LOS ANGELES, California – Behind a metal fence, a woman opens her cell phone and reads a news report about the arrests of 21 leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, including one who murdered a man in 2015 – just steps from her home in the Hollywood neighborhood.
“I worry, because many of them are still free,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears gang reprisals. “To be honest, I don't think the Mara will ever end.”
Hollywood is one of the Los Angeles neighborhoods that are home to some of the 30 or so MS-13 clans, known as clicas, that operate in the city, according to the FBI, which participated in a massive police raid last week.
The raid led to the arrests of 21 gang chiefs and operators as well as new charges against 20 people already in prison. Three gang members remain fugitive.
“By taking these high-profile criminals off the streets of Los Angeles, we will impact the gang's structures and its ability to maintain control through violence,” said Deirdre Fike, deputy head of the FBI office in Los Angeles, when the raid was announced.
Neighbors and activists say they fear that authorities are planning more raids against MS-13 members in Rampart, the neighborhood of West Los Angeles where the gang was born in the 1980s, and that the raids could lead to the deportation of undocumented migrants with no criminal records.
Authorities insist that neighbors should feel safer after the raids. But many residents of the Hispanic neighborhoods that have been hostage to the Mara Salvatrucha's violence for several decades said they doubt there will be significant changes.
“They put a lot of them in jail, and we still see the gang graffiti. There are children who are growing up with that idea, to join the Mara Salvatrucha,” said one man who works on Hollywood's Western Avenue. “It's like Mexico. They arrest one narco, and another takes over.”
A diminished gang?
The Los Angeles Police Department claims that the MS-13, which started to grow strong 20 years ago when it linked up with the Mafia Mexicana – whose chiefs still control many of the Hispanic gangs in California from prison – has been weakened in the greater metropolitan area.
More than 700 gang members have been arrested since 2007, according to LAPD figures. Regarded as the most violent gang in the city from 2012 to 2014, it's now ranked seventh and its membership has dropped from 1,200 to 800. Police believe that's because some gang members were deported to Central America and others moved to other parts of the United States.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has reported that the Department of Homeland Security arrested 7,051 MS-13 members from 2005 to 2016 as part of a still ongoing effort to deport the worst gang members from the United States.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said he's been following the MS-13 for 30 years, when it changed from a group of refugees from El Salvador's civil war who joined forces to defend themselves from other Los Angeles gangs to an international criminal organization with clicas in several countries.
“The MS targets migrant communities. They extort them, they rob them, they rape them, they kill the them,” Beck, who was a captain in the Rampart station, said when the raids were announced. “That has changed. In recent years we have seen a decrease in MS activities, and its membership has dropped.”
"What's your barrio?"
Official figures show that the Aug. 15, 2015, shooting death of Edis Maldonado Bustillos was the fourth murder in Hollywood since 2014. There have been no murders so far this year in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.
Maldonado, 38, was in the Little Salvador restaurant on Western Avenue when Carlos Alfredo “Little Boy” Cardoza Lopez, identified as an MS-13 leader, teed him up with the question, “What's your barrio?” Court documents show Cardoza, 23, shot him five times.
He was one of the gang members arrested Wednesday, and could face the death penalty for the murder.
A few steps from the restaurant, the door of an old garage bears the gang's territorial graffiti: MS in five-foot high letters. The owner of the building tried to cover it up with white paint, but it remains very visible.
“They are going to repaint the letters soon,” said Mario Rojas, who collects garbage around the streets of Hollywood. “This is their neighborhood, and they will not leave it.”