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Inside the Mara Salvatrucha gang in Los Angeles: Leadership by committee, they kill each other and sell El Chapo's drugs

A federal court case revealed some of the operational details of the MS-13 gang here, including its extortion of established businesses, drug-dealing “casitas” and a turf war that left two gang members dead – killed by their own.
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22 May 2017 – 5:00 PM EDT

LOS ANGELES, California – All the leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha gang in this city, known as the 'shot-callers,' were summoned to a meeting in Huntington Park in October 2014. An important decision was on the agenda: Who would take command – "the keys" – of the gang?

No one raised their hand, and no one was drafted to assume control of the criminal group, which at that point had about 1,200 members and was considered one of the city's most violent. The gathering agreed to a sort of “leadership by committee.”

The shot-callers then went on to the next item on the agenda: a 39-second beating of Henry Vides, aka “the Beast” and the leader of the Coronado Street Locos, for violating the gang's code of conduct. The beatdown was carried out with a stopwatch in hand.

Those are some of the activities performed by the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in Los Angeles, made public in a 127-page federal indictment after the arrest of 21 gang leaders and operators during a police raid last week. The gang was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

The indictment also alleged that the Mara Salvatrucha sells drugs provided by the Sinaloa cartel, founded by Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán, and La Linea, the armed branch of the Juarez cartel. At least one recent drug shipment was picked up by a gang member midway between San Diego and Los Angeles.

The gang's link to the Mexican cartels is Carlos Zepeda, aka Blakie and Antonio Meza, according to the indictment. Zepeda was among those arrested during the police raid.

Court documents also show the clans, known as clicas, extorted street peddlers, marijuana dispensaries and even well established businesses like restaurants.

“On or about the 22nd of March of 2015 the accused (Juan) Herrera tried to extort victim M.A., owner of the Cali Viejo restaurant which was located within the territory of the MS-13, demanding that the victim pay 'rent,'” said the indictment.

Authorities also identified a string of locales where the clicas sell and consume drugs and alcohol and meet to gamble. They call them "casitas," or little houses.

Turf Wars

But MS-13 is far from being a friendly club. At least two clans have fought to the death over an ancient territorial dispute in the Pico-Union neighborhood near central Los Angeles, according to a federal informant cited in the indictment.

The clicas involved are the Leeward Grandes and the Coronado Street Locos. Trying to resolve their differences and avoid an all-out war, the shot-callers met in September 2015 and heard complaints that someone had spray painted the word “Coronado” on the Grandes' territory and pointed a handgun at a Grandes member.

One of the leaders told the gathering that the feud could not be stopped, however, “because members of the Coronado clica had killed two members of the Leeward clica,” the indictment added.

Another incident listed in the indictment took place on the Casita Pico, on Pico Boulevard, when gang members stole narcotics and cash from other gang members. The victims asked that the thieves be punished during a meeting held on Feb. 27, 2016.

Alex Sanchez, director of the anti-gang violence organization Homies Unidos, said the clicas defend territories at the point of a gun. “They are territorial, and most of Los Angeles has defined borders,” he said.

A former gang member, Sanchez said the MS-13 essentially operates like any other gang and copied the “no chief” leadership system from other gangs.

“The MS here is doing the same things that other gangs are doing,” he said. “They are part of Southern California and they obey a set of rules that they created.”

But they bow to 'La Eme'

MS-13 and most other Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles also pay “taxes” to the Mexican Mafia, known as “La Eme,” for the sale of narcotics and weapons, robberies and other crimes. The federal indictment showed no opposition to the taxes, collected by the shot-callers.

The Mara Salvatrucha was known as MS until 1990, when it added the “13” because the M of 'Mexican Mafia' is the 13th letter of the alphabet.

Nelson Comandari, who has been in a federal prison since 2006 for drug and other charges, is considered to be the “chief executive officer” of the Mara Salvatrucha.

Comandari was arrested for drug trafficking and other crimes in California, Texas and New York, according to Gabe Morales, a gang expert and author of several books on La Eme.

But in recent years, Comandari seems to have turned his back on the organization. "He became an informant," Morales said.

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