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L.A. Police List Most Dangerous Gangs

Los Angeles has plenty of home-grown gang bangers. But many of them have connections South of the border — in Mexico and Central America. That's why authorities from those countries are now in L.A. for a three-day gang summit led by Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton.

Wednesday, Bratton welcomed his counterparts from Mexico, Central America and Canada. For the first time, they're sharing intelligence on violent street gangs. The FBI's Steven Tidwell says it's part of a new effort to track transnational gang bangers.

"They're deported from here and they start their post graduate studies down there, they bounce back to us, we're gonna have to really make sure how we are managing the intelligence on them."

One of their targets is the Mara Salvatrucha, the MS-13 gang, which reportedly has tens of thousands of members in the U.S. and Latin America. The gang started with young Salvadorans who escaped civil war in the 1980s and fled to L.A. barrios. Members of the MS-13 gang are routinely deported to El Salvador, where police have reacted with what's known as the "Mano Dura" — the Hard Hand approach. Gang interventionist Susan Cruz says there were random roundups and frequent cases of police brutality against anyone sporting gang tattoos.

"In El Salvador — every now and then you, have death squads you know that come around. Same thing with Guatemala," Cruz said. "So if anything I would like to see the U.S. law enforcement try to remind their Central American counterparts what law enforcement means — and that also means not killing people."

Rodrigo Avila is director general of the National Police in El Salvador. He says tactics have become more sophisticated. For example, police in the U.S. are sharing fingerprints and other information on deported gang members.

"Now we're arresting them with a lot of evidence, technical and scientific evidence," Avila said. "And we're getting a lot of convictions."

Avila and other Central American police chiefs planned to ride along with L.A. cops Thursday as they toured gang territories. And Chief Bratton will launch his own anti-gang plan for the city. That includes the controversial step of identifying L.A.'s worst gangs in what amounts to a top-ten list.

"A major part of what we're trying to do is remove the mystique or the veil of secrecy about gangs, and lay them out for what they are," he said. "Who they are and what they're doing."

Listing the gangs — there are actually 11 on Bratton's list — is a departure from past policies that discouraged anything that might glorify gangs by name. Some gang members themselves say making that list would be a badge of honor.

A 17-year-old member of the San Fer gang in Sylmar says the list will have the opposite impact of what police want.

"It's a stupid idea. Someone's gonna be (like) 'That's my gang,' and they'll gangbang more," he said. "It's stupid. Just promoting it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.