This post first appeared on VICE Alps
Zurich-based photographer Andres Herren has been interested in gang culture since he was a kid. So as soon as he started working with photography five years ago, this is what he took to investigating. And it paid off: Herren got access to three rival Los Angeles gangs while they were all engaged in an ongoing turf war.
First, Andres made friends with members of the infamous Florencia 13—one of LA's most powerful gangs, who have recently been making headlines for leading a race war against black people. The Florencia are mainly active in the south of LA and are at war with the 18th Street Gang. As the name of the latter implies, these guys were founded around Los Angeles' 18th Street. The '18th Street' guys are mainly immigrants from San Salvador. Their main rivals are the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (nicknamed MS13), who also hail from San Salvador. The basis of that conflict is the deportation of gangsters from California back to their home country. Having been exported to San Salvador, the California gang war rages over there like wildfire, because local authorities are far less up to the challenge than their colleagues in the United States seem to be.
The Mara Salvatrucha 13, on the other hand, were originally made up of stoner, immigrant children who frequented heavy metal concerts, which explains why members often carry "Devil's Hand" tattoos. As the gang quickly grew in numbers, they expanded their activities towards extortion, drug trafficking and gang warfare.
The 18th Street guys went through a similar process, which makes sense when you consider the general lack of prospects for young people of South American origin in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Admitting new members was never hard for gangs, in spite of their unattractive initiation rituals. New MS 13 pledges get to be beaten up by the rest of the gang for 13 seconds; it's 18 seconds of heavy beating for 18th Street aspirants and 30 for those of Florencia. Once this ritual is done, one is officially a gang member and will only be physically punished if he breaks the rules. Some get a scar in the face for misconduct, while worse offences are punishable by murder.
All three of these gangs form a sort of "umbrella organisation" that controls almost all of Latin America in terms of drug trade. That organisation is almost exclusively managed from inside prison, because if one thing is certain it's that every gangster goes to jail sooner or later. In prison the aspiring gangsters are taught by the older gang members who are unable to leave prison alive. There, the student learns everything he needs to know about state and street laws, as well as about other gangs and their history. According to Andres, the most difficult thing as a photographer was to get someone from the MS13 in front of the camera, because since 9/11 MS13 counts as a terrorist organisation and is constantly observed not only by local forces but also by federal agencies such as the FBI. "It was like running the gauntlet until I was finally able to meet the guys. From a gas station, I was sent to a backyard and then further on to another block. And as soon as I had finally met the guys, an 18th Street car drove by, which could have easily led to a shoot out. In contrast to the F13 and 18th Street guys, the MS 13 boys were extremely nervous and not accessible at all. Nowadays they can`t even afford to be seen on the road in groups of three people, because, if they are seen as a group, they are immediately packed in by the cops."
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