By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
FOR WEEKS I HAD BEEN TRYING TO FIND 18th Street members willing to speak to me about the injunction. Things were too hot, I was always told. There was too much pressure, from both police and rival gangs. Then finally I get a call from Al Ortiz, who runs a legendarily successful gang-intervention and job-training program out of an office in Boyle Heights. Two of the guys in his program are willing to sit down. A police officer named Filbert Cuesta has been shot to death at a party in Crenshaw, and the suspect is from 18th Street. Things haven't gotten any cooler -- they've reached a boiling point. 18th Streeters all over the city, Ortiz says, are being picked up and questioned. His kids are feeling increasingly trapped, and they want to get their story out.
When I walk into Ortiz's windowless, bare-walled office, Luis and Mike are already there, sitting in plastic chairs in adjacent corners of the narrow room. Luis, skinny and intense, at times almost jumping out of his seat with excess energy and bottled-up anger, is from Columbia Little Cycos, a clique from Westlake whose members mingle extensively with the nearby Pico-Union sets -- a few of them are even named in the Pico-Union injunction. Luis is not among them, but he's one of the 92 18th Streeters named in the Westlake/MacArthur Park injunction announced last May. Mike, in his mid- to late 20s, a few years older and calmer than Luis, had been a member of a now largely defunct Hollywood clique. Luis immediately begins protesting the level of police activity in his neighborhood. "They're just taking people out," he says, his voice filled with urgency. The injunction has only made things worse. It's "just giving police more authority to harass people. Everybody's panicked, paranoid."
While police pressure has been growing, he says, pressure from rival gangs has not been any less constant. "There's been problems already," Luis admits, somewhat cagily, reluctant to provide specifics that might incriminate anyone involved. He's not as shy about predicting more trouble when currently incarcerated 18th Streeters get out of prison to find strangers on their streets. "It's gonna create a big war. You'll hear about it."
I ask Luis and Mike what they think about James Hahn's answer for 18th Streeters unhappy with the injunction ("If they want to go back to enjoying all the activities that everybody else enjoys in the neighborhood, they can get out of the gang. They can stop being gang members"). "That's impossible," Mike answers, shaking his head. "You're still labeled," Luis jumps in. "Even if you don't associate no more, you don't claim membership, they still label you." It's hard for people to go straight, and the struggle is made more difficult by police who, Mike says, "don't care if they're working, doing positive for themselves." As for those whose names are formally included in an injunction: "They have no chance. They're just gonna be in the system," Luis predicts, outrage rising in his voice. Mike mentions having spoken with a minor named in the injunction and asking him how long it would be in effect. Excusing his language, Mike recalls, "He said, 'Homey, I'm fucked. It's forever.'"
(Deputy D.A. Lisa Fox says that a few gang members have had their names removed from the injunction, "because they've been killed or because they've been sentenced to life in state prison." She adds, however, that the injunction could be modified if an individual provided sufficient evidence that he or she had stopped gangbanging.)
As the interview draws to a close, Luis talks -- the muscles in his jaw growing tenser, his eyes and gestures expressing increasing frustration -- about growing up in a neighborhood with no Little League teams, nowhere to go with your problems, no jobs to hope for, where "All [you] see is gang members. They need more programs that give help to kids instead of putting them away like dogs," he says, on the edge of his chair. "There are guys who have done bad things. Punish them. Don't just wipe the whole youth out. Some of us are gonna make it."
MARIA SANABRIA OWNS A GROCERY STORE in an old brick building on 11th Street. Its windows, like those on the first floor of almost every structure within sight, are protected by metal bars, in her case painted white to match the color of the bricks. Above her door, a sign boasts of "productos latinos" and Salvadoran breads as well as help with income tax, immigration proceedings, marriages and evictions.
A small Salvadoran woman in her 50s, her hair dyed black to hide the gray, wearing glasses and a palpable air of exhaustion, Sanabria, like many adults in the neighborhood, hasn't heard about the injunction. From behind the desk in the front of her store, below a shelf sparsely populated with boxes of birthday candles and brightly colored party favors, she recounts in Spanish that there used to be a lot of gangsters around (cholos, she calls them). "From 18th Street?" I ask. With raised eyebrows -- dumb question -- she responds: "It's their barrio." A bunch of them lived in, and sold drugs from, the apartment above her shop, and it was always crazy: noise at all hours, people coming and going, drinking, fights. It was bad, she says, shaking her head at the memory. Fear kept her indoors at night, but they treated her well. "They respected me, they called me 'Tia.'" They would even warn her to close her shop when they expected trouble from other gangs.