Exposing the 18th Street Gang

And how the Bush administration's Secure Communities program has helped turn the tide.

On March 2, 2008, Jamiel Shaw joined the likes of Len Bias and Ben Wilson in an exclusive group no one ever wants to be a part of. All three are one-of-a-kind talented athletes who died under tragic and disturbing circumstances. Each of their deaths was blamed in large part on real and perceived failed social policies. Because of the overwhelming media attention that each of the three stories generated, the shock from the deaths led directly to social change.

The cases of both Len Bias and Ben Wilson have become so famous that ESPN featured each in their 30 For 30 Series.

Ben Wilson in 1984

Jamiel Shaw burst on the football scene as a junior in high school in 2007. He had rare speed; the kind necessary to be a football playmaker. Shaw was always on the field in a position to make a big play. He was the star running back on offense and the shut-down cornerback on defense.  On special teams, he returned punts and kick-offs. At the time of his death, Shaw was still looking forward to his senior year in high-school, which almost everyone believed would be even better than his junior year.

Shaw’s dad, Jamiel Shaw Sr. said the world lost a one of a kind talent.

“(It was the) equivalent to Michael Jordan dying,” said Shaw Sr. He continued, “He was super-fast; he had a chance at the Olympics.”

On March 2, 2008, he was walking home in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. In gang parlance, Arlington Heights was known for a large contingency of Bloods, an African-American gang.

The perpetrator of the murder is an individual named Pedro Espinoza. At the time, Espinoza was a member of the 18th Street Gang in Los Angeles, rivals of the Bloods. Espinoza was in the neighborhood visiting Shaw’s neighbor, when he approached Shaw on his way home. Shaw was wearing a Spiderman backpack, which happened to sport the colors of The Bloods. After confronting Shaw, Espinoza shot Shaw execution style.

Immediately following the murder, the media blamed flawed immigration policy and specifically the “sanctuary city” policy of the city of Los Angeles. While flawed immigration policies contributed to this murder, laying proper blame becomes far more complicated.

Originally, Espinoza was what we now call a DREAMer. According to Alex Alonso, a gang expert in Los Angeles, Espinoza crossed the border illegally with his mother when he was between the ages of two and six.

In the initial aftermath of Shaw’s murder, lax immigration policies on the part of officials of the city of Los Angeles were initially blamed. LA presented an easy target. After all, LA was well known for implementing a so-called “sanctuary city” policy.

In fact, said Jessica Vaughan in an interview with Front Page Magazine, the city of LA has plenty of responsibility. Vaughan is a policy analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies. She did extensive research on immigration policy’s role in certain gang activity in her role as policy analyst.

Vaughan said that Espinoza was in parts of the LA governmental system for years and no one alerted ICE. Vaughan said she was even able to speak with Espinoza’s juvenile probation officer. Vaughan said that Espinoza slipped through the cracks for years in LA.

Alonso said the truth is far more complicated. For instance, there’s the matter of whose fault it was that Espinoza was released following a gun charge. He was released the day before he committed the murder.

In late 2007, Espinoza was arrested on a gun charge and spent several months in prison before being released in March 2008.

Alonso points out that he was arrested on these charges in Culver City, California, not LA. Furthermore, he was taken to LA County Jail, a totally separate governmental agency from the city of Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, ICE should have had longstanding policies where ICE agents had an office on-site in LA County Jail. It would ultimately be their responsibility to investigate Espinoza. Yet, the entirety of the blame fell on the city of Los Angeles, even though that is the one entity not responsible in anyway for Espinoza’s arrest, incarceration, and release immediately prior to his killing of Shaw.

ICE declined to give any new comment on the matter, when contacted by Front Page Magazine. Instead, we were directed to a statement ICE gave to CNN in the immediate aftermath of the murder.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is not going to provide an on camera interview regarding this case because the issues related to this subject’s prior assault arrest involve law enforcement agencies other than ICE.  As you know, the Culver City Police Department originally detained Mr. Espinoza for assault and took the booking information related to the case.  Based upon that information, Mr. Espinoza was not referred to ICE for a follow-up immigration enforcement interview after he was detained at the Los Angeles County Jail on the assault charges.

Following Mr. Espinoza’s latest arrest, ICE officers at LA County Jail sought him out and conducted an interview.  During that interview, Mr. Espinoza was untruthful and uncooperative.  The following day, the officers located one of the suspect’s relatives who stated that Mr. Espinoza was born in Mexico and he will come into ICE custody if, and when, he is released by local authorities.

Furthermore, said Alonzo, based on his own research, illegal immigration has far less to do with gang activity than in many other cities. He said that he’s testified in about 300 gang cases and only 15 of those involved illegal immigration.

Alonso said that in his own research of LA gangs, he found that poverty rates were far better predictors of gang activity than were illegal immigration statistics. Alonzo said that neighborhoods with poverty rates of 40% and above were almost always ones infected with gangs.

However, the 18th Street Gang itself has had longstanding ties to the illegal immigrant community, using that community as a sort of niche for recruiting new members. That’s where it gets even more complicated, said Alonso.

The 18th Street Gang in Los Angeles has little in common with the 18th Street Gangs in cities like Houston and Chicago. That’s because 18th Street Gangs is a sort of gang movement and philosophy. All 18th Street Gang members subscribe to the same philosophy, but there’s no central hierarchy controlling any of the local gang members.

In fact, Espinoza belonged to something called the Alsace Street Clique. That was his gang. It is one of hundreds, said Alonso, that each subscribe to the same philosophy. They are not necessarily interconnected in other ways. For instance, members of other gangs aren’t necessarily helping to plan crimes with members of this gang.

As of 2008, there were about 15,000 18th Street Gang members in the city of Los Angeles.  That makes them the largest Hispanic gang in the city. Writing about Shaw’s murder in 2008, Alonso also said that statistic was misleading.

“Collectively they are the largest Hispanic gang operating under the same name, but in actuality, each of the 20 or so discreet 18th Street neighborhoods should be treated as individual autonomous gangs, since many of the separate neighborhoods clash and have internal rivalries in an unstable network.”

Nationally, the gang counts about 60,000 members, in thirty-seven states, and in 120 cities. It is estimated that as many as sixty percent are in the United States illegally, though Alonso puts the number between five and ten percent in the city of Los Angeles, where the gang originated in the late 1950s.

There are gang members that believe in the 18th Street Gang philosophy at every level of the international drug trade, from helping the drug lords in South America start the smuggling route, to those that help drug mules smuggle drugs illegally over the Mexican border, to those that sell it on the streets.

The street pushers are not in contact with those that are helping to smuggle the drugs across the border.

Alonso said he didn’t discount the presence of illegal immigration in 18th Street Gang nationwide, though ironically, he said that it was a relatively small problem in LA.

Whatever the truth, the response in LA was fierce and put the 18th Street Gang in the crosshairs of authorities.

According to numbers from the ICE field office in LA, acquired exclusively by Front Page Magazine, gang arrests by the Los Angeles Special Agent in Charge (SAC) Office went up dramatically from 2007-2009. The spike started shortly after Shaw’s death. It’s important to note that when ICE participates in a gang investigation, those investigated are pro-active, targeted street arrests based on intelligence and operations, not people located in jails who were arrested for other things.

The arrests by ICE LA from 2007-2009 were 129, 451, and 502 of all gang members, and 11, 21, and 39 for members of the 18th Street Gang specifically.

Furthermore, points out Jamiel Shaw Sr., father of the victim, California was leading the way in implementing Secure Communities. Secure Communities is a data sharing program that would give ICE fingertip access to all sorts of inmate data from any inmate in any municipal prison in the network.

California was one of the first states to have each of the counties signed up, and leads all the States in the country in yearly deportations from investigations started by Secure Communities. Secure Communities was started under the Bush administration but popularized under the Obama administration. Currently more than 80% of all counties have signed up for Secure Communities.

In fact, Secure Communities became so popular that liberal groups attempted to ban most contact between ICE and local county jails in the state. A bill even passed the California legislature significantly curbing cooperation between jails in the State of California and ICE detainers. (ICE detainers are holds on municipal prisoners by ICE and they are often the result of Secure Communities investigations.) Governor Brown wound up vetoing that bill, a position that Jamiel Shaw Sr. vocally supported.

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