Crimes are down but authorities say prison and injunctions are not deterring the groups.
Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein
Los Angeles Times
September 16, 2006
In 2000, federal authorities indicted two dozen leaders of Los Angeles' notorious 18th Street gang in a move prosecutors said would "cut off the head" of the group.
But the head grew back — despite more arrests and several gang injunctions designed to prevent members from congregating.
So this week, when federal prosecutors indicted 18 gang leaders for allegedly running a sophisticated drug operation west of downtown, the grand pronouncements about the gang's impending death were conspicuously absent.
Instead, Assistant U.S. Atty. Bruce Riordan said he expected a period of chaos within the gang as younger members vie for power. He expects new members to eventually rise to leadership positions and attempt to restart the drug trade.
"It is going to severely disorientate and disrupt this criminal organization for two or three years," said Riordan, who has spent a decade prosecuting the gang. "It is like 'The Sopranos' when [mob boss] Tony got shot and was out of action. They found out in reality that it's a lot harder to be the boss."
In Los Angeles, gang membership and gang-related crimes are down over the last five years, according to estimates from the Los Angeles Police Department and the city attorney's office.
Officials estimate there are now 39,000 gang members in the county, compared with 57,000 five years ago. The 18th Street's membership is about 2,899, according to recent estimates.
One of the gang's prime territories, the neighborhoods west of downtown, has seen some of the most dramatic crime drops.
Still, the earlier belief by law enforcement that aggressive sweeps targeting gang leaders could cause the organization to crumble have given way to a more sober view.
"The attention from police is changing the way they operate," City. Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said. "Gangs are adapting to their new universe."
On the ground, LAPD officials say that sending gang leaders to prison results in younger members rising in the organization.
But police said they've also had trouble removing the strong roots that some gangs have in certain neighborhoods and families. Often, gang members get out of jail and return to the gang.
"This gang is very difficult to root out because its roots run very deep," said Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, a former captain for the MacArthur Park area. "Generations of gangsters have a powerful influence. It was tough enough when it was father and sons, but now we are talking mothers too."
A measure of how far that influence reaches could be seen in the federal indictments that were handed down this week against 18 members of the gang.
Federal prosecutors allege that Ruben "Nite Owl" Castro, 46, oversaw two 18th Street cliques, the Shatto Park Locos and the Hoover Locos, from his cell at the government's "supermax" prison in Florence, Colo.
Castro, who is serving a life prison sentence for racketeering stemming from the 18th Street crackdown in 2000, used cryptic phone conversations and hidden messages that were smuggled through his girlfriend Jesusita Ramirez, 62, to communicate instructions to his street lieutenants, the indictment said.
Those "shot callers" oversaw Castro's street operations, which charged and collected "rent" from drug wholesalers and street-level dealers, according to prosecutors.
Cheryl Maxson, a UC Irvine criminologist and gang expert, said the case underscores the sway gang veterans can still have on the streets — even when they are in prison.
"You put a gang member in prison and they come out a better trained gang member," she said. Castro "was in a maximum security prison and still able to give the orders."
Delgadillo said he is investigating reports that the 18th Street gang has found ways to circumvent injunctions. The gang "contracts out" with other gangs in areas where an injunction prevents 18th Street members from congregating, he said.
Still, crime across Los Angeles has dropped in the last five years. And crimes that the LAPD say are committed by gang members also declined.
In 2001 there were 8,905 gang-related crimes citywide, the LAPD said. By last year, offenses committed by gangs — including homicides, attempted murders, assaults and robberies — had dropped about 18% to 6,610 citywide.
Crime dropped in the Rampart Division, the 18th Street gang's stronghold west of downtown, during this period. Overall serious crime in the division declined from 10,800 reported offenses in 2001 to 4,998 such crimes in 2005, according to the LAPD.
But in a sign that gangs are still a fact of life in the area, gang-related crimes dropped by a much smaller percentage.
There were a total of 641 reported gang-related crimes last year. In 2001, there were 680 gang-related crimes in the division.