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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In Los Angeles, police and the FBI have been learning a hard lesson, that street gangs are far more sophisticated than they thought.

In the final story of our series on the gangs of L.A., NPR's Mandalit del Barco explains how gang leaders have managed to call the shots even when they're in jail.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: For more than a decade, the FBI has been trying to take down the 18th Street gang, but generations of gang leaders have made it difficult. 18th Street has as many as 30,000 members spread across Los Angeles and even into Central America. But it's actually a collection of small groups or cliques like the notorious Columbia Lil Cycos.

DEL BARCO: They're known for murders, robberies, kidnappings; they make a lot of money selling dope.

DEL BARCO: LAPD gang officer Magdaleno Gomez sits in the windowless, rampart detective bureau he shares with FBI agents. He says the Columbia Lil Cycos have ruled the streets of L.A.'s Westlake District since the 1960s. Gomez says the clique offers protection from rival gangs in exchange for taxes or rent, essentially a cut of the profits from illegal street sales.

DEL BARCO: Whether it be narcotics, fake green cards or fake passports, fake driver licenses, they tax the illegal vendors - the people that sell food, anything counterfeit, anything illegal that goes on in the street, they take a cut from that.

DEL BARCO: Gomez's partner, Edgar Hernandez, says dealers and vendors understand the consequences of refusing to pay taxes to the clique.

BLOCK: Individuals that they don't want to pay for selling illegally on the streets have got shot, stabbed, and have even been murdered.

DEL BARCO: When one vendor stood up to the gang in September, he was shot, and a 23-day-old baby was killed. Here's how TV news station KCAL reported it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION NEWS)

U: Three gang members, apparently targeting 38-year-old Francisco Clemente, who was selling DVDs in the neighborhood, shot and critically wounded Clemente, but a stray bullet hit Baby Louise.

DEL BARCO: Six members of the Columbia Lil Cycos will soon stand trial for the baby's murder. A month after the killing, the FBI arrested the leader of that clique - the so-called shot caller. He was busted on federal charges for distributing crack cocaine along with his wife and 17 alleged associates and drug dealers. His name is Sergio Pantoja, but he's known on the streets as Tricky.

Officer Hernandez says Tricky operated a tattoo parlor that was actually a front for an elaborate drug dealing and extortion racket.

BLOCK: Now, this tattoo shop, he had the emblem of the Mexican flag, the eagle eating the snake, kind of like some (unintelligible) and I would always tell him, why do you have that, you're from El Salvador?

DEL BARCO: Hernandez says Tricky's tattooed back, chest and arms are also filled with Aztec and Mexican symbols, possibly to show allegiance to the Mexican mafia, a huge Latino prison gang made up of leaders from many street gangs. Tricky is just the latest alleged shot caller in a tangled hierarchy running from the streets to the prisons.

Who is ultimately at the top of that chain?

BLOCK: Puppet, he is the brother, he is the man, he (unintelligible)

DEL BARCO: He's not really the puppet. He's the puppet master.

BLOCK: Pulling all the strings from federal prison.

DEL BARCO: Francisco "Puppet" Martinez is allegedly a member of the Mexican mafia, a target of an FBI takedown in 2003. Bruce Riordan handled the case as a federal prosecutor.

BLOCK: Puppet Martinez was incarcerated at that time in federal prison on immigration charges. However, the evidence showed that Mr. Martinez was still running the Columbia Lil Cycos from prison, and he was doing so through the auspices of his wife, Janey Garcia(ph), who was also known as La Senora, the lady boss of the gang, and an individual by the name of Juan Romero, who was also known as Termite.

U: Does the house have termites?

U: Yeah.

DEL BARCO: Over years of investigations, the FBI wiretapped recorded conservations between Martinez and his associates - like this one in which they discuss their theory that Termite was snitching to the authorities.

U: Got it. Does the house have termites?

U: Yeah.

U: You know, and they have fumigated it.

U: Uh-huh.

U: But I don't know. Do you think the termites are back?

DEL BARCO: In this recording, Martinez supposedly orders his associate, Termite, to be fumigated. Prosecutor Riordan says that's code for having him killed. The FBI also intercepted letters written by Puppet from prison, giving the green light for murdering Termite in L.A. Riordan says the orders were used as evidence to build up what became a federal racketeering case against Martinez and 26 others.

BLOCK: This sequence of events shows the incredible organization of this enterprise. I don't think that you'll see a much more organized or structured enterprise anywhere, including on HBO with "The Sopranos." This organization was a business. When the business was threatened by either the FBI or by a disloyal employee, the head of the business, the Mexican Mafia, took steps to eliminate the threat, in this case Romero.

DEL BARCO: The attempt to murder Romero was unsuccessful, but the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office were able to convict Martinez with a life sentence plus 60 years. Riordan says until then, local police and prosecutors were only able to arrest lower-level gang members for individual crimes. But getting victims to testify against them was a problem. They're also frightened of retaliation. Riordan says using federal informants and wiretaps now make it possible to lock up the higher-up leaders and put them away in federal prison.

BLOCK: In cases that are no different in scope and significance from the cases that many people are familiar with, that have taken down the five families of New York.

DEL BARCO: Retired L.A. Sheriff Deputy Richard Valdemar was on the FBI task force to take down the 18th Street gang in the 1990s. He argues that locking up gang leaders has only strengthened the Mexican mafia, whose members find ways to send out orders to the street gangs from behind bars.

BLOCK: The system itself tries to isolate them and take away their privileges, but the underground, covert system feeds them and makes them powerful. Some of these guys are brilliant, too. We can't think of gang members as being dumb kids who failed in school and - and who just took up a thug life. No, these guys that reached the top in the prison gang food chain, these guys are brilliant, and they could run corporate organizations here if they had a mind to do that.

DEL BARCO: Gang researcher Alex Alonso, who runs the Web site Streetgangs.com, says with each takedown, new, sometimes more violent shot callers rise up in the ranks.

BLOCK: Within, you know, a short time, there's going to be new guys from the 18th Street to replace the old guys that were removed, and it's just going to create this probably turnover. It's only a matter of sometimes hours to minutes.

DEL BARCO: Even so, federal and local authorities believe they've put a dent in the 18th Street gang's criminal enterprise, at least for now.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

BLOCK: And at npr.org, you can read a letter a L.A. gang leader wrote from prison, ordering a hit. You can also hear more wiretap recordings the FBI used to convict that gang leader.

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