Gangs in Los Angeles have a reputation for violence, criminality, and taking over whole neighborhoods. But LA gangs have a long history, some going back over a century, and while they're now criminal organizations, some began very differently. A number of gangs started simply as organizations devoted to protecting minority groups from racial violence at the hands of either the white majority or other gangs.
Many well-known Los Angeles gangs, such as the Crips, Bloods, and Mexican Mafia, are not one organization, but dozens or even hundreds of "cliques" based in different parts of the city. These cliques feud not only with other gangs, but also with other cliques in the same gang. There's very little unity among these groups - except when their members go to prison. Then they become unified, almost always by racial lines.
What gangs are in Los Angeles? This list has them all.
18th Street Gang
Founded sometime in the 1960s near 18th Street and Union in the Rampart district of LA, the 18th Street Gang has become the largest in Los Angeles. Beginning as an offshoot of a Mexican gang, it quickly became home to a number of Central American nationalities, and now has cliques in dozens of states, as well as numerous other countries - particularly Latin American countries to which members were deported.
18th Street is renowned for its violence, committing nearly three times as many robberies and assaults as other gangs. It's also involved in drugs, extortion, kidnapping, and welfare fraud. However, the gang's reputation for being involved with international crime syndicates and consisting of mostly illegal immigrants is likely overstated. The gang's numerous and un-unified factions likely have as many as 50,000 members around the world - with 15,000 just in Los Angeles.
West Coast Bloods
There are numerous regional cliques under the Bloods umbrella, including Chicago's Black P. Stone Bloods and New York's United Blood Nation. But the best-known are various sets of the West Coast Bloods - usually just called Bloods in the media. There are dozens of different Bloods sets, each an independent gang with little relationship to other Bloods.
The Bloods were formed by a group of young men seeking protection from attacks by the Crips gang. They were originally known as the Pirus, and from the late '60s to the mid-'70s, they united a number of disparate gangs in Los Angeles under the Bloods name. In the '80s, the Bloods made huge profits selling crack cocaine, allowing them to better organize and expand. In 1992, decades of fighting with the Crips ended temporarily with the Watts Truce.
The Bloods now have about 15,000 to 20,000 members nationwide, with about half of those in LA. However, the Bloods have been hampered by significant infighting both in sets and between sets.
The term Crips doesn't refer to one individual gang, but a splinter group of sets with the Crip name. The Crips that were founded in LA in 1969 have long since broken into dozens of cliques, with a number having taken the name Gangster Crips to differentiate themselves from other Crips sets. Others are Compton Crips, Neighborhood Crips, and many others. These sets are often bitterly at war with each other - rivalries that sometimes outstrip the legendary feud with the Bloods in terms of violence.
All told, the Crips have about 30,000 to 50,000 members. Their sets share a complex iconography where certain letter combinations are avoided in writing, mostly "B" for Blood and "CK" - as Bloods use it to stand for "Crip Killer."
38th Street Gang
The 38th Street Gang was founded sometime in the 1920s on the border between South Central Los Angeles and the City of Vernon. It gained fame in 1942 after multiple members were arrested for what was known as the Sleepy Lagoon Murder. This was also the time of zoot suit hysteria, as white law enforcement in LA began harassing Latino and Filipino youths for their oversized suits. The imprisoned members of the 38th Street Gang became heroes when their convictions were overturned.
After the war, the 38th Street Gang expanded and was soon heavily involved in the narcotics trade. By the 1980s, Los Angeles actually closed roads around 38th Street due to the overflow of people going there to buy drugs, although the gang is no longer based there. Like other large gangs, the 38th Street Gang has a number of sets that aren't related to each other aside from being under the same name. Both law enforcement and other gangs have targeted 38th Street, and they have long-standing violent rivalries with other groups.