Small Wars Journal

Eighteenth Street: The Origins of ‘Barrio 18’

Sun, 08/30/2020 - 10:29pm

Eighteenth Street: The Origins of ‘Barrio 18’

Anibal Serrano

Eighteenth Street (18th Street) is a gang originating in the Pico-Union District of Los Angeles. It is one of the gangs frequently mentioned in a transnational context and often referred to as a mara—a type of sophisticated gang—due to its presence in El Salvador and other parts of Central America.[1]  Eighteenth Street is known as 18th Street, Barrio 18, Calle 18, Mara 18, and M-18 in its various locations. This article summarizes its origins and national and transnational migration/diffusion.

18 ST

18th Street Gang Graffiti. Source: US Department of Justice.


The origins of the 18th Street gang can be traced to Los Angeles, California, during the early 1960s in the Rampart District. Specifically, the gang formed in the “neighborhood where the Santa Monica and Harbor Freeway intersect, near 18th Street and Union Avenue,” the area is also known as Pico-Union.[2] According to Dr. Al Valdez, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Irvine and retired head of the gang investigation unit at the Orange County District Attorney’s Office, 18th Street was established because a gang known as Clanton Street, currently known as Clanton 14 (C14),[3] only recruited and admitted Mexicans.[4] Clanton Street’s selective membership led to youth of non-Mexican and mixed-race backgrounds to create the 18th Street gang. Many of the gang founders lived near or on 18th Street, which eventually became the gang’s name.

Gang researcher Alejandro Alonso, of, states that 18th Street’s historic territory is composed of five neighborhoods in Los Angeles: Eastside 18th Street, Northside 18th Street, South Central 18th Street, Southside 18th Street, and Westside 18th Street. Within each neighborhood, there are specific names to distinguish the different groups, as well as clicks (cliques or clicas in Spanish).[5] Inside these neighborhoods, there are numerous cliques, some of the sizable cliques include: 54th, King Blvd G’s, 106thStreet, Columbia Little Cycos, Pico Locos, Kdubs [KWs], Diablos, Tiny Winos, Bebitos, Shatto Park Locos, Smiley Drive, Alsace Locos, Ranch[o] Park, 7th and Broadway, Wall Street, and Rimpau.[6]

Going National

Eighteenth Street is one of the most significant gangs within Los Angeles and has spread to numerous locations. Such growth in membership and geographical coverage can be attributed to 18th Street’s open ethnic enrollment of members outside the Latino/a community, broadened the appeal for youth to join the gang.[7] Eighteenth Street’s reach has extended out of Los Angeles to cities and suburbs throughout the US. Approximately 200 cliques affiliated with 18th Street operate throughout Southern California, including the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, the South Bay, South Los Angeles, Pico-Union (their original home), Inglewood, Lynwood, Huntington Park, as well as Riverside and Orange Counties.[8]

According to a 2011 Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) national gang threat assessment, 18th Street has a presence in numerous states within the US, including California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia.[9] Many 18th Street members have been reported to migrate to different cities and states in the US.[10] In doing so, 18th Street has created a nationwide presence. Through the movement of 18th Street members, the membership of the gang has increased rapidly–as of 2008, it was estimated to have about 30,000-50,000 members in the US.[11] According to a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Central America and Mexico Assessment, “gang activity used to be territorially confined to local neighborhoods, globalization, sophisticated communications technologies, and travel patterns have facilitated the expansion of gang activity across neighborhoods, cities, and countries.” [12]

Going Transnational

The 18th Street gang has both national and transnational presence driven by internal and transnational migration flows. The spread of 18th Street across borders can be linked to US immigration policies. In the 1990s, the US “increased the number of criminal charges for which a foreign-born resident could be deported to their country of origin,” [13] through the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.[14] The immigration policy was applied vigorously in California, and many of the 18th Street members who were arrested at the time were non-US citizens[15]therefore leading to numerous 18th Street members being deported to countries in Latin America, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. As gang members arrived in their country of origin, some began to establish relationships with youth in their neighborhoods and started to expand their gang’s membership. Although 18th Street was formed in the US, the majority of members in Central America were born and raised in that region.[16]     

Eighteenth Street as a whole can be considered a transnational gang due to its presence in various countries and their illicit activities that transcend borders.[17] Additionally, outside of the US, 18th Street has been reported in Canada, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Lebanon, Mexico, Peru, and Spain.[18] There are unique factors within each country that creates opportunities for 18th Street members to recruit and enroll new gang members. The lack of services available to youth and the approach governments take to curtail gangs impact the ability for a gang to recruit. As countries in Central America were recuperating from civil war and other turmoil, the 18th Street gang landed in fertile ground to grow its illegal activities and membership. Once governments in Central America realized they had a gang problem, they began to create and implement policies to suppress gang members and their illicit activities. Claire Ribando Seelke, a specialist in Latin American affairs at the Congressional Research Service, provides a useful description of these policies:

Mano dura [Spanish for firm hand] is a term used to describe the type of anti-gang policies initially put in place in El Salvador, Honduras, and, to a lesser extent, Guatemala in response to popular demands and media pressure for these governments to “do something” about an escalation in gang-related crime. Mano dura approaches have typically involved incarcerating large numbers of youth (often those with visible tattoos) for illicit association and increasing sentences for gang membership and gang-related crimes.[19]

Many of the solutions presented by governments depended on police and military operations and exacerbated the issues they were supposed to curtail.[20] In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) estimated that there were about 14,000-17,000 18th Street members in Guatemala, 8,000-10,000 in El Salvador, and 5,000 in Honduras.[21] In a Council of Hemispheric Affairs piece, Jessica Farber summarizes well the dynamics that have led to such large numbers of 18th Street members in El Salvador:

A variety of complex and intertwining factors, including the social exclusion of gang members, a series of poorly targeted policies in the immediate postwar period, and widespread poverty and inequality have contributed to the violence that continues to plague the country today. Though recent policies have been more mindful of the many facets of the conflict, the overall demonization of gangs by both US and Salvadoran governments has served more to exacerbate violence and fear in El Salvador than to quell the ongoing bloodshed.[22]

Modus Operandi & Activities

Prospects are initiated into the 18th Street gang by being beaten for 18 seconds or partaking in some type of illegal activity designated by a current member.[23] The gang remains predominately composed of men;[24] the women who join the gang have three avenues to do so, an 18-second beating (beat-in), sexual intercourse with multiple members, or being the girlfriend or wife of a member can potentially lead to membership over time.[25] The gang’s “central nervous system” is composed of veteranos (Spanish for veterans) of the gang.[26] Eighteenth Street is “organized into semi-autonomous cells, called cliques. While there is a hierarchy within the cliques, there is no military-style, top-to-bottom chain of command for the estimated tens-of-thousands of members across North and Central America. 

Barrio 18’s organizational structure is more decentralized and horizontal in structure.” [27] The way 18thStreet operates and is structured varies from location to location. For example, within Southern California, 18th Street is loyal to the Mexican Mafia, which is present in many of the prisons within California. Numerous cliques cooperate with other cliques, while others function independently.[28] However, in Central America, 18th Street operates differently. In Honduras, for example, the leaders of Barrio 18 are called “toros” (bulls), each toro has clicas under him, and a “homie” leads each one,” each homie has several “soldados” (soldiers) under him.[29] The structure is further broken down into prospective members and affiliated individuals whom all have different illicit tasks to carry out for the gang.

Cultural differences influence the operations and structure of the gang in its various locations. Overall, gang structures differ in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.[30] In Central America, 18th Street’s primary adversary is MS-13 and both battle for power and illicit funds. Eighteenth Street is less “cohesive and disciplined,” and this has impacted its structure and activities.[31] If we look towards El Salvador, in 2005, 18th Street splintered into two factions, the Revolucionarios (revolutionaries) and the Sureños (South Siders).[32] According to Dr. Pamela Ruiz, a postdoctoral research fellow at NYU, 18th Street’s rift in El Salvador began due to internal disputes on how the gang should operate and what guidelines to follow.[33] It is important to note that the splintering of 18th Street is exclusive to El Salvador. In 2017, Dr. José Miguel Cruz an expert in gangs and criminal violence in Latin America, and a research team at Florida International University conducted a study on gangs in El Salvador. The following excerpt describes their observations on 18th Street’s Salvadoran structure:

18th Street groups are less well-structured regarding their organization. In many cases, it was difficult to establish a unique organizational pattern based on the statements of the experts interviewed. However, and according to some informants, the 18th Street groups [Revolucionarios and Sureños] divide their organizations in canchas [courts], which operate at the neighborhood level and the city level, and tribus [tribes], which extend to the regional scale.[34]

Moreover, many gang members have participated in illegal activities to finance their lives and help further the power and reach of 18th Street. Some 18th Street cliques partake in extortion, protection rackets, and kickbacks from illegal goods sold on their turf.[35] “Like most gangs, 18th street is involved in many types of criminal activities including auto theft, carjacking, drive-by shooting, drug sales, arms trafficking, extortion, rape, murder, and murder for hire;” [36] such activities provide 18th Street members with numerous ways to obtain funds, making them more versatile in their crimes.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 18th Street is known to have business relationships with the Mexican Mafia (La Eme) and some Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) such as the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cártel de Jalisco Nueva Generación (Jalisco New Generation Cartel).[37] These relationships facilitate the gang’s ability to obtain, transport, and sell drugs. Eighteenth Street as a whole has developed Third Generation Gang features such as evolving from being a turf-based entity, the push to enter a more extensive illicit drug network (sales and distribution), and the gang’s internationalization.

Nevertheless, the scope and strength of 18th Street’s relationship with Mexican TCOs remain relatively weak; in fact, much of the gang’s connection with Mexican TCOs can be linked to regional transportation networks.[38] A 2016 report by Insight Crime and the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (Association for a More Just Society) states that “little evidence suggests that Barrio 18 is close to developing deeper relationships with transnational drug trafficking organizations” in Honduras, and the gang remains a subsistence-level group who depends on “extortion and its willingness to use violence.”

Nonetheless, these relations create a criminal network that is held by the financial incentives of the drug market. Some of the drugs sold and distributed by 18th Street are methamphetamine, tar heroin, rock cocaine, and marijuana.[39] It is also important to note that according to the FBI, 18th Street has members within the Army, Marines, and Navy, which can potentially support illicit activities; “such as weapons and drug trafficking or to receive weapons and combat training that they may transfer back to their gang.” [40]


The 18th Street gang is a Sureño gang, although it does not use the number “13” in reference to the 13th letter in the alphabet, “M,” which is used to represent the Mexican Mafia, also known as, La Eme (Spanish for the letter M). Sureño gangs are generally loyal to La Eme. Consequently, all Sureños in US prisons, especially in California are allies while in a correctional setting despite rivalries on the street. As mentioned earlier, 18th Street has relationships with Mexican TCOs; however, these may fluctuate due to changes in the drug market and shifts within those criminal cartels and their illicit networks.


In the United States, 18th Street competes with and is known to feud with various African American and Latino gangs (Norteño and Sureño). Some of the most known adversaries of the gang are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)[41] and Florencia-13 (F-13).[42] Other adversaries include all Blood gangs (especially true in Southern California), which began because of a conflict between the Black P Stones a blood gang in Los Angeles.[43] Additional rivals include various Sureño gangs such as C14, as well as, a few Crip gangs. Furthermore, within the context of other states and countries, adversaries for the gang will change as regional feuds develop and transform. In Central America, 18th Street’s main rival is MS-13, a rivalry so vicious that most incarcerated members of both gangs are housed in separate facilities. In the context of El Salvador, the Revolucionarios and the Sureños, both factions of 18th Street are feuding while also battling MS-13.

Terminology, Symbols, and Imagery

Over the years, 18th Street members have accumulated different ways to vocalize, write, and represent their membership to the gang. Some of the ways that gang members write or pronounce the name of their gang are 18 Street, Eighteen Street, XV3 or XVIII (roman numerals for 18), 99 or Double 9 (both numbers sum up to 18), 666 or Triple 6 (all numbers sum up to 18), BEST (Barrio Eighteen Street), Calle 18 or Calle Dieciocho (Spanish for Eighteenth Street), Barrio 18, Mara 18 or M-18, and Los Numeros (Spanish for the numbers).[44] The way an 18th Street member writes or pronounces the gang’s name depends on what country, state, or city they reside in; graffiti writing and references to the gang can also be different throughout the gang’s numerous cliques.

Eighteenth Street members also use several articles of clothing and images as a representation of the gang. Some of these include sports jerseys with the number 18 or 99 and the use of a blue devil figure with horns.[45] Members use their hands to create gang signs; with one hand, they form an “E” for Eighteen, and with both hands, they form the number “18.” There are various adaptations of gang signs and may vary by member and location. Also, some members might have specific hand gestures or writing that refers to their clique. This allows members to be more specific in the way they are communicating with an ally or adversary.

18 St Tatoo

18th Street Gang Tattoo. Source: US Department of Justice.


This article reviewed the rise and proliferation of 18th Street while introducing its modus operandi, allies, adversaries, and symbology. Eighteenth Street grew from its roots as a faction of the Clanton Street gang, to a separate gang in the Pico-Union District, into a major player in the Los Angeles gang milieu, and then gained transnational presence in El Salvador and Central America. The gang continues to morph and adapt to local conditions.


[1] Celinda Franco, The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats.” Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. 2 November 2007, RL34233,

[2] Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez, “An Inside Look at 18th St.’s Menace,” Los Angeles Times, 17 November 1996,

[3] “Clanton 14th Street – 1st Hood Westside.”, The gang was originally named after Clanton Street, but in the 1940s, the street name was changed to 14th Street. Thus, Clanton 14 or C14 began to be used by members.

[4] Al Valdez, Gangs: A Guide to Understanding Street Gangs, 5th ed. San Clemente, CA: Law Tech Publishing, 2009, p. 137.

[5] Alejandro Alonso, “Various 18th Street Neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County.”,

[6] Valdez, Gangs, p.142.

[7] “Barrio 18,” InSight Crime. 27 March 2017,

[8] See “18th Street Gang,”, n.d.,

[9] “2011 National Gang Threat Assessment.” Washington, DC: Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2011,

[10] Valdez, Gangs, p.139.

[11] “Appendix B. National-Level Street, Prison, and Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Profiles,” Attorney General’s Report to Congress on the Growth of Violent Street Gangs in Suburban Areas (UNCLASSIFIED). Washington, DC: National Drug Intelligence Center. April 2008,

[12] “USAID Central America and Mexico Gang Assessment.” Washington, DC: United States Agency for International Development. April 2006, p.5,

[13] InSight Crime, “Barrio 18.”

[14] Clare Ribando Seelke, “Gangs in Central America.” Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. 29 August 2016, p.3,

[15] InSight Crime, “Barrio 18.”

[16] José Miguel Cruz et al., “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” 2017, 4,

[17] Celinda Franco, “The MS-13 and 18th Street Gangs: Emerging Transnational Gang Threats?”

[18] Valdez, Gangs, p.139.

[19] Seelke, “Gangs in Central America,” p.10.

[20] Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America.” Foreign Affairs. Vol. 84, no. 3, 2005): p.99,

[21] Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2012, p. 28,

[22] Jessica Farber, “War in Peace: Exploring the Roots of El Salvador’s Gang Violence,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 18 July 2016,

[23] Till Rippmann, “Photographing LA’s Gang Wars,” Vice. 27 November 2014,

[24] Cruz et al., “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” p.17

[25] “Violentas y Violentadas Relaciones de género en las Maras Salvatrucha y Barrio 18 del Triángulo Norte de Centroamérica.” Guatemala City: Interpeace Regional Office for Latin America, n.d., p. 26–28,

[26] Connell and Lopez, “An Inside Look at 18th St.’s Menace.” 

[27] InSight Crime, “Barrio 18.” 

[28] Valdez, Gangs, p.142  

[29] “Gangs in Honduras,” InSight Crime. 21 April 2016, p.17–18,

[30] Douglas Farah and Pamela Phillips Lum, “Central American Gangs and Transnational Criminal Organizations: The Changing Relationships in a Time of Turmoil,” February 2013, p. 8,

[31] Ibid.

[32] InSight Crime, “Barrio 18.”

[33] Interview with Dr. Pamela Ruiz, 17 June 2020.

[34] Cruz et al., “The New Face of Street Gangs: The Gang Phenomenon in El Salvador,” p.5.

[35] Mandalit Del Barco, “Feds Aim to Dismantle L.A.’s 18th Street Gang,” National Public Radio, 3 June 2009,

[36] Valdez, Gangs, p.139.

[37] “2019 National Drug Threat Assessment,” Washington, DC: Drug Enforcement Administration. December 2019, p.130,

[38] John P. Sullivan, “Transnational Gangs: The Impact of Third Generation Gangs in Central America,” Air & Space Power Journal–Spanish Edition.  Second Trimester 2008, 

[39] Farah and Lum, “Central American Gangs and Transnational Criminal Organizations: The Changing Relationships in a Time of Turmoil,” p.29–30.

[40] Valdez, Gangs, p.140.

[41] “2011 National Gang Threat Assessment.” 

[42] On MS-13 see, Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, “Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13): A Law Enforcement Primer. FBI National Academy Associate Magazine. March/April 2018,

[43] Valdez, Gangs, p. 142.

[44] Alejandro Alonso, “18th Street Gang in Los Angeles County.” StreetGangs.Com, 25 June 2008,

[45] Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva Ávalos, “MS 13 in the Americas: How the World’s Most Notorious Gang Defies Logic, Resists Destruction.” InSight Crime. 16 February 2018, p.23,; Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” p.101; and Interview with Dr. Pamela Ruiz.

[46] Robert J. Bunker and Angelo Thomas, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 25: 18th Street (Barrio 18) Demonic & Santa Muerte Affinity Linkages.” Small Wars Journal,” 23 May 2020,

For Additional Reading

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Eds. Strategic Notes on Third Generation Gangs. Bloomington: XLibris, 2020.

John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 14: MS-13 Subway Shooting Kills 18th Street Rival.” Small Wars Journal, 15 February 2019.

Robert J. Bunker and John P. Sullivan, Studies in Gangs and Cartels. New York: Routledge, 2014.



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