LOS ANGELES -- In a show of muscle that has brought an uneasy calm to some of this city's violent barrios, the Mexican Mafia prison gang has warned hundreds of Latino street gangs that if they do not halt drive-by shootings they will be killed by the syndicate behind bars.
The edict has been delivered in recent months at tightly guarded meetings, including a summit Sept. 17 that drew more than 1,000 gang members. Under the new rule, gangs may still attack rivals with whom they have a grievance, but they must do so face-to-face, taking care not to harm bystanders.
"It was, like, this is for 'la raza,' the Mexican people," said a gang member who attended the meeting. "If you have to take care of business, they were saying, at least do it with respect, do it with honor and dignity."
By using terror to impose some order on rivalries that were spiraling out of control, the Mexican Mafia has been credited with slowing one of the bloodiest cycles in the long history of Mexican-American gangs. But concerns have been raised about the influence of the secret organization, which is suspected of trying to use the street gangs to expand its criminal enterprise outside the penal system.
"I'm all for peace, but what we're really looking at is the beginning of organized crime," said Lt. Sergio Robleto, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau homicide detail. "I just don't believe that a pact between people who are rapists, murderers and robbers should be hailed with accolades of peace."
In a confidential Police Department memo obtained by the Los Angeles Times, detectives contend that the Mexican Mafia -- known simply as "La EME," Spanish for the letter "M" -- is seeking to organize the gangs to boost its narcotics trade.
"Due to the drive-by shootings, the street gangs have caused too much attention, and the EME wants less publicity," states the document, which was prepared after a July meeting drew about 300 gang members representing two dozen rival barrios.
Although it is impossible to measure what role the prison gang has played in slowing the pace of bloodshed, Latino gang killings are down 15 percent this year in communities in and around Los Angeles patrolled by the county Sheriff's Department. The Police Department's turbulent Hollenbeck Division, which covers the largely Latino East Los Angeles neighborhoods, averaged one gang killing a week last year; there has been only one there in the past two months.
The EME's push to unify Latino gangs, according to correctional officials and law enforcement authorities, is rooted in a tangle of racial politics, economic muscle and internal power struggles.
In many ways, the "no drive-by" rule is a tacit response to the ballyhooed truce last year between some black gangs, whose celebrity status was resented by their Latino counterparts. To many Latino gang members, the Bloods and Crips are latecomers to the gang scene. The publicity surrounding their peace accord, which has since been fractured, grated against the quiet, defiant image of the barrio warrior.
Although the Mexican Mafia's rules are being enforced with fear, they have brought relief to many young men who feel they have been given an honorable way to let tensions cool.
"It's giving a lot of kids an excuse who really wanted to stop banging," said one longtime observer of Eastside gangs. "It's like, 'Oh, well, we have to stop.' I've seen relief in kids that's just astonishing."