Gangs in Los Angeles – a series of stories
Anti-gang battle needs more than just cops
January 19, 2007
The 204th Street gang was a no-show Thursday in Harbor Gateway. I was there to personally thank members for their generosity in allowing African Americans to walk down the street, but the Latino gangbangers were nowhere to be found.
Najee Ali, who had organized a little demonstration of love and unity, walked around the neighborhood with me looking for a gang member he might recognize. They were supposed to drop by and sign a document calling for an end to violence.
"They don't want to show their face now," Ali said, attributing their reluctance to the fact that L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials were coming later in the day to announce a crackdown on the gang by local, state and federal agencies.
I went off on my own after a while, trying to find gang members. Call me naive, but I wanted to see what they had to say about race relations, what sucked them into gang life, what might get them out and why they thought it was OK to cordon off sections of the city for their exclusive use.
I had no luck in the end, and Ali's news conference kind of fizzled too, devolving into a discussion of whether the agreement he had with gang members was a truce or a treaty and what it all meant in the end anyway.
"It ain't gonna work," 20-year-old Darren Brown told me. He was there because of his friendship with the family of a 14-year-old black girl shot to death Dec. 15, allegedly by Latino gang members. "The people who called the truce are nowhere to be seen," Brown went on, so it isn't worth anything.
We were across the street from Del Amo Market, which Brown said he had never been inside despite living three blocks away.
Why not? I asked.
"Fear of getting shot," he said.
You don't have to work hard in this neighborhood to find a story that flips things around the other way. Why do the black kids have to throw signs at people and curse, asked a 35-year-old woman named Alva, who gave me a tour of recent shooting sites and said two of the victims were Latino. And why did it take a black victim to bring in all this heavy artillery from the police and the media?
Ali walked by with the family of the 14-year-old who was killed, and Alva asked him why he hadn't invited the family of the slain Latino man to his ceremony. Ali told her that family was welcome and so was every other family, and the whole point of his being there was to bring people together.
It's a nice thought, but it's going to take more than a truce or a treaty to stem the bloodshed in Harbor Gateway and across the city, and it's also going to take more than the big guns and injunctions dragged out by the mayor and law enforcement officials Thursday.
Gang violence is going up citywide while overall crime goes down. In the San Fernando Valley, 2006 saw a 42% increase in gang-related crime. In Angelino Heights, residents are still in mourning over the death of a 9-year-old girl hit by a stray bullet last month, and law enforcement officials enraged them with the news that gang members who fired the bullet that killed her are not culpable because they shot in self-defense.
Go ahead and drop a hammer on the bad guys, says Connie Rice, who recently completed a city-financed report that warned of gang violence spreading into previously safe neighborhoods.
"But before you lower the boom, what you need to do is go in and let guys know we've got exit ramps for you if you don't want that third strike," Rice said. "We've got a bridge out. Job training. If you can't read, we can help. If you're on drugs, we can get you off that."
Rice's report said the city's efforts are disorganized and under-powered, with little accountability for 23 scattered agencies that spend $82 million in city funds. Get it together, she said. Appoint a czar. Go after the toughest members of the nastiest gangs. But don't expect much in the way of long-term success until suppression is backed up by smarter intervention and prevention.
City Councilman Tony Cardenas agreed. The chairman of a committee on gang violence called it the Hurricane Katrina of Los Angeles and said the city can't expect state and federal officials to hand over money for intervention until it gets smarter on its own.
"The situation is out of hand," Cardenas said. "Even firefighters and paramedics are getting shot at, and the reason to point this out is that we have a broad spectrum of victims we're talking about. It's not just poor people in poor communities. Everybody's affected by this, and it's a war that's got to stop."
We've got 40,000 gang members and only 61 gang intervention officers, Rice said.
Is it any wonder the gangs are in control?
If indeed the violence spreads to previously safe neighborhoods, it'll put the problem on everyone's radar screen. Maybe then we'll be interested enough to discover that Rice is right when she says the cops can do only so much.
Although some gang members are sociopaths who need to be locked away for good, many are products of economic, educational, cultural and social forces that have destroyed families and communities. They grow up with absent dads and addicted moms in places where the manufacturing jobs of yesteryear gave way to a service economy that doesn't buy you a house and barely pays the rent.
"If you don't have a job for them, it's over," Rice said about what happens if you're lucky enough to talk a kid out of a gang. "[Father] Greg Boyle is right. The only factor that has ever substantially reduced crime by gangs is jobs."
She had a thought too on how to create them.
"You need a Manhattan Project to create violence-reduction jobs like the public works jobs from World War II," she said, telling me Los Angeles has arrested 450,000 minors in the last 10 years and sent many of them off to prisons at tremendous public expense. "You create jobs because it's a whole lot cheaper than what we're doing now."
Los Angeles names and targets city's worst 11 gangs
Mayor and police chief vow to pursue the groups with local-federal law enforcement teams. Experts question the strategy.
By Patrick McGreevy and Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times
February 8, 2007
Launching a counteroffensive against organized street thugs, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and police officials took the unusual step Wednesday of identifying the city's 11 worst gangs, then promising to go after them with teams of police, federal agents, probation officers and prosecutors.
Facing 720 identifiable gangs with 39,000 members, the city's plan would target the most dangerous groups, which total at least 800 members. Those gangs are thought to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of mayhem.
The gangs on the list are believed to have committed 6% of the violent crime that occurred in the city last year.
How many local and federal officers will be committed to the anti-gang push remained unclear, however. And given the complexity of what has been a long-standing social problem, some experts questioned whether the plan would be any more effective than past police crackdowns.
Overall, serious crime declined in Los Angeles last year, but violent, gang-related crime increased 14%.
Gang crime was even higher in areas such as South Los Angeles, where it increased 25%, and a section of the north San Fernando Valley where it grew by nearly 160%.
"Street gangs are responsible for the majority of all the murders in Los Angeles and nearly 70% of all the shootings," Villaraigosa said Wednesday at a previously scheduled international summit on gang issues in Universal City. "We must work to address gang violence in a truly comprehensive way."
Although the police had identified certain gangs on occasion, especially when they appeared to be involved in high-profile crimes, the LAPD historically has not called out their names "because of the widely held perception that doing so elevated the criminals' influence and standing in the gang community," the mayor's plan says.
"This new strategy abandons the earlier posture and challenges these menaces by exposing their corrosive behavior to the scrutiny of a more informed and confident community," the plan says.
But Wes McBride, executive director of the California Gang Investigators Assn. and a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, said he was "not sure" that identifying the gangs was a good idea.
"These guys keep the clippings, and I don't know if you can really say which are the most dangerous gangs on any one day," he said. "It is the kind of advertising you don't need."
McBride said he feared that some gangs would feel slighted if not named and might try to up the ante with more violent crimes.
Najee Ali, a community activist and former gang member, said he also was opposed to any ranking system. "The mayor and chief shouldn't be legitimizing the gangs," he said. "To the gang members it is a badge of honor."
The list of targeted gangs includes the 204th Street gang in Harbor Gateway, which is believed to be responsible for recent racially motivated attacks and will be the subject of a special abatement effort. The list also includes Canoga Park Alabama, whose members' recent violent acts have contributed to gang crime skyrocketing 43% in the San Fernando Valley.
The other gangs on the list include 18th Street Westside in the LAPD's Southeast Division; the Avenues gang in the Northeast Division; the Grape Street Crips in the Southeast Division; Black P-Stones in the Southwest Division; the La Mirada Locos in the Rampart and Northeast divisions; the Mara Salvatrucha in the Rampart, Hollywood and Wilshire divisions; the Rollin' 40s and Rollin' 30s Harlem Crips, both in Southwest, and the Rollin' 60s in the 77th Street Division.
The Mara Salvatrucha gang has up to 50,000 members in six countries, but police will focus on cliques that operate in a few local high-crime neighborhoods.
The LAPD already has shifted 18 additional officers to the 204th Street gang turf and is expected to double that amount soon. Smaller deployments are expected for other gang-infested neighborhoods.
An additional 50 officers will be assigned to a Community Safety Operations Center in the Valley, which will analyze real-time crime data to rapidly and strategically deploy officers, including high-visibility patrols, in crime-ridden regions of the Valley.
The mayor and chief are set to formally unveil their plan at 2:30 p.m. today at the Valley's Mission Community Police Station.
Most of the gangs on the list already have been hit with injunctions that restrict their movements and ability to socialize, and some have been in the crosshairs of local and federal authorities for years.
But Villaraigosa said that the new plan is not as piecemeal as previously, and that the FBI, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, county probation agents, county and city prosecutors, and the U.S. attorney's office have signed on to step up pressure.
"We, the police, law enforcement, can do a great deal working collectively together, with force magnification, to reduce this problem," said Police Chief William J. Bratton on Wednesday.
But, Villaraigosa added, the gang-suppression plan was only the first step in stabilizing crime-ridden neighborhoods. He said the city would later provide prevention and intervention programs to keep young people out of gangs.
The chief acknowledged that with a police force already stretched thin and expansion occurring slowly, he would have to redeploy existing officers to hot spots in the immediate future.
McBride, the gang expert, cautioned that plans without resources often fall short.
"Until everyone hires a bunch more cops, you are shoving sand in the wind," he said.
In addition to releasing a list of targeted gangs, the LAPD has submitted the name of a fugitive gang member for placement on the FBI's most wanted list and will submit another name when the first fugitive is captured, officials said.
The submissions will come from the LAPD's own list of its 10 most wanted gang fugitives, which also was released Wednesday. It includes Merced "Shadow" Cambero, from the Avenues gang, and Kody "Monster Cody" DeJohn Scott, from the 8-Trey Gangster Crips.
Also, the plan includes the appointment of an LAPD gang coordinator, creates a South Bureau Criminal Gang Homicide Group, designates additional patrol officers in gang territories to enforce injunctions and warrants, and proposes community symposiums on gang awareness in affected neighborhoods.
Malcolm Klein, a professor emeritus at USC and a gang expert, said the city's gang plan would appear to use a "tip of the iceberg" strategy.
"Targeting hot spots for gangs — that is not much different than the past," Klein said.
He also questioned the methods used to choose which gangs belonged on the worst 11 list.
"The level of violence generated by a gang makes sense to me. But the interracial conflict [at the root of the 204th Street gang murders] is not common, and shooting at police officers also isn't common. The last two are more political than rational."
However, the idea of focusing on the most violent gangs was supported by Alex Alonso, an academic who studies gang territories in Los Angeles and runs the website streetgangs.com.
"What they did under [former Police Chief Daryl F.] Gates didn't work: Suppress everyone. Now they want to be more focused on the most hard-core gang members, that 10% who are really responsible for violence," Alonso said.
Experts suggest police crackdowns do only half the job. One plan calls for a mix of programs designed to 'hold and build' neighborhoods.
By Richard Winton and Patrick McGreevy
Times Staff Writers
February 11, 2007
Every few years, an act of gang violence rises above the rest, sparking outrage across Los Angeles and vows to finally conquer the gang problem.
When Karen Toshima was killed by gang crossfire in Westwood Village in 1988, then-Police Chief Daryl F. Gates intensified Operation Hammer. The gang sweeps yielded thousands of arrests but also generated much criticism about mistreatment by officers.
The 1995 killing of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen when her family drove onto a dead-end street in Cypress Park resulted in another gang crackdown.
When William J. Bratton became chief in 2002, he was faced with a string of 20 gang shootings — including the death of 14-year-old Clive Jackson. He declared war on gangs, referring to them as domestic terrorists.
Last week, he and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa declared war again — the inspiration this time the racially motivated killing of Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old African American, by members of a Latino gang in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood.
The new crackdown — targeting 11 gangs — might suggest that the Los Angeles Police Department is trying again where it has failed before.
But it's more complex than that. Though gang crimes jumped 14% in 2006, they are down significantly from the early 1990s and even more compared with the mid-1980s. According to LAPD statistics, there were 7,714 gang crimes last year, compared with 10,945 in 1995.
"What we are doing is no different than what we have been doing. As a Police Department we have always been assertive, very aggressive in going at gangs," Bratton said. "What we are doing with this effort — it's more comprehensive."
But what some critics of the crackdown find familiar is the race to respond to a killing that garners news media attention and public outrage — an approach they say is not always comprehensive or effective.
"It is the same prescription every time they have a major event," said Malcolm Klein, a veteran gang sociologist and USC professor emeritus. "Gangs are defined as a crime problem and not a community problem. This is old fashioned suppression in a new guise, and where is the proof that has worked?"
He noted that since 1980, when gang slayings topped 200 in Los Angeles, the city has focused most of its gang response on policing.
A month ago, Connie Rice, director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles, produced a comprehensive plan for the city to overhaul gang intervention programs and try to use means other than law enforcement to address its 39,000 gang members.
Rice proposes what she calls a Marshall Plan of sorts that would mix law enforcement with gang intervention and job programs, community outreach and newly created community oversight groups.
It would focus initially on 12 so-called hot zones around the city. Gang prevention efforts now cost the city $82 million a year, but the report called for as much as $1 billion to be spent over the first 18 months.
Rice said past LAPD gang suppression efforts have worked in some neighborhoods, but only for a short time. The city, she said, has always failed to follow up with programs to keep the gangs out.
"The surges of police activity work, and they may even work for months or years," Rice said. "But eventually, three years later, another [gang] set comes in."
She likened the situation to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, where troops quickly routed the enemy, only to see a lack of proper planning lead to chaos.
"The LAPD knows how to surge and purge," Rice said. But "after the LAPD clears out a neighborhood, we don't know how to hold and build."
Rice and Klein said the city's response to the Stephanie Kuhen shooting in Cypress Park by the Avenues gang highlights the problem.
In the wake of the killing, the city created the L.A. Bridges after-school program, but it has not done what was required, Rice said. The program budgeted for $26 million last year reaches only 5% of gang members and 2% of children in neighborhoods with high gang activity, and is not keeping enough young people out of gangs, she said.
Cheryl Maxson, a UC Irvine criminologist and gang expert, said the problem is that the LAPD can move much faster than gang intervention groups.
"The program community, the interventionists, are not able to mobilize as quickly as LAPD, so law enforcement has taken the lead on gangs for decades," she said. "So the city goes with strategic suppression."
Bratton, however, is quick to point out that LAPD efforts over the last four years have yielded results.
"In 2002, 2003 we had a similar initiative. [Before then] we had had three straight years of growing crime in the city. Gang violence in particular," he said. "We put in new resources. That year, we had a 23% decline in homicides throughout the city. About 20% of that decline, over 100 fewer murders, were in the South Bureau."
The latest plan calls for 200 extra officers to target the 11 gangs, a new South L.A. gang homicide bureau and an LAPD gang coordinator.
Villaraigosa said the plan, which identifies gangs by name, represents a more direct approach to the problem, learning from past mistakes.
"Part of what dynamic leadership is all about … is you are constantly evaluating what works and what doesn't," he said, adding that he also wants to boost gang-intervention programs.
The police crackdown has met with general support from community activists in some gang-plagued neighborhoods, who say they have been begging the city for years to make their areas safer.
But aggressive gang crackdowns have generated criticism in the past over heavy-handed tactics.
Efforts in the 1980s were widely seen as excessive, symbolized by police use of a tank-like battering ram to smash into suspected gang houses. In 1988, police ripped apart apartments on Dalton Street looking for gangs and drugs — but later admitted they had the wrong places.
A decade later, gang enforcement efforts were further tarnished by the Rampart scandal. Caught in a dope-stealing allegation, then-Officer Rafael Perez revealed that dozens of officers, many in the elite area gang unit, were making false arrests, giving perjured testimony and framing suspects.
Then-Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a city councilman, disbanded the anti-gang units. Subsequently, the U.S. Justice Department forced the LAPD and city into a consent decree with oversight of the department continuing today. Tough rules govern the gang units now in use, and there are audits and constant monitoring.
Here are some defining moments in the Los Angeles Police Department's long — and at times controversial — fight against street gangs.
• 1985: The LAPD started using a tank-like battering ram to enter suspected gang and drug houses. The Times reported: "Police Chief Daryl F. Gates was so proud of the event that he personally christened the new tank and then rode inside it, while cameras rolled, as it did its dirty work."
• 1988: Eighty-eight LAPD officers stormed two apartment houses at Dalton Avenue and 39th Street, near the Coliseum. The officers broke windows, smashed walls, ceilings and furniture with sledgehammers and battering rams and ripped out sinks and toilets. Apparently, they had the wrong apartments. The city paid more than $4 million in settlements.
• 1988: The LAPD launched Operation Hammer, anti-gang sweeps that resulted in tens of thousands of arrests. Many blacks and Latinos said the effort amounted to racial harassment. On one night, officers in Operation Hammer arrested 1,453 people — 1,350 of whom were released with no charges filed.
• 1994: In the wake of riots in 1992, several major gangs agreed to truces, which appeared to reduce killings in some neighborhoods, but in many cases the results were short-lived.
• 1995: The LAPD and other agencies launched what was described as the "largest street gang crackdown of its kind in Los Angeles history." In two weeks, only 69 people had been arrested by the 800-member task force.
• 1997: Law enforcement agencies won a sweeping, first-of-its-kind injunction aimed at the heart of the notorious 18th Street gang's domain, a crowded and crime-plagued square-mile area west of downtown where the group had emerged more than 30 years ago.
• 1998: Crime in Los Angeles dropped to the lowest level in more than two decades.
• 1999: The Rampart scandal erupted, with accusations of criminal behavior by members of the LAPD's anti-gang detail.
• 2002: Mayor James K. Hahn and Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton announced an "all-out assault" on the city's street gangs, with plans to use the same tactics that crippled organized crime to pursue gang members.
L.A. housing project stuck in a cycle of violence and distrust
Residents feel caught between the local gang and the police officers that battle it.
By Paul Pringle
Los Angeles Times
February 16, 2007
School was out, and the municipal gym jumped with the wholesome noise of girls and boys slapping basketballs onto the hardwood. Then came the clatter of a helicopter overhead.
"LAPD — you see?" said Jose Saucedo, in a voice too weary for his 18 years. He stood at the gym door, eyeing the police chopper as if it were a storm cloud.
"What's the reason for the helicopter? Why?"
The simple answer is that the gym sits in Ramona Gardens, an Eastside housing project that has seen countless confrontations between the police and its home-grown street gang, Big Hazard. The cycles of seething standoffs and bursts of violence stretch back generations and have defeated every effort to bring lasting security to the neighborhood.
Caught in the middle are Saucedo and his fellow ballplayers, along with about 2,000 other folks determined to lead normal lives in the sprawl of barracks-like, World War II-era masonry buildings.
Some say they feel under siege more from the police than the gang, because of what they contend are heavy-handed tactics, a characterization that the Los Angeles Police Department disputes.
"Growing up here is as close as you're going to get to living in a police state," said Jose Navarro, 29, a USC doctoral student from Ramona Gardens.
Earlier this month, the routines of residents were disrupted again after a reputed Big Hazard member died in LAPD custody. The death of Mauricio Cornejo, 31, who was arrested in the project, ignited yet another round of police-brutality accusations and countercharges of gang intimidation.
Two people said they saw officers beat or kick Cornejo in the head. The LAPD denies it and cites a preliminary coroner's examination that found no signs of serious head injuries. The police also say they are often targeted by Big Hazard. The gang has at least 260 members, including those in prison or living outside Ramona Gardens, and has connections to the Mexican Mafia, according to the LAPD.
Twice since January 2006, the police say, gunmen have fired at patrol cars in
Ramona Gardens, with bullets narrowly missing officers.
"Every time we walk away from our car, it's going to be vandalized," said LAPD Capt. William Fierro. "I just don't know how to get the roots of that gang out of there."
None of this surprises housing experts. They say that Ramona Gardens, squeezed by railroad tracks and the San Bernardino Freeway, has become a field laboratory for housing policies gone wrong and that any solution would require razing the buildings and starting from scratch. The city's oldest project, Ramona Gardens opened in 1941.
"It has outlived its useful life," said Rudy Montiel, executive director of the Los Angeles Housing Authority, which runs the project. Rents for the 497 residences are based on income and can be as little as $50 a month.
Montiel said Ramona Gardens typifies a failed model, because it piles poor families on top of each other and is separated from the surrounding community — hothouse conditions for predatory crime. He said the old Aliso Village project nearby was in similar distress until it was replaced with a combination of low- and middle-income housing. That could ultimately be Ramona Gardens' fate, he said, although there is no specific plan for such an undertaking.
"This is an area that has been neglected for years," said City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Ramona Gardens. He pledged to begin meeting regularly with residents.
A litany of ills
The project has witnessed shootings, a thriving drug trade, shakedown schemes that victimized delivery and bus drivers, apartment squatting by gang members and street skirmishes that rained rocks and bottles on police, according to the LAPD.
Last week, as tensions mounted over Cornejo's death, the threat of more mayhem charged the air. About 100 riot-equipped officers rolled into Ramona Gardens to disperse a group of 40 to 50 Big Hazard members — some of whom were drinking beer and smoking marijuana — and residents holding a curbside carwash to pay for Cornejo's funeral.
Because the gang members melted away without incident, LAPD officials declared the operation a success. But it left mixed emotions among residents. As police prepared to pull back, Fabian Puente, 21, who was born in Ramona Gardens, walked onto Lancaster Avenue to applaud them. "These officers are just doing their jobs," he said. "We are living in our houses like prisoners."
Many other residents declined to answer a reporter's questions or even give their names, seeming to show that they were afraid of the gang, the police or both.
The most vocal complained that the police stopped them for nothing and issued jaywalking tickets to teenagers heading home from school. Several accusations were directed at an officer assigned to monitor Big Hazard.
Miguel Jurado, 18, who grew up in Ramona Gardens, said the officer recently ticketed him for riding his bicycle without lights.
"He told me I looked like a gang member," said Jurado, a carpentry student who added that he doesn't belong to a gang and has never been arrested.
Fierro said the police do not detain residents without probable cause, and he defended the lead gang officer. He also dismissed a common belief in the project that rookie officers are deployed in Ramona Gardens as part of their training.
But Fierro acknowledged that there might be truth to an assertion that officers do not have enough contact with residents to quickly judge who is and isn't a troublemaker. "That bothers me, and I want to see if we can change that image that we have," he said.
Fierro and other police officials said they had been making strides in that direction — last year, an LAPD team played residents in a basketball game — until Cornejo's death.
On Feb. 3, LAPD spokesmen say, officers tried to apprehend Cornejo, but he led them on a foot chase and tossed away a .45-caliber pistol.
They say Cornejo, a wanted parolee, then fought with officers and was struck with a baton on an arm and leg. After he was handcuffed, Cornejo continued to kick at the officers, according to Lt. Paul Vernon. At the LAPD's Hollenbeck station, Cornejo developed breathing problems, and the police called paramedics, Vernon said. Cornejo was pronounced dead shortly afterward.
Two women have said they saw the police strike Cornejo in the head and body after he was handcuffed, and a third woman said she saw officers drag him through a station hallway and kick him. The police say that is untrue.
Complete autopsy results are pending.
History repeats itself
The recriminations over Cornejo's death are history repeating itself at Ramona Gardens. Eleven years ago, a crowd pelted officers with rocks and bottles after the police shot a suspected gang member to death. In 1991, a similar eruption occurred when a sheriff's deputy fatally shot an unarmed gang member, who authorities said had assaulted a second deputy with a flashlight.
Each time, residents said the police and sheriff's officials had ignored harassment complaints and were out of touch with the community.
The residents do not downplay the presence of Big Hazard. But many say the gang members, for better or worse, have family ties with those on the right side of the law.
The police insist that Big Hazard bullies residents into silence, while dealing drugs and committing robberies.
"Ninety percent of the people in there are good, hard-working people," said LAPD Deputy Chief Cayler Carter. He said the department has resolved to "take that community away from the gang and give it back to the people."
Carter and Fierro said the 2006 shootings at two patrol vehicles were on their minds when they marshaled a military-strength convoy to break up the carwash last week.
Current and former gang members say the police exaggerate the danger. Gabriel, 42, who asked that his last name be withheld, said he joined Big Hazard at age 12, has served multiple prison terms and has been employed under the table since his 2004 parole.
He said Big Hazard does not prey on residents. "It could be better, but it's a nice community," he said the day after the police operation.
Gabriel said that he expected the police to constantly eye him, if only because he is thoroughly branded with gang tattoos, but that the LAPD hassles too many innocents.
"These kids see it," he said, gesturing to the youngsters at the gym.
He said he followed his father into the gang, but the family had its triumphs: A brother is a civilian worker for the Sheriff's Department, and a sister is an apartment manager. "You can emancipate from this," Gabriel said, "but it takes a lot of discipline."
Discipline pays off
Navarro, the USC doctoral student, had the discipline. At the carwash, he wore a pullover from his alma mater, UC Berkeley, and told of being reared at Ramona Gardens by his aunt, Maggie Aguilar, who helped keep him out of the gang.
"I'd have kicked his butt," said Aguilar, whose daughter, Kristy Alvarez, is Lincoln High School's reigning homecoming queen.
Navarro, who was a friend of Cornejo, said the police use the gang label to "dehumanize" young people in the neighborhood. "There's little difference between me and the so-called gang members," he said.
He was standing on Lancaster Avenue as the third day of the carwash wound down. As it grew dark, Navarro chatted with another childhood friend, Gerard Hernandez, 27, remembering happier times. Hernandez once visited him at Berkeley, Navarro said.
On this night, he said, Hernandez joked about someday attending Harvard.
Half an hour later, Hernandez was shot near the gym and staggered out to the street. He died at the hospital.
Fierro said that Hernandez belonged to Big Hazard and that the killing was gang-related.
Gang mayhem cripples big area
Thousands stranded, schools locked down as notorious group battles the LAPD after a drive-by killing.
By Richard Winton, Susannah Rosenblatt and Andrew Blankstein
Los Angeles Times
February 22, 2008
A drive-by attack followed by a wild shootout between gang members and police shut down dozens of blocks of Northeast Los Angeles for nearly six hours Thursday afternoon, stranding thousands of residents, keeping students locked in their classrooms and leaving two people dead.
Veteran L.A. Police Department officials described the bizarre midday shootings -- and the widespread disruption they caused -- as highly unusual even in an area known for gang activity. It left the neighborhood littered with shell casings and its residents fearful.
Police blamed the incident on the notorious Avenues gang, which has cast a wide shadow over districts north of downtown L.A. for decades and continues to be active despite several high-profile attempts by authorities to shut it down.
The violence began around noon when a 37-year-old man police described as a bystander was shot more than a dozen times by suspected gang members as he held the hand of a 2-year-old girl. He later died. The toddler, apparently picked up by a passerby and carried to safety, was not wounded. As the gunmen drove off, witnesses told police, several pedestrians who apparently knew the victim opened fire on the car.
Minutes later, police attempted to stop suspects driving in a white Nissan sedan about 10 blocks away. Three men jumped out of the car, and at least two of them fired weapons at officers.
A man wielding an AK-47 rifle was killed by police as they returned fire, authorities said.
Another suspect was wounded and later found hiding under a car, where he was still holding a semiautomatic handgun, law enforcement sources said. Police said he is expected to recover.
But it was a massive manhunt for the two remaining suspects that shut down dozens of streets in Cypress Park until police arrested one of the men about 5:30 p.m. The other is believed to have driven out of the area, police said.
As police swept through the neighborhood, parents waited anxiously for word about their schoolchildren and other residents remained either stuck inside their homes or kept back by police barricades.
"My son is trapped over there and I can't get him," said Christine Schmidt, 37, who was inside her home near Drew Street and Avenue 32 when she heard the gunshots. Her son was one of the students locked down at Washington Irving Middle School.
"I want my son," she said.
During the search, SWAT team members took position and patrol deputies went door to door with dogs in a neighborhood Police Chief William J. Bratton called the "heart and soul" of the Avenues street gang, whose roots there date back more than 50 years.
As the search dragged on, Washington Irving Middle School students kept on lockdown were fed lunch, allowed bathroom breaks and kept in touch with parents by cellphone. Also locked down were Fletcher and Aragon elementary schools and Cal Charter.
An automated phone service notified parents of the lockdown status, which was not lifted until about 6:15 p.m.
Hundreds of residents gathered along sidewalks and on freeway bridges, waiting for police to allow them back into the neighborhood.
Juan Soto awoke at home to the sound of helicopters and police cars. His car was in the area blocked by police and he had no way to get to his job.
"My boss is not going to relieve me," said the 31-year-old.
Near the scene of the shootings Thursday, Bratton described a neighborhood terrorized in recent weeks by gang violence.
"Gangs that have been here for generations have been going at each other," Bratton said during a news conference, referring to the Avenues and Cypress Park gangs.
Since the beginning of the year, authorities said Avenues gang members are suspected in at least six homicides. Northeast Division, typically far from the most violent in the city, already has eight homicides this year, more than any other, police said. At that rate, the division would far eclipse last year's total of 18.
Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz said that while the area has gang problems, the level of violence in the last few weeks is "unheard of."
In the last month, police said, about a third of the 60 aggravated assaults in the area this year have been connected to Avenues gang members.
The Avenues gang has cast a long shadow in these poor, largely Latino sections north of downtown L.A.
They gained national attention in 1995 when a 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen was shot and killed when her family made a wrong turn into a Cypress Park alley.
Two years ago, the gang was again in the news when members were convicted on federal hate crime charges for violently trying to drive black residents from the area, a prosecution authorities hoped would hobble the gang's activities.
But law enforcement officials on Thursday described an active and dangerous enterprise, still operating from its well-known base of operations on Drew Street.
Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said plainclothes officers in the area had gone to the location Thursday because they believed that possible suspects in the drive-by shooting would soon return.
"There's been a rash, an uptick, of shootings in the past few weeks," McDonnell said of the neighborhood, which is just north of the junction of the 5 and 2 freeways and densely packed with apartment buildings, small bungalows and warehouses.
Within minutes of reports of officers being shot at, a massive police presence had descended on the area. Los Angeles SWAT officers were in position by 1 p.m., authorities said. The location is only a few blocks from the LAPD's Northeast Station on San Fernando Road.
More than four hours after the confrontation began, a body covered by a white sheet was still visible in the street. An AK-47 lay nearby.
Neighbors stood in front yards and looked down from balconies, some snapping photographs.
Neighbors said one home in the area had been a subject of frequent police activity.
On Wednesday night, one neighbor said police officers were at the house.
The 35-year old man, who lives in the apartment building next door and asked not to be identified because of fear of reprisals, said he then heard shots Thursday about noon.
"It's been happening since last night," he said. "It's been getting worse and worse every single day."
The shootout and police activity unnerved others as well. About a dozen residents were evacuated by police and stood waiting for hours in a nearby carport.
Norma Rodriguez, 45, said she was turned back when she tried to pick up her son from Fletcher Elementary School.
"We can't go anywhere," said Rodriguez, who lives in Eagle Rock and works as a private caregiver. "I'm worried. Right now at this point, I know he's inside the school, but I don't want him to be scared. There are police cars everywhere."
A gang's staying power
Entrenched for years in Northeast L.A., the Avenues continues to defy the forces of law and gentrification.
By Joe Mozingo, Sam Quinones and Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times
February 23, 2008
The young men who rule Drew Street have survived countless convictions, injunctions, evictions and deportations.
Over the years, they have called themselves the Cypress Assassins, the Pee Wee Gangsters, the Brown Crowd Youngsters. They are as much clan as gang, deeply interconnected by family, with decades in their Glassell Park neighborhood.
Police have tried to crush them for years, but for all the law enforcement rained upon the shabby two blocks of wrought-iron fences and stucco apartments, homeboys still command the street, as evidenced by the wild shootout Thursday in Northeast Los Angeles. The gun battle, which followed a drive-by attack near an elementary school, prompted police to shut down dozens of blocks, stranded thousands of residents and left two people dead.
The Drew Street crew is just one clique of the notorious Avenues gang that has tenaciously retained control over a wide swath of Northeast L.A., defying both the forces of gentrification and heavy crackdowns by police and federal agents.
The gang, deriving its name from the avenues that cross Figueroa Street, took root in the 1950s and has wreaked havoc ever since. The insignia tattooed on many members' bodies speaks to their virulent history: a skull with a bullet hole, wearing a fedora.
The city attorney hit the Avenues with a gang injunction in 2002, making it illegal for known members to congregate or ride in cars together throughout much of Highland Park, Glassell Park, Cypress Park and Eagle Rock.
And in 2006, the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles won hate-crime convictions against five members for a murderous campaign to force African Americans out of their turf.
But even though the Avenues' presence in many neighborhoods has diminished in recent years -- currently, there are about 400 members -- it remains one of the most powerful gangs in the city. And it retains strong ties to the Mexican Mafia, known as the Eme -- a dominant force in California prisons.
"They are fully entrenched in the northeast community," said U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien, who led the hate-crime case and prosecuted members of the gang earlier in his career, as a deputy district attorney. "This is one of those older street gangs that are generational. You have youngsters who are 10 or 11 years old jumped in to the same gang claimed by their grandfathers."
The Drew Street clique is run by five interrelated families, police say. The layout of the small neighborhood -- cut off by San Fernando Road, backed up against Forest Lawn Memorial Park -- serves as a perfect redoubt.
The area has long been a source of income for the Mexican Mafia, as Avenues members have taxed local drug dealers and paid a cut to the prison gang, according to Tony Raphael, author of "The Mexican Mafia." A prominent member of the Eme, Javier "Gangster" Marquez, grew up on Drew Street, and drugs from Mexico would land there before being distributed. Raphael said a recent uptick in violence stems from a renewed push by the Avenues to collect taxes from smaller gangs in Cypress Park and Glassell Park.
Police said the Thursday shootout began when gang members opened fire on 36-year-old Marcos Salas near Aragon Elementary School as he held the hand of his 2-year-old granddaughter. The girl was whisked away, but Salas later died. As the gunmen drove off, several people who apparently knew the victim started firing at them.
Minutes later, police converged on Drew Street, 10 blocks away. They pulled over a white Nissan sedan, and three men jumped out and opened fire, police said. The officers fired back, wounding one man and hitting another, who was wielding an AK-47.
Daniel Leon, 22 -- a heavy in the Drew Street crew -- died on the asphalt he and his brothers ruled. The wounded man, Jose Angel Gomez, was taken to a hospital and is being held on suspicion of killing Salas. Another gunman, Guillermo Ocampo, was later caught by police and booked for investigation of murder. Police identified all three as members of the Avenues.
Leon was one of 13 children of Maria Leon, who lived at 3304 Drew St. until the city shut down the home last year with a narcotics abatement lawsuit. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo called the home the gang's "mother ship." More than 40 arrests were made there in 2006, and the city attorney was attempting to ban Daniel Leon from the neighborhood before he was killed.
His family is one of the five that control drug sales in the area, LAPD Deputy Chief Sergio Diaz and other sources said.
"This clique is bound by close family ties," said Diaz. "It goes back generations."
Like hundreds of residents in the neighborhood, the Leons originally hailed from the village of Tlalchapa, in Guerrero, Mexico, neighbors said.
That shared history breeds loyalty. Several residents interviewed Friday said they supported the Avenues. "I've been here 25 years and they've never disrespected me," said Modesta Hernandez. "On the contrary, they protect us. They help us."
They depicted the police as hostile and corrupt, and several said the shooting of Daniel Leon was unprovoked, although one neighbor said he clearly saw Leon raise the assault weapon at the officers.
Leon had a history of violence. He was arrested for killing a drug buyer at the house in 2004 and was ultimately convicted of being an accessory to murder. In 2005, he was arrested in a case in which prosecutors alleged "he brutally beat and robbed a 43-year-old man . . . as his wife looked on." The wife would not speak to prosecutors out of fear of retaliation.
This fear is the continuing obstacle in authorities' attempts to break the gang's grip. Witnesses don't believe police will protect them. And gang members who flip on their brethren are instantly "green-lighted" -- marked for execution.
David "Mousie" Cruz testified in 2001 against an Avenues member who was accused of taking part in the killings of two black men. Cruz was then deported to El Salvador, where he was stabbed 22 times in retaliation, but he survived.
FBI Special Agent Jerry Fradella recalled trying to pressure the least culpable defendant in the hate-crime case to testify against his codefendants in exchange for leniency. Fernando "Sneaky" Cazares was known to have been inside a van listening to a police scanner while other defendants carried out a killing outside. But he wouldn't betray them.
"He was loyal to the end," Fradella said. "And he got triple life just like the other guys."
Compounding the problem, potential informants often cannot envision a life after snitching -- no longer safe in their neighborhoods, which are often all they know of the world. And in prison, they would have to be held in protective custody.
"They're just so unfamiliar with whatever else is out there, they want to stick to what they know," Fradella said.
The silence is unbearable for the victims' families. Luisa Prudhomme's son Anthony was shot twice in the head as he lay in bed in his apartment in Highland Park on Nov. 3, 2000. He had no gang affiliation and worked at a Pier 1.
His slaying was part of the hate-crime case that led to the conviction of the five men. But the actual shooter is still at large. Police believe they know his identity, but no one will talk.
"I want the person who murdered my son to be brought to justice," Prudhomme said. "The guy who pulled the trigger. He used a pillow, but he must have gotten some of my son's blood on him. He knows what he did. God knows what he did."
Who'll stop the gangs?
L.A.'s crime plague is a complex social ill that requires more than just beefed-up law enforcement.
Los Angeles Times
February 27, 2008
Gang violence is to Los Angeles politics as the weather is to conversation: Everybody talks about it, and nobody ever does anything about it.
Policing occasionally provides a temporary surcease, as it did last week when a drive-by murder next to a grammar school playground and a subsequent shootout between heavily armed gunmen and Los Angeles Police Department officers paralyzed parts of two neighborhoods northeast of downtown for hours. Early Wednesday morning, a police sweep apprehended 19 alleged gang members and seized guns and drugs.
But though the department is willing to take on gang violence where it becomes particularly virulent, treating this solely as a policing issue is a bit like asking the overextended, understaffed LAPD to engage in an endless game of Whac-a-Mole. There were 200 officers involved in Wednesday's predawn sweep -- and anyone who knows just how few cops are on the city's streets at any given moment also knows what that kind of diversion of force means.
The problem's sheer scope makes it clear that it won't yield to a solution based entirely -- or even mainly -- on law enforcement. People who believe most of the statistics thrown around during debates over gangs usually are the sort who respond to e-mails from Nigeria with their banking information. Still, conservative analysts estimate that as many as 40,000 people belong to the 700 or so gangs in the city of L.A. Countywide, there may be as many as 1,200 gangs with 80,000 members. The material cost of their criminality may be as much as $2 billion a year; the human toll in lives lost or deformed defies calculation.
Every few years, our political establishment runs out of ways to look away and begins demanding another study, a fresh approach, a new initiative. First came an assessment of Los Angeles' anti-gang efforts commissioned by the City Council and written last year by civil rights attorney Connie Rice.
She's one of those civic activists who is both principled and shrewd, but the report is a dead letter. It's more than 100 pages long and demands new programs by the carload. Essentially, it advocates what it calls a citywide Marshall Plan with a price tag of more than $1 billion. (At one point, the report estimates that the programs required to get the gangs off one South Los Angeles high school campus, Manual Arts, would cost more than $50 million.)
Even if the city and state were not in the grip of a budget crisis, there is no chance that sums of that size ever will be available to assist a group of people who probably are less popular than the Taliban among L.A. voters.
Meanwhile, City Controller Laura Chick this month issued her own audit of ongoing anti-gang efforts. She doesn't see a need for any new funds, but she wants to reallocate money from some programs and consolidate all of them under a single anti-gang czar, who would report directly to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He likes the idea, as do Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Police Chief William J. Bratton.
Chick's proposal, however, is unlikely to go any further than Rice's because it's opposed by Councilman Tony Cardenas, who chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence and Youth Development. "They're recommending that the intervention and prevention programs basically be put in the mayor's office," he said, "which is a policy matter first and foremost that should, and will, be vetted through the council." In other words, economic and political stalemate as usual -- and another chance to avert our collective gaze.
Meanwhile, consider these facts -- as reported by Times staff writer Sam Quinones -- concerning Marcos Salas, the 36-year-old man whose killing touched off last week's lockdown of much of northeast Los Angeles. He was one of eight sons brought to Los Angeles from Arizona as children by his impoverished farmworker parents. Marcos dropped out of high school, joined the Cypress Park gang and went to prison twice -- once on a drug charge, once for attempted murder while on parole.
Since getting out, he'd reportedly tried to stay out of gang activities, spending time with his partner, their six daughters and two granddaughters. Salas, like many ex-cons, was unemployed, supported by his partner's welfare check. He had his 2-year-old granddaughter by the hand when he was shot dead outside the grammar school where he'd gone to walk one of his daughters home.
For Marcos Salas, gang membership was simply the apex on a pyramid of social pathologies that made up his troubling and -- for others -- troublesome life.
We no longer can afford to either sentimentalize or demonize the thousands among us caught up in choices and circumstances like those with which Salas lived. Most of all, we cannot go on looking away.
Los Angeles park lights send gang activity into the shadows
Los Angeles Times
July 9, 2008
History is not on his side.
The odds are his mortal enemy.
And summer weather is sure to bedevil him, stirring rage and heating the ammo.
But the Rev. Jeff Carr is cruising L.A. in his Honda hybrid on a Saturday night, firm in the belief that he is chipping away at the seemingly intractable urban travesty of flying bullets and falling bodies.
"It's not undoable," he says of the challenge he took on nearly one year ago, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa looked up at the blond, 6-foot-3 preacher and asked him to be his gang czar.
"I hate being called the gang czar," Carr says.
"This is not a war on kids."
In fact, the official title is director of gang reduction and youth development, and Carr is showing me one of his latest attempts at both. In the Summer Night Lights program, eight parks in high-crime areas around the city are being kept open several hours later than normal, until midnight in some locations, from Wednesday through Saturday.
"Four to midnight is the most violent time in our city, from Fourth of July to Labor Day," Carr says.
He knows parks can be gang-banger clubhouses, so there's a risk in keeping the lights on and throwing open the gates. But there's a greater risk when kids have nowhere to go. Five summers ago, he points out, when one city park was kept open late, the crime rate around the park fell.
That's why Carr, ordained in the Church of the Nazarene and devoted for years to youth services in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., hooked up with the school district, the Recreation and Parks Department and other agencies to organize activities at the parks.
It wasn't easy in an era of budget shortages. He had to pass the basket at several nonprofits -- Ahmanson, Annenberg, Eisner, Hauptman, Weingart, Wells Fargo, California Endowment, LA84, Wellness Foundation -- raising nearly $1 million to pay for the whole thing. And he had to get the LAPD to step up patrols around the parks.
But the genius of the plan was to recruit 10 youngsters between the ages of 17 and 20 to work at each park this summer for a stipend of about $2,600.
"They're kids who could be either victims or perpetrators," he says as we arrive at Cypress Park.
All 10 of the hires are wearing gray Youth Squad T-Shirts, and so is Carr, who shakes hands and asks how it's going.
From what I could see, not badly.
On this Saturday night, the local Neighborhood Council has lent a giant-screen TV, and in a lovely old-world tableau, several neighborhood families are gathered for an outdoor movie. In the distance, teens are surfing concrete waves in the skate park while still more ricochet around the ballpark.
I grab one of the Youth Squad kids, 17-year-old Yovani, and ask what he makes of the scene.
It's a lot better than the alternative, he said. "In five minutes," he says of the neighborhood he lives in, "you could be in a gang."
He was a graffiti artist, he tells me, and he knew where that could take him. So he jumped when Carr's recruiters came around.
"I joined because I was always going to get drawn into that," he says of the criminal forces. "Nobody fights now. Everybody shoots."
Earlier, on this very night, Yovani says, he saw a banger come by, take a look at all the lawful activity and walk away.
"Thank you," Carr tells the Youth Squad when we leave for another park. "You guys are doing good work for our city."
As we tour three parks, Carr and I chat about the death of middle-income jobs, the failures of the schools, the perils of the culture, the armies of absent dads and all the other nightmares that make his mission so difficult.
"I just love kids," he says, telling me he's well aware that he's in a job in which he's more likely to be damned every time a gun is fired than he is to be praised when there's silence.
In the toughest neighborhoods of the city, Carr likes to say with optimism, 85% of the kids never join a gang. The mayor's office has just taken full control of the city's formerly fragmented and often inept gang-reduction programs, and Carr says that will mean tighter controls and more accountability for outside agencies.
When we head down to Mount Carmel Park, at the intersection of two warring South-Central gangs, Carr tells me there have been two shootings in the neighborhood in the last 24 hours. Inside the gym a basketball game is underway as midnight approaches, with Youth Squad employees and neighborhood kids squaring off.
"All these kids are at-risk," gang interventionist Pee Cavitt says.
He watches from the sidelines as Carr joins the game and uses bulk, an aging athlete's only advantage, to rattle in a couple of baskets. The kids razz him with whoops of surprise.
Cavitt tells me he can't remember seeing anyone from City Hall spend so much time in the neighborhood.
Carr shows up not just to brainstorm and to deputize good citizens, but he tries to visit the scene of every gang-related murder so he can sort out the dispute and help prevent endless rounds of retaliation.
When a kid lies dying in the street, Carr tells me, no matter who he is, he "was created in the image of God" and "should be treated with respect. Someone should be there to represent the mayor's office."
When five youths and three adults were shot near a South-Central bus stop in February, Carr raced around trying to catch up with victims.
At County-USC he bumped into a father who told him his daughter had just been shot, and then he came upon the 12-year-old girl.
"I saw her on a gurney, sitting up. A 12-year-old girl. She gave me a blank stare. Tears welled up in her eyes, but she wasn't crying.
"I said, 'I'm sorry, but it's going to be OK.' "
"What do you tell a 12-year-old girl who just got shot in the arm? I asked her name and told her I work for the mayor's office, but I'm a minister too. I said, 'Do you mind if I pray?'
"Whenever I'm up against the bureaucracy, I remember the face of that 12-year-old, and I push more. Whether it's keeping parks open at night or anything else, don't tell why we can't do it.
"Tell me why we can."