr. Lomas through the center and is one of the financial backers of the project, said he might accept the criticism “if it was somebody other than” Mr. Lomas.

“But I know the guy’s heart,” he said. “He is not taking anything out. All he is doing is serving and giving. If that is exploitation, I hope somebody does that to me.”

Rationale # 3 (maybe … maybe not … demi-semi quavering)Gloria in excelsis scelestus ?”

Caregivers in Pediatric Intensive Care Units See Too Much of This from Gang Violence

“Everybody says we are the gang capital of the world, and that is certainly true, no denying that,” said the Rev. Gregory Boyle, who has spent decades trying to steer people out of gangs into legitimate work. “It’s hard to gloss over that. But there are two extremes we always need to avoid. One is demonizing the gang member, and the other extreme is romanticizing the gang.”

Snarky Rebuttals

With all due respect to Boyle, Malone, Lomas and Fremon, this is a bad idea on so many levels it makes LA’s most densely stacked freeway interchange look like a rural crossroads.

Snarky rebuttal # 1. Making money for a good cause?  That’s the test?


Let’s see, every whacked out terrorist in the universe – especially the ones who strap bombs into their underwear – thinks his or her cause is not only good, but also superior to every other cause on the planet.

Fund-raising for these “good causes” is intimately entwined in the depredations of global organized crime – included human trafficking, sex trafficking, drug trafficking, cigarette trafficking, traffic in phony products from lethal baby formula to fake designer jeans, and the bloody mayhem that accompanies all of the above.   In fact, there is a school of serious thought that the war in Afghanistan is at least as much about the drug trade as the Taliban’s odd socio-religious tyranny.

Street Gangs are the Retail Outlets for Drugs in America

And by the way, the point of this spear of criminality comes right down to L.A.’s ubiquitous marijuana “clinics,” which are a wonderful system of retail outlets for the illegal production and trafficking in weed by the Mexican drug cartels and their affiliates, the Gangs of Los Angeles.

Bad idea, good cause.


Snarky rebuttal #2. “If it were anybody else …”

Say, what he say?  This logic twists my mind like a pretzel.


Okay, pick a hero in your life.  Any hero.  You know, like … um … Brangelina … Barack Obama … Mother Teresa … Alex Sanchez … Lindsay Lohan … Pat Robertson … Glenn Close … whoever you look up to in your personal universe.

Just imagine – stick with me here, this is just a “mind exercise” – that your hero decided that running 13-year old child prostitutes up from Pueblo Pobre, Qualquiera, and vending them out in slam pads was a damned good way to raise funds for … well, a good cause, no profit here.

Pick a Hero ... Any Hero

See, if it were anybody else …  love the sinner, love the sin?  Certainly, no one, definitely not Fairly Civil, suggests that there is anything unlawful about the gang tour.  But the logic is the same.

Bad idea, good-hearted personal hero.


Snarky rebuttal # 3The demi-semi quaver.

In fairness to Father Boyle, it is at least possible that he told The New York Times reporter that this gang tour was definitely a bad idea because it glorifies gang life.  Reporters and editors sometimes cut out the sharp points in a “reader.”  But the quote attributed to him came across as an “on the one hand, on the other hand” equivocation.  What the modern news media call “even-handed.”

Well, be that as it may, here is a more pungent comment from another source:

Is there a danger of romanticizing or even glorifying the culture that has cost so many lives and caused so much heartache and tragedy to go along with the poverty that pervades the area? You think? There are a number of tours of past gangster lairs and stomping grounds from those occupied and traveled by Jesse James to John Dillinger to name only a couple. But those who made these locations infamous or famous are long gone and the thrill is far more benign than what one might expect where there still is ongoing horror.

“L.A. gangland tour is a bad idea,” Dan K. Thomasson, Scripps Howard News Service.

Human tragedy is human tragedy.


The Sicilian Connection

Cosa Nostra Assassinated Mafia Busting Sicilian Magistrates Giovanni Falcone (left) and Paolo Borsellino

Finally, it is instructive to look at this tour in the context of another gang-infested culture:  Sicily, home of the original mafia, Cosa Nostra (not “La Cosa Nostra,” as the U.S. federal government mistakenly and irreversibly misnamed the American variant.)

It’s well worth reading the history and sociopolitical culture of this scourge.  So much that is fundamentally bad about the Sicilian Mafia and its relation to civil life can be seen in the L.A. gang culture.

  • Self-marginalizing ethnic mythology and denial. “There is no mafia, it’s just a cultural thing we Sicilians have.”  For nearly a century and a half Sicilian and other Italian chatterers – politicians, writers, academics – promoted the idea that there was no such thing as the mafia, in the sense of an organized criminal enterprise in Sicily.  No, they said, “mafia” just means a prideful violence ingrained in the “character” of Sicilians.  You know, like that Latino carnal and barrios stuff.  We just can’t help ourselves.  The gangsters, of course, loved this idea, and promoted it through the transmission belt of their “useful idiots”  — even in the face of well-documented informants from as far back as the late 19th and early 20th centuries!  The mob’s suckers included “intellectuals,” corrupted and gullible politicians, nitwit clerics, and the usual gaggle of do-gooders.
  • Corrupted members of church and state. To the shame of the Italian government and the Catholic Church, many politicians and priests were co-opted by Cosa Nostra.  Some remain so to this day.  Interestingly, a characteristic posture of the corrupted has been to publicly criticize the mafia and propose grandiose plans to attack it, while secretly undermining law enforcement efforts against the mobsters.
  • Attacking law enforcement and judicial authorities. One of Cosa Nostra’s classic tactics has been to attack – both physically and rhetorically – specific gangbusters in Italian law enforcement and in the Italian judiciary.  In many cases, this was assassination intended to send a message that the mafia was above the law, in fact, was the law.  In other cases, it was a smear campaign; a whispering, snickering current of innuendo designed and intended to undermine public confidence in law enforcement generally and in specific persons whose principled activities became a thorn in the side of the mob.
  • Culture of Criminality. The goal of socialization is to inculcate a “culture of lawfulness.”  No matter what else one thinks of cops, there clearly are not enough of them to prevent every crime and stop every criminal enterprise.  This is the job of that broader mass we call “culture” or “society.”  In Sicily, the culture of lawfulness became a culture of unlawfulness.  The vast mass of ordinary people came to accept the depredations of the mafia, because the very culture taught them there was nothing they could do about it.  Many heroes of modern Sicily paid with their blood to reverse this perverse culture inversion.

Sound familiar?

You can read some of the best books about Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, and decide for yourself.  My recommendations:

Salvo Lima, One of the Sicilian Mafia's Politician Friends, Was Brutally Whacked When He Outlived His Usefulness


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Transnational crime on August 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm


Today, when the government puts more money into consumers’ pockets, it means that Chinese factories recall their workers and start making more.

“Just One Word: Factories,” By Harold Meyerson, Washington Post, Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It’s still all about the economy, even — nay, especially — when one looks into the Latino gang problem.  Harold Meyerson’s opinion piece in today Washington Post, quoted above and available in full here, touches directly on one of the most powerful forces responsible for the hardening of Latino gangs into criminal enterprises and their likely growth.  It’s the same force that has devastated the blue collar middle class all over America: decline of manufacturing in the United States:

Since 1987, manufacturing as a share of our gross domestic product has declined 30 percent. Once the world’s leading net exporter, we have become the world’s leading net importer. In 2007, we exported $1.2 trillion worth of goods and services but imported $1.8 trillion. If there were a debtor’s prison for nations, we’d all be in the clink…the decline of manufacturing presents a huge obstacle to U.S. economic recovery. As scholars and journalists have noted, in every recovery since the Great Depression through 1990, when American consumers started buying more, U.S. factories recalled laid-off workers and started making more. Today, when the government puts more money into consumers’ pockets, it means that Chinese factories recall their workers and start making more. It means that American retailers will hire more low-wage workers, while American manufacturers won’t — a sectoral shift that will lower Americans’ median income, since manufacturing wages are roughly 20 percent higher than the wages of the rest of the non-professional, non-managerial workforce.

2008 Protest at Closed Factory in Illinois

2008 Protest at Closed Factory in Illinois

The connection between the rise of the modern gang and the decline of manufacturing is not elusive.  It’s just rarely discussed.  Today’s “commentators” would rather bloviate about the “problem” of Latino immigration than analyze what went wrong with the classic American Dream Factory.

Gangs and gangsters are a product of many things.  In addition to the personal decision to become a gangster (that every gangster makes), a complicated calculus of factors created and drives the modern Latino gang and its members.  These include:

  • Wars,
  • Economic change,
  • Globalization,
  • Cultural, racial, and ethnic factors (including fear, loathing, competition and conflict),
  • Transnational organized crime,
  • Migration flows and demographics,
  • Law enforcement and national security resources and policies, and
  • Gang adaptation.

I discuss at some length the impact of economic change on the transformation of barrio gangs into hard core criminal enterprises in my book No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement.

This excerpt describes the overall effect of the loss of manufacturing jobs on the economic prospects of immigrant youth and the children of immigrants:

The economic change from smokestack manufacturing industries to service and information industries was an unforgiving crucible in which many Latino gangs were transformed and hardened. Many gangs went from traditional local “fighting” associations to enduring, institutionalized, and irreducibly violent alternative societies for the most marginalized youth within marginal communities. The largest of these gangs have become well-organized criminal enterprises. Latino street gangs today are family, mistress, employer, and nation to that small fraction of immigrant and especially second-generation youth—the children of immigrants—who are most alienated and least capable of adapting to the majority population’s social, cultural, and economic norms. In an earlier era, unskilled, poorly educated youth without language ability might have pulled themselves up from poverty on assembly lines, at the furnaces of steel mills, or in tire plants. Now, they find it harder to get a hand on any rung—much less a ladder—to a better life.

A more tightly focused look at the critical period of the 1970s and 1980s in California is summed up in this paragraph:

[In the 1970s] the industrial economy that had sustained Los Angeles for three decades—comprised of smokestack plants of General Motors, Firestone, Bethlehem Steel, Goodyear, and others—was shutting down, just as it was all across the American Rust Belt. The demise of the industrial economy and, with it, entry-level jobs for the unskilled and undocumented during the 1970s was an ominous curtain-raiser to the coming crack epidemic, Latino immigration surge, and gang eruption of the 1980s.

Finally, the original Latin Kings were formed in Chicago in the 1960s, precisely at a time when increased Puerto Rican migration ran head on into decreased manufacturing employment:

[In Chicago in the late 1950s] It came to appear to Puerto Ricans that jobs had dried up in New York but were plentiful in the great blue-collar city of Chicago. For the first time, large numbers of Puerto Ricans migrated to Chicago. By 1960, the number of Puerto Ricans had risen [significantly].  The catch was that most of these new migrants were unskilled laborers who spoke little or no English. They were relying on the great ladder of industrial blue-collar work by means of which those without language or trade had traditionally pulled themselves up in pursuit of the American dream. But the perception that the ladder still existed in Chicago was a cruel illusion. Puerto Rican hopes, along with those of the black and Mexican communities that had been in Chicago for decades, were crushed by the shift in the economy from manufacturing to service jobs, well in progress by the 1960s. The city was hemorrhaging blue-collar work. It was losing jobs at an alarming rate, as factories shut down and shipped them off to management-friendly, nonunion suburban and rural locations or offshore to countries in the third world.

[No Boundaries is primarily “narrative nonfiction.”  It tells real life stories of gangsters and cops.  But it also contains descriptive analysis like these nuggets to hopefully explain and portray the complexity of the Latino gang universe.]

Meyerson’s analysis in the Washington Post examines a particular facet of the dismal employment picture described in The New York Times column by Bob Herbert that I linked to in a posting yesterday (here).

Economics is huge in gangs.  Anyone who thinks that the problem of gangs is simply and only a problem of gang suppression or immigration is at best looking at  only half the picture.  It reminds me of an adage I once heard a drill sergeant use to illuminate the thought processes of an offending recruit:  “A man who only shines only half his shoes, is like a man who only wipes half ……”  Well, you get the picture.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from

New FBI Central American Gang Intelligence Program

In Crime, Drugs, Gangs, Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, Latino gangs, Transnational crime on August 11, 2009 at 9:15 pm


This is a description of CAIP, a new FBI gang intelligence initiative, ripped from the pages of the FBI’s public affairs release program.  Considering the tempo of indictments in the U.S., this can only help:

The members of a new international group formed to help fight the violent MS-13 and 18th Street gangs were meeting for the first time last month at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia when the reason for the group’s existence became perfectly clear: representatives from El Salvador and Mexico realized they had been tracking the activities of the same MS-13 suspect. Now both countries could benefit from their collective intelligence efforts.

“These gangs are transnational, and right now they pretty much cross our borders for criminal activity at will,” said L.T. Chu, an FBI intelligence analyst with our MS-13 National Gang Task Force and the program manager for the new group—the Central American Intelligence Program (CAIP).

The FBI is involved in investigative partnerships to battle transnational gangs, but CAIP, whose members are primarily from Central America, is the first organization to focus exclusively on intelligence.

At the annual Policia Nacional Civil Anti-Gang conference last spring in El Salvador, Chu said, “We determined that one of our weaknesses was exchange of intelligence. We realized that it was crucial that we set up a forum and a mechanism to exchange this information.”

That thinking is very much in keeping with the Bureau’s overall post 9/11 efforts to become a proactive, intelligence-gathering organization that prevents criminal activity rather than responding to crimes after the fact.

A joint initiative of the FBI and the State Department, CAIP consists of veteran criminal intelligence analysts from the U.S., El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and Canada who work gang-related matters. Besides intelligence sharing, the objective is to standardize reports and other intelligence products and to minimize the communication gaps between countries—gaps that currently allow gang members to operate across borders.

At its first meeting—the group will meet three times a year at rotating host countries—interpreters assisted participants who spoke little English or Spanish. But even with the language barrier, everyone understands the significance of CAIP’s mission.

“Gangs are a huge problem in Guatemala,” said Heber Ramirez, chief of intelligence analysis for Policia Nacional Civil de Guatemala. Through an interpreter he explained, “It is very important that we have established relationships with these countries so that we can track gang activities across borders.” And as CAIP works toward standardizing how intelligence products are produced, he added, “We will be reporting very specific information in very specific ways that everyone can understand.”

Douglas Funes, who heads the transnational gang unit for the Policia Nacional Civil in El Salvador—which includes two embedded FBI agents working gang-related investigations—agreed that CAIP will be a vital weapon in fighting gangs.

El Salvador is “contaminated” by violent gangs, Funes said, and MS-13 alone has some 15,000 members in the country, including many members in the prison population. “Perhaps the most serious problem with MS-13,” he added, “is that they are constantly recruiting new members.”

“MS-13 and 18th Street are developing constantly and changing their methods,” Chu said. “The only way to fight them is to understand their organizations from the top down. And the only way to accomplish that is through cooperative intelligence sharing across borders. That is why CAIP is so important.”


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, politics, RICO, RICO indictments, Transnational crime on July 29, 2009 at 3:53 pm

No Boundaries coverThe United States Government Accountability Office has just published a great report on the role of federal law enforcement in combating gangs.  Like all GAO reports, it’s kinda, sorta wonky, but it captures the 411 on the federal effort.  Fairly Civil highly recommends this read for anyone who cares about the looming transnational gang threat and what we are — and are not — doing about it.

The summary page from the report follows.  The full report is available here.

United States Government Accountability Office

July 2009


COMBATING GANGS: Better Coordination and Performance Measurement Would Help Clarify Roles of Federal Agencies and Strengthen Assessment of Efforts Highlights

What GAO Found

Various DOJ and DHS components have taken distinct roles in combating gang crime, and at the headquarters level, DOJ has established several entities to share information on gang-related investigations across agencies. However, some of these entities have not differentiated roles and responsibilities. For example, two entities have overlapping responsibilities for coordinating the federal response to the same gang threat. Prior GAO work found that overlap among programs can waste funds and limit effectiveness, and that agencies should work together to define and agree on their respective roles and facilitate information sharing. At the field division level, federal agencies have established strategies to help coordinate anti-gang efforts including federally led task forces. Officials GAO interviewed were generally satisfied with the task force structure for leveraging resources and taking advantage of contributions from all participating agencies.

Federal agencies have taken actions to measure the results of their gang enforcement efforts, but these efforts have been hindered by three factors. Among other measures, one agency tracks the number of investigations that disrupted or shut down criminal gangs, while another agency tracks its gang-related convictions. However, agencies’ efforts to measure results of federal actions to combat gang crime have been hampered by lack of a shared definition of “gang” among agencies, underreporting of information by United States Attorneys Offices (USAOs), and the lack of department-wide DOJ performance measures for anti-gang efforts. Definitions of “gang” vary in terms of number of members, time or type of offenses, and other characteristics. According to DOJ officials, lack of a shared definition of “gang” complicates data collection and evaluation efforts across federal agencies, but does not adversely affect law enforcement activity. DOJ officials stated that USAOs have underreported gang-related cases and work, in part because attorneys historically have not viewed data collection as a priority. In the absence of periodic monitoring of USAO’s gang-related case information, DOJ cannot be certain that USAOs have accurately recorded gang-related data. Further, DOJ lacks performance measures that would help agencies to assess progress made over time on anti-gang efforts and provide decision makers with key data to facilitate resource allocation.

DOJ administers several grant programs to assist communities to address gang problems; however, initiatives funded through some of these programs have had mixed results. A series of grant programs funded from the 1980s to 2009 to test a comprehensive community-wide model are nearing completion. Evaluations found little evidence that these programs reduced youth gang crime. DOJ does not plan to fund future grants testing this model; rather, DOJ plans to provide technical assistance to communities implementing anti-gang programs without federal funding. DOJ also awarded grants to 12 communities during fiscal years 2006 to 2008 under another anti-gang initiative. The first evaluations of this initiative are due in late 2009, and no additional grants will be funded pending the evaluation results.

Mural with gang 2


In Crime, Drugs, Gangs, Latino gangs, RICO, RICO indictments, Transnational crime on July 24, 2009 at 2:32 pm

Here is a pdf file of my keynote speech (as written) to the California Gang Investigators Association National Gang Violence Conference  (co-sponsored by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) on July 21, 2009.  The talk focused on Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang, as does my book, No Boundaries:  Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press 2009).

You can order the book from the Michigan Press, or from or other internet bookseller.  No Boundaries is also in book stores (e.g., Borders, Barnes & Noble, at least in Washington, DC).

The actual delivery of the speech varied a bit from this text.  CSPAN-Books TV taped the address.  The broadcast is now scheduled for Sunday, August 2 at 5 P.M. Eastern time.


Here is an illustration of the pith helmet that I showed during my talk:

White Pith Helmet of Type Worn by British Soldiers in 19th Century

White Pith Helmet of Type Worn by British Soldiers in 19th Century

And here is a print illustrating the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, which I also talked about.

Battle of Rorke's Drift

Battle of Rorke's Drift


In Corruption, Crime, Drugs, Gangs, Guns, Informants and other sophisticated means, Latino gangs, Mexico, RICO, RICO indictments, Transnational crime, undercover investigations on July 14, 2009 at 3:21 pm

MS-13 Gangsters Flash Devil's Horns

MS-13 Gangsters Flash Devil's Horns

Since the early 1980s when they were a fledgling gang, to this very day, MS-13 has been a blight on every street where they exist.  Whether house to house, street to street, or city to city, MS-13 has spread like a cancer.  These indictments, arrests and warrants represent one success in an ongoing effort to rid the community of an element that lacks a single redeeming quality.

Chief William Bratton, Los Angeles Police Department, June 24, 2009

Gangbuster:  LAPD Chief William Bratton

Gangbuster: LAPD Chief William Bratton

A 16-count federal indictment unsealed June 24, 2009 in Los Angeles contained two shocking allegations — a plot to kill a well known cop, and a double life lived by a prominent anti-gang activist.  The pleadings also provided a handy window into the history and unrelenting violence of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.  I wrote at length about the genesis and depredations of this transnational Latino gang in my recently released book, No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement.

As Chief Bratton was careful to note in his statement quoted above, the strike against the gang is “one success” in what will be a long, bitter struggle to excise this cancer.  The case is in fact only the latest in a series of federal RICO (anti-racketeering) cases against street gangs that began with the successful 2002 prosecution of members of the Mexican Mafia and the Columbia Little Cycos, an 18th Street gang clique, detailed in No Boundaries. More cases are certain to unfold, and not just in Los Angeles.  The federal government, working with state and local authorities, has brought enormous resources to bear on these gangs, using “sophisticated techniques” of investigation such as informants, domestic and international wiretaps, and possibly undercover agents. The U.S. Department of Justice is determined that no Latino gang morph into another Mafia.

Gangbuster: U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien, Central District of California

Gangbuster: U.S. Attorney Thomas O'Brien, Central District of California

That said, the indictment is a portent:  it represents the maturity of an intensive joint federal and local effort, not only in Southern California, but all over the United States.   The U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, Thomas O’Brien, has set his teeth into these gangs, reeling out a string of indictments against several notorious cliques.

The back story of sources, methods, and accumulated evidence here is yet to be revealed.  You can be sure the governments involved did not bring this case lightly, and they will have a truckload of evidence to present, if and when it goes to trial.  But for now, the public is dealing with a skeletal public record:  The 66-page indictment, statements of officials at a press conference, the media’s reports of background interviews, and a number of documents filed by defense counsel. Anyone who has delved into such cases in detail — including defense counsel — knows that this is the tip of an iceberg.  Prosecutors say the case has been open for three years.  Since the  case builds on earlier investigations, that is plenty of time to accumulate a mountain of detail.

Do not be surprised if further indictments spin off from this and related cases, possibly including charges based on federal public corruption statutes.  One aspect only hinted at in public is that the investigation is being aided by a person or persons — i.e., a well-placed “rat,””informant,””cooperating witness,””asset,” etc. — with long-term and intimate knowledge of MS-13 players and activities.

MS-13 and The Mexican Mafia (La Eme)–Joined at the Hip in Southern California

The indictment in this case (U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Docket No. CR09-00466), and a long filing by defense counsel seeking the anti-gang activist’s release on bail are well worth reading.  They each lay out the long, painful history of Mara Salvatrucha’s ascent into the grisly transnational criminal consortium it has become.

Here are selected paragraph’s from the indictment.  They describe a key relationship  between MS-13 and the dominant prison gang in California, the Mexican Mafia (also known as La Eme):

14.  In Los Angeles, each clique contributes a portion of its profits towards a tax paid by MS-13 to the Mexican Mafia.  Like all gangs associated with the Mexican Mafia, MS-13 is required to pay a specified sum of money on a regular basis to a member of the Mexican Mafia.  Members of the Mexican Mafia are commonly referred to as “big homies,” “tios” (Spanish for “uncles”), “carnals” [sic] (Spanish slang for “brothers”), and/or “senors” ( a Spanish title of respect for a man).  In return for the tax payments, the Mexican Mafia provides protection to all MS-13 members incarcerated in county, state, and federal prisons and jails in California.  Failure to pay the tax will result in a “green light” being placed on MS-13, that is, a general order from the Mexican Mafia to assault or kill any incarcerated MS-13 member in any facility controlled by the Mexican Mafia.  Also in return for these tax payments, the Mexican Mafia ensures that no other gang operates in MS-13’s territory or otherwise interferes with the criminal activities of MS-13.

15.  Since the mid-1990s, when MS-13 became associated with the Mexican Mafia, a single powerful MS-13 member in Los Angeles has been appointed to act as MS-13’s representative to the Mexican Mafia (“the EME representative”).  The EME representative works as a “soldier” for the Mexican Mafia and is responsible for, among other things, ensuring that MS-13 pays its tax; setting policies to manage and discipline MS-13 members and associates; organizing and conducting meetings among MS-13 shot callers on a regular basis; resolving disputes between MS-13 cliques and members; organizing MS-13 cliques to generate money through, among other things, narcotics trafficking; and providing support to, and requesting assistance from, MS-13 leaders in El Salvador.

16.  In addition to the tax paid to the Mexican Mafia, MS-13 utilizes the profits obtained through its illegal activities by sending money to MS-13 members in prison in El Salvador, purchasing weapons and narcotics, paying attorney’s fees for gang members who have been charged with committing crimes, contributing to funeral costs for gang members who have been killed, and putting money on [sic] the prison accounts of MS-13 members incarcerated in the United States.

I wrote in No Boundaries about a little known but extraordinarily powerful and complex man, who likely was the first “EME representative,” Nelson Comandari.  The U.S. media completely missed the boat on Comandari, and his full story is yet to be told, but I have a good part of it in the book.

The Plot to Whack a Cop

Los Angeles Police Department Detective Frank Flores is a nationally-recognized expert on MS-13.  No Boundaries tells Flores’s life story as an example of the conundrum of gang recruitment. Why are the gangs irresistible to a minority of Latino youth, while other kids from the same barrio climb out of adversity to become part of the great American dream? Flores grew up in Boyle Heights, a gang-infested neighborhood, the child of a single parent. His uncles belonged to White Fence, one of the oldest gangs in L.A.

Yet all Frank Flores can remember ever wanting to be was to be an LAPD cop, even though as a child he had on occasion felt the LAPD’s famous “muscle.”

I first interviewed Flores in March 2007, and talked to him or communicated by email several times since. I had no idea that just months before I met him he had been the target of an assassination plot by MS-13. I learned of the scheme only when it became public after the indictment was unsealed. The government charges that in December 2006 “shot-callers” (leaders) of the gang’s Hollywood “clique” set in motion a plan to whack Flores, designating a hit-man and even providing a handgun to do the job.

Here, for the record, are the allegations in the indictment, which give the bare outlines of the plot:

(138) On or about December 21, 2006, defendants LOPEZ and MELGAR had a phone conversation with each other and with other MS-13 members during which LOPEZ, MELGAR, and others discussed a plot to kill LAPD Detective Frank Flores.

(139) On or about December 23, 2006, defendants LOPEZ and MELGAR had a phone conversation during which they discussed a plot to kill LAPD Detective Frank Flores.

(140) In or about late December 2006, defendants CUENTAS and MELGAR ordered another MS-13 member to follow through with defendant LOPEZ’S orders to kill LAPD Detective Frank Flores.

(141)  In or about late December 2006, defendants MORALES and SALAZAR showed another MS-13 member a handgun that the MS-13 member was ordered to use to kill LAPD Detective Frank Flores.

The plot to murder Frank Flores was derailed. But the story epitomizes the stakes in the ongoing struggle against Latino gangs like MS-13.

The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Latino Gang World?

Alex Sanchez--Subject of a Grossly Mistake Charge or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Gang World?

Alex Sanchez--Subject of a Grossly Mistaken Charge or the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of the Gang World?

The indictment contains another shock that has rocked circles concerned with gangs like a 7th magnitude earthquake.

Among 24 defendants is Alexander (Alex) Sanchez, probably the most well-known anti-gang activist in the Latino gang world. Federal officials claim Sanchez, executive director of Homies Unidos – a group dedicated to saving kids from the gang life— led a double life. They allege that he has been a secret shot-caller posing as an anti-gang activist. The indictment charges that Sanchez conspired in May 2006 to murder an MS-13 member (who was executed weeks later in El Salvador). Here are relevant excerpts:

(108) “On or about May 6 and 7, 2006, defendants CENDEJAS, FUENTES, PINEDA, and SANCHEZ had a series of phone conversations with each other and with other members of MS-13, during which they conspired to kill Walter Lacinos, aka “Cameron.”

(109) On or about May 15, 2006, an MS-13 member shot and killed Walter Lacinos, aka “Cameron,” in La Libertad, El Salvador.

Scores of prominent figures have filed letters with the court attesting to Sanchez’s character and good works. All are convinced that Sanchez could not have faked his anti-gang efforts while operating as a shot-caller.

But he is held without bond at this writing.

“Tom Diaz has worn out some shoe leather—much like a good detective—in gathering facts, not myths or urban legend. “

—Chris Swecker, Former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.

“Few people know more about the subject than Tom Diaz and no single book tells the whole story better than No Boundaries. If you really want to know what organized crime in America looks like today, then read this alarming book.”

—Rocky Delgadillo, former City Attorney of Los Angeles

Order No Boundaries from


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on June 10, 2009 at 1:02 am

Here is the top of  a new post I have written on The Crime Report (

Could Latino Street Gangs Transform Themselves into Transnational Drug Mafias?

By Tom Diaz

Tom Diaz, author of a new book, “No Borders: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement,” looks at the potentially ominous future of criminal street gangs in the U.S.

In the 1980s, few law enforcement officials had heard of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) or the 18th Street gang. Yet within two decades, these gangs metastasized from local urban-based organizations in Los Angeles and other California cities into transnational criminal enterprises operating throughout the Western Hemisphere, including El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, the United States, and Canada. As Mexico’s violent drug-fueled turf wars threaten to spread north of the border, many wonder whether the gangs have become integrated with Mexican drug cartels.

You can read more of this post here, and you can order the book from here.

Here is a description of The Crime Report from its “about” page:

The Crime Report (TCR) is independent and non-partisan, and it advances no single view or approach – except to promote informed discussion and debate. It is a collaborative effort by two national organizations that focus on encouraging quality criminal justice reporting: The Center on Media, Crime and Justice, the nation’s leading practice-oriented think tank on crime and justice reporting and Criminal Justice Journalists, the nation’s only membership organization of crime-beat journalists.


In Crime, Gangs, Latino gangs, Transnational crime on May 12, 2009 at 7:23 pm
It grew out of the discriminatory policies of the Clanton Street gang, then one of the most powerful gangs in the city.  The Clanton Street gang limited its membership to candidates who could prove that they were of 100 percent Mexican ancestry.  The youngsters who were turned away by Clanton eventually organized their own gang and called it the 18th Street gang.  But organizing was one thing.  Solving the problem was another.  “They were getting their asses kicked by Clanton,” says LAPD gang expert Sgt. Frank Flores.  “So they opened the books to non-Mexicans.”
(University of Michigan Press, June 2009), p. 80.
The Sullen Face of the 18th Street Gang in Maryland -- Joel Y. ("Jhony") Ventura-Quintanilla

The Sullen Face of the 18th Street Gang in Maryland -- Joel Y. ("Jhony") Ventura-Quintanilla

On January 18, 2009, 15-year old Dennys Alfredo Guzman-Saenz left his home in the 8100 block of 14th Avenue in Hyattsville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC.  The teenager walked to a Metrobus stop in front of his house, planning to take a bus to a friend’s house.  He never made it.

The smell of brimstone was in the air.

According to the Montgomery County Department of Police, Guzman-Saenz crossed paths with the devil incarnate in the form of Joel Y. (“Jhony”) Ventura-Quintanilla and four other members of the 18th Street gang — spawned in Los Angeles in the 1980s, but now present throughout the United States.  Following the simplistically brutal traditions of gang culture, the 18th Street gangsters were out celebrating the 18th of the month — 18th of the month and 18th Street, get it? — by looking for a member of the gang’s bitter rival, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) to whack.

Guzman-Saenz was not yet an MS-13 member.  But he was a hanger-on or “associate.”  That was good enough for the 18th Street members’ blood lust. They fell on the youth like jackals on a rabbit, overwhelmed him, and stuffed him into a car.

Members of the two gangs are sworn to attack each other, a rivalry that began back in Los Angeles during the 1980s.

As noted in the quote from my forthcoming book at the top of this posting, the 18th Street gang started out in Los Angeles as an alternative for would-be gangsters who could not meet the dominant Clanton Street gang’s rule limiting membership to those of 100 percent Mexican lineage.

!8th Street Tattoos Feature Number "18" Or Combinations That Add Up to 18

!8th Street Tattoos Feature Number "18" Or Combinations That Add Up to 18

But the new 18th Street gang was weak.  So the leaders “opened the books” to persons of all ethnic backgrounds.  The result was an explosion of membership and the new gang quickly rose to dominance.  Here is how the National Gang Intelligence Center’s National Gang Threat Assessment 2009 describes the 18th Street gang today:

Formed in Los Angeles, 18th Street is a group of loosely associated sets or cliques, each led by an influential member. Membership is estimated at 30,000 to 50,000. In California approximately 80 percent of the gang’s members are illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America. The gang is active in 44 cities in 20 states. Its main source of income is street-level distribution of cocaine and marijuana and, to a lesser extent, heroin and methamphetamine. Gang members also commit assault, auto theft, carjacking, drive-by shootings, extortion, homicide, identification fraud, and robbery.

A Long Way From L.A. -- 18th Street Gangster in Providence, R.I.

A Long Way From L.A. -- 18th Street Gangster in Providence, R.I.

The 18th Street gang was formed at about the same time that a large wave of refugees from El Salvador’s civil war ended up in Los Angeles.  Before the Salvadorans formed their own gang — what would become Mara Salvatrucha, and later MS-13 — some of the refugee youth joined the 18th Street gang under its open book policy.

According to some gang experts, the singular animosity between the 18th Street gang and MS-13 stems from the fact that leaders of the new Salvadoran gang considered those who had joined 18th Street as “sell-outs” and viewed them with murderous contempt.  Murder, counter-murder, and counter-counter murder followed.

Whatever the complex of reasons, there is no doubt that in the United States and in Central America — where the gangs metastasized during the 1990s after gangsters were deported there from the United States — members of the two gangs attack and kill each other in brutal fashion.

Here, according to a local news report (Montgomery News Gazette), is what happened to Dennys Alfredo Guzman-Saenz:

When they [the 18th Street gangsters] saw Guzman-Saenz, who was not in MS-13 but had friends who were, they posed as MS-13 members to determine if he was affiliated with the gang. Guzman-Saenz was abducted after he provided information about MS-13, police said.

Prosecutors said Guzman-Saenz was beaten and stabbed once in the car in Langley Park, according to a brief account given by Assistant State’s Attorney Jeffrey Wennar at bond hearings for four of the suspects Monday. The gang members took the teen to a suspect’s residence in Germantown, then to Malcolm King Park in Gaithersburg [another Maryland suburb] . Guzman-Saenz was taken to a stream in the park and stabbed 72 times, Wennar said.

A jogger found Guzman-Saenz dead in the park at 7:30 a.m. Jan. 19.

The Washington Post adds this detail:

Immediately after the stabbing, one of the suspects went to a grocery store to buy a celebratory beer, police said in charging documents made public yesterday. The suspect then returned to his kitchen a knife used in the killing, and he and his roommate later used it to prepare food, according to the documents.

One could dismiss this incident as so much inter-gang warfare, not of much consequence to the rest of us.

That, however, misses several points.

One is the sheer brutality characteristic of both gangs.  Another is the hazard anyone faces in crossing paths with such gangsters.  Finally, gangsters like the ones involved in this little drama are the foot soldiers of much bigger enterprises connected to the illegal drug trade and to the trade in other contraband, including firearms and human beings.

Project what this will look like five or ten years down the road.


In Corruption, Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on March 28, 2009 at 7:59 pm

“These days the narcos think nothing of killing us for no reason other than marking their territory,” one police commander said after seeing fellow officers murdered.

Police Commander Murdered in Mexico City

Police Commander Murdered in Mexico City

From, “Firepower and Bloodshed: Houston’s Underworld Connection with Mexican Drug Cartels, ” by Clarence Walker, The New Criminologist.

In the end the war between civilization and gangsters comes down to one question.  Who rules?  Whose “marker” prevails?

I had occasion recently to hear the former governor of a Mexican state describe how the relationships among the drug trafficking criminal enterprises, the legitimate government of the state, and political geography had changed over the last decade or so.  He is a man with painfully earned insight.

In the old days, he explained, criminals only wanted safe passage to do whatever they did.  So corruption was pervasive but ephemeral.  The criminals would bribe as necessity dictated:  a customs officer here, a police chief there, another official elsewhere in order to make possible a specific transaction or set of events.  The corrupted officials would look the other way.  Drugs would move from point A to point B without hassle, and life went on.

The difference now, he explained, has several dimensions:

  • The criminals now want to contest the legitimate government for total control of territory.
  • Within that territory, they want to preempt the traditional roles of government and enterprise.  They want to tax, administer “justice,” take over profitable business enterprises, and control the people as their subjects.
  • Criminal factions — such as DTOs — battle with each other for control of territory, regardless of who or what is technically sovereign.

If the criminals can seize total or effective control of the law enforcement function (public safety, enforcement of the rules of civil society) the battle is over.  They win. There is a spectrum of ways and means in which the security/law enforcement function (if not the bureaucratic structure) can be co-opted to criminality.

One way is to seize physical control by corruption or intimidation — members of the criminal enterprise actually hold office, or they can pay or frighten legitimate office holders into acting as surrogates of the criminals.  The latter process is known as “plata o plomo” (silver or lead) in Mexico.  It is in effect the axis about which revolves President Felipe Calderon’s fight to destroy the power of the Mexican drug trafficking organizations.  Here is a succinct description from a longer pre-Calderon but informative discourse:

The necessary involvement of police officials at the local, state, and national levels, and the Mexican military, complicates the battle over turf. Corruption pollutes well-intentioned policemen and soldiers. The law of “plata o plomo,” a choice between accepting a job on a criminal payroll or accepting a bullet in the head, perennially compromises members of the Mexican security forces at all levels…Millions of dollars a year land in the hands of policemen, intelligence agents, mayors, port masters, pilots, and many other officials who face the infamous “plata o plomo” decision.

Mexican feathers are ruffled when the matter is put so bluntly.  It is what it is.  Some serious law enforcement officials in the U.S. worry that half of the equation — the plata — is already here.  If the plata is here, can the plomo be far behind?  Not yet.  And perhaps never on a significant scale.  Cop-killers in the United States tend to have short life expectancies.  But this germ may be incubating.  If the narcos win in Mexico, count on it — all aspects of their putrescence will ooze north, where they have already established substantial logistical and administrative operations in a number of cities.

"HXCXR" = "Harbor City Rifa (Rules)" According to This Source

"HXCXR" = "Harbor City Rifa (Rules)" According to This Source

Another way is to drive legitimate authority out of certain areas, establishing “no-go” zones where the state theoretically still rules, but the cops can or will enter only with a show of extraordinary force.

The final way is to establish a shadow government — let the pinche cops drive through and make an occasional sweep, but the people know that we’re always here, so we rule anyway.  The graffiti of Latino criminal street gangs often includes the letter “R” or the word “rifa” (“rules”) — a leg-lifting marker aimed at other gangs — and at least implicitly at legitimate sovereign authority.

In the United States, by the way, some gangs and gangsters have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams by NOT fighting the power.  They co-opted legitimate authority by conning government circles.  Chicago is famous for having provided a culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s in which its current “super-gangs” rooted, were nurtured with government cash. More recently, in Los Angeles Hector “Big Weasel” Marroquin represented himself as a “reformed” 18th Street gangster.  He established a group called “No Guns.” Its staff is said to have consisted mostly of his own family members.  Here is how the authoritative blog “In the Hat” sums up the effect of Marroquin‘s post-reformation career:

Marroquin has basically been shoved down the throats of gang cops by their commanders for years as a person they should work with to quell gang violence and divert young people from the life.

Hector "Big Weasel" Marroquin Back in the Slam After Conning L.A.'s Kumbaya Krowd

Hector "Big Weasel" Marroquin Back in the Slam After Conning L.A.'s Kumbaya Krowd

But it turns out Marroquin was not so reformed after all! Busted by ATF last year, “Big Weasel” pleaded  “no contest” to three counts of manufacture, distribution and transport for sale of an unlawful assault weapon.  He was sentenced to eight years in prison.  There is simply no telling what violence “No Guns” was responsible for.

An example of a gang shadow government was the area around MacArthur Park in Los Angeles that I write about in my forthcoming book from the University of Michigan Press (June 2009),  No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement. Mexican Mafia gangster Francisco “Puppet” Martinez bossed the Columbia Lil Cycos clique of the 18th Street Gang from his federal prison cell in the 1990s until the FBI and federal prosecutor Bruce Riordan broke up the party.  But, like the poisonous Chinaberry tree, gangs “can form dense thickets that crowd out native vegetation.” They are “poisonous to humans and small mammals… [and] multiple treatments are usually necessary to successfully eradicate” them.  Some eradication is still going on, I am told.

Few gangs in the United States have succeeded in totally controlling territory.  But the Drew Street clica of the Avenues Gang came close.  An excellent NPR radio story linked here describes how bad things had gotten — it’s a little over four minutes long and well worth listening to.

Gangster Tools:  Table-O-Guns Seized in Joint Task Force Raid on Drew Street Clique

Gangster Tools: Table-O-Guns Seized in Joint Task Force Raid on Drew Street Clique

This excerpt from a federal RICO indictment  — in the case of United States v. Francisco (“Pancho”) Real, United States District Court for the Central District of California, docket no. CR08-00688, filed June 12, 2008 — handed down against Drew Street and its members provides basic information about the Avenues Gang and the Drew Street clique.  Note how the gang asserted “sovereign” control over territory and even plotted to violently confront law enforcement:

The Avenues gang is a multi-generational street gang that was formed in the 1940s and claims..[a defined area] as its “territory” in Northeast Los Angeles.  The Avenues Gang is divided into a number of smaller groups, or “cliques,” based on geography and associations in the neighborhood controlled by the gang…

The Avenues gang has been traditionally loyal and committed to “Mexican Mafia,” also known as “La Eme.”  Avenues leaders frequently extort money from local drug traffickers, members of other gangs, prostitutes, residents, and persons who maintain businesses in the area controlled by the gang.  Avenues gang members also frequently intimidate, threaten and assault persons in the area as a means to intimidate and control the people in their neighborhoods, including potential witnesses who would testify about their crimes.  Their crimes typically include acts of violence, ranging from battery to murder, drug-trafficking offenses, witness intimidation, alien smuggling, weapons-trafficking and, very frequently, hate crimes directed against African-American persons who might attempt to reside or be present in the ares controlled by the gang.  Members frequently conduct robberies to generate funds for the larger organization and Avenues hierarchy.

The Drew Street gang is a recently formed clique with the Avenues gang.  The Drew Street gang is part of the Avenues gang, and it authorized by the Avenues and the Mexican Mafia (aka, “La Eme”) to control the area of Northeast Los Angeles in the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Drew Street and Estara Avenue.
Members of the Drew Street gang enforce the authority of the gang to commit its crimes by directing acts of violence and retaliation against non-compliant drug-traffickers and rival gang members.  The organization also directs attacks against law enforcement officers and witnesses who would be willing to cooperate with law enforcement for the prosecution of the crimes committed by members of the Drew Street gang….The Drew Street gang ordinarily is vigilant to the presence of “outsiders,” or persons not immediately known to the gang, who may intentionally or inadvertently attempt to enter the territory controlled by the gang.  Gang members are likely to identify such persons and physically threaten or kill them.

Los Angeles city and law enforcement authorities finally had enough and moved in on the gangster empire with a “holistic” approaching, mobilizing a range of forces in a pincer movement and frontal assault to erase the gang’s dense thicket of poisonous power. 

Fairly Civil will describe that in the next posting about the Drew Street gang.



In Crime, Gangs, Guns, Latino gangs, Mexico, Transnational crime on March 2, 2009 at 1:37 am
Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting DEA Adminsitrator Michele Leonhart Announce Results of Operation Excellerator

Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart Announce Results of Operation Xcellerator

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Michele Leonhart announced last week “the arrest of more than 750 individuals on narcotics-related charges and the seizure of more than 23 tons of narcotics as part of a 21-month multi-agency law enforcement investigation known as ‘Operation Xcellerator,'” credit for a key law enforcement asset was buried in one sentence of boilerplate deep down in the press release:

The investigative efforts in Operation Xcellerator were coordinated by the multi-agency Special Operations Division, comprised of agents and analysts from the DEA, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Marshals Service, as well as attorneys from the Criminal Division’s Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section.

Operation Xcellerator Logo

Operation Xcellerator Logo

The central role of the Special Operations Division (SOD) in Operation Xcellerator is graphically summed up in the logo of the  sprawling investigation, which features the name “Special Operations Division” as its rocker.  As I explain in my forthcoming book about Latino Street gangs — No Boundaries: Transnational Latino Gangs and American Law Enforcement (University of Michigan Press: June 2009) — the SOD is one of those highly effective inter-agency government programs that everyone who needs to know about, knows about.  Management would prefer that the rest of us know as little as necessary about SOD — just enough to ensure its steady funding and continued successful operation.  When the Justice Department publicly describes SOD, which is administratively located in the DEA, it tends to use one or two boilerplate sentences like the one quoted above.  These driblets could just as well describe a pizza delivery dispatch center or an air traffic control tower.

Kinda, Sorta Hush-Hush Secret SOD Has Big Ears

Kinda, Sorta Hush-Hush Secret SOD Has Big Ears

The physical location of the SOD is supposed to be a top secret (and isn’t everything, these days?).  A few years ago Wolf Blitzer hyped a visit to the SOD by one of the newsbots for his signature show, The Situation Room, thusly:

WOLF BLITZER:  Just like us, just like those officials over at the White House, the Drug Enforcement Administration has its own situation room.

Our Brian Todd got some exclusive access. He’s joining us now live from the DEA secret location in Northern Virginia. Brian, we can’t tell our viewers where you are.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That’s absolutely right, Wolf. All we can say is that we are at a top-secret location in Northern Virginia.

Now, this is not the government’s biggest situation room by any means, but it’s certainly one of its most important. Right now we are inside the DEA’s Special Operations Division Command Center. This, as we said, top-secret location in northern Virginia. No one has ever been allowed to film in here before. But this is where they coordinate and command some of the most sophisticated and dangerous operations in law enforcement.

Undisclosed Location

Undisclosed Location

In fact, it appears that this “secret location” may not be so secret after all.  If the images from this website are accurate (and I have some reason to believe that they are based on my own interviews),  thousands of tourists unknowingly drive by SOD’s careful anonymity every week on their way to the collection of vintage aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.

In any case, if one pokes around enough with Google’s search engine, it is possible to get a more detailed picture of what SOD does and why it does it.  (The reader can draw his or her own more or less informed inferences about the specific details of the hows.  You know, big antennae on remote tropical mountain sides — or was that James Bond?)  For example, this paragraph from the DEA’s FY 2009 Performance Budget: Congressional Budget Submission provides a slightly more detailed picture of what SOD is all about:

DEA’s Special Operations Division (SOD) supports domestic enforcement by providing vital information for investigative and enforcement activity directed against major national or international trafficking organizations. Specifically, SOD manages special operations and projects within DEA that target trafficker command and control communications. Additionally, SOD manages and develops programs and procedures which ensure discrete and timely distribution of sensitive and vital intelligence data to DEA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) field units. SOD provides guidance and technical assistance to all divisions that have domestic Title III operations involving drug trafficking. SOD also coordinates international conspiracy investigations for the importation of narcotics to ensure that these cases result in suitable evidence presentation in court. The staff at SOD specializes in areas such as electronic surveillance and international criminal conspiracy laws, while responding to specialized linguistic needs for international cases.

Moving and Using A Bucket-O-Guns Requires Communications

Moving and Using A Bucket-O-Guns Requires Communications

Several words and phrases leap out from this paragraph of bland budgetese: (1) “trafficker command and control communications,” (2) “Title III operations” (i.e., wiretaps), (3) “sensitive and vital intelligence data,” and (4) “international conspiracy investigations.”  It seems from this description that one very important thing SOD does is get right into the knickers of major drug traffickers by breaking into one thing they cannot do without: communications.  Transnational criminal organizations — especially those tightly-wound around common ethnicity, regional origins, or family ties, with operational security ruthlessly disciplined by bloody violence — can be difficult or impossible to penetrate by conventional means.  But moving drugs, guns, money, human beings, stolen vehicles, and executing nefarious plots require communications to convey orders, settle accounts, monitor operations, and so forth.

This 2001 statement of former DEA Administrator Donnie R. Marshall before the House Crime Subcommittee tells more of the SOD story, translating the budget submission into plainer English, with a detectable pulse:

Electronic surveillance is critical to our success in combating the drug problem in the United States…Without this essential tool, we in drug law enforcement would be unable to prevent, investigate, and solve many of the crimes associated with the growing, manufacture, or distribution of illegal drugs. In order to meet the challenges presented by these sophisticated drug trafficking organizations, it is necessary for us to attack the command and control mechanisms of these organizations. Our center for targeting command and control is the Special Operations Division (SOD), a combined DEA, U.S. Customs, FBI, IRS/Criminal Investigations, and DOJ/Criminal Division effort that supports ongoing investigations by producing detailed and comprehensive analyses of data revealing the activities and organizational structures of major drug trafficking and drug-related money laundering organizations and identifying relationships among traffickers and their related enterprises.

Today’s international drug trafficking organizations are the wealthiest, most powerful, and most ruthless organized crime entities we have ever faced. We know from our investigations that they utilize their virtually unlimited wealth to purchase the most sophisticated electronic equipment available on the market to facilitate their illegal activities. The Special Operations Division has enabled us to build cases against the leaders of these powerful organizations by targeting their command and control communications with multi-jurisdictional criminal investigations based on state-of-the-art, court approved Title III electronic interceptions. We rely on the information and evidence gathered from these Title III interceptions of their communications to build a picture of the organizations, identify the individual members, and obtain evidence enabling us to make arrests and take apart whole sections of the criminal organizations at a time. The capability provided by SOD is at the core of our ability to make cases against the leadership and U.S.-based infrastructure of these powerful organizations that control the drug trade in our hemisphere.

There is another side to the SOD’s role: coordination.  Here is an explanation of how SOD can apply its resources to the investigation and prosecution of transnational gangs — like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang — taken from a U.S. Attorneys’ Bulletin devoted to the federal role in attacking gangs:

SOD serves as the center point of the operation. The division is tasked to balance, coordinate, and manage investigative actions that are planned and executed by multiple special agents and prosecutors in the field. Coordinating the steps of special agents and prosecutors who are targeting the cell of the network operating in their respective districts enables SOD to ensure that one district does not take actions that will undermine operations in the other districts. This approach often results in coordinated multidistrict operations that maximize the disruptive impact law enforcement has on the entire targeted criminal organization, from command-and-control elements to mid-level managers to street-level criminals.

This approach can be equally effective in the prosecution of multidistrict gang cases where portions of the gang’s criminal activities are carried out by different cells in separate federal judicial districts. In a typical narcotics-distribution conspiracy, it is frequently the case that law enforcement authorities in District A will plan to take investigative steps against their gang targets without consultation or coordination with Districts B, C, D, and E. The efforts of other law enforcement authorities against their related gang targets in these secondary districts (Districts B through E) might be compromised or undermined by the actions planned in District A. Agents and prosecutors should coordinate cases through SOD in order to avoid conflicts and coordinate with related active cases in other districts. This will ensure that the collective efforts of agents and prosecutors in all districts have the maximum impact of disrupting and dismantling the targeted criminal gang.

There you have it: DOJ’s Special Operations Division typically gets a one sentence reference in a press release.  But it is one of a handful of big and really important assets in our law enforcement’s fight against international organized crime.


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