By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
What this means is that the communities gangs come from are pulling away from mainstream society more than ever, and the gangs that plague them, like storm systems, are growing and feeding on themselves, gathering destructive strength. In Los Angeles, law enforcement officials now warn that they have arrived at the end of their ability to contain gangs to poor minority and immigrant hot zones.
“This is the monster, this is what drives people’s fears,” says LAPD Deputy Chief Charles Beck.
Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest whose Homeboy Industries has helped willing gangbangers in mostly Hispanic East L.A. escape the life, tells me that gang behavior is changing, and the change is chilling. Everywhere he sees signs of the erosion of known and protected codes of conduct, such as methods of assassination that used to protect the innocent, and territorial respect — which he says reflect an accelerating sense of desolation among poor urban youth. Gangs today are less about neighborhoods and rivalries. They’ve become repositories for hopelessness.
“Gangs are the places where kids go when they encounter their life as misery without exception,” says Boyle. “When [gangbangers] go out to commit crimes now, they’re not going out seeking to kill — you can’t reason or rationalize this: These are kids who don’t care. They’re going out hoping to die.”
Last January, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cried uncle, saying that it was time for government and law enforcement to admit they have failed to stop gangs or even understand what they are. He appealed for federal help to make a Marshall Plan–style push to tackle what’s been an intractable problem.
“Los Angeles is the epicenter of the nation’s gang crisis, and an effective assault on gang crime will require increased suppression, intervention and prevention measures,” Villaraigosa said after Rice’s report was released. “Street gangs are responsible for the majority of all the murders in Los Angeles and nearly 70 percent of all the shootings. We must work to address gang violence in a truly comprehensive way.”
The problem is that for the most part traditional (and failed) models of gangs and gang suppression do not apply, because not only are gangs better armed and more ferocious, but they look different. The accelerating current of gang violence is colliding with a growing wave of Hispanic migration from Mexico and Central America into the United States. Hispanic gangs now dominate the hardcore narcotics business nationwide, and they are physically pushing historically entrenched black gangs out of their territories.
Squeezed by a shrinking share of the drug market, desperate for new business, gang members and their families are retreating out of the city, establishing new street gangs where they land. According to the FBI, gangs are showing up and spreading in suburban and rural America, in counties like Westchester and Suffolk in New York, and rural parts of North Carolina and Virginia, places that have no experience with street gangs and organized crime, and police who don’t know how to fight it.
A few years ago, officers responding to a call to Nickerson Gardens found a young Bounty Hunter who had lit a dog on fire. Already on probation for animal cruelty, a juvenile court judge exiled the young gangbanger to San Bernardino, a small city 70 miles east of L.A., where the boy had relatives. Within a few weeks, the boy recruited a few local kids to form a robbery crew and went on a spree of armed home invasions. They made a point of bragging to their victims that they were Bounty Hunters from L.A. They shot their last victim to death. The San Bernardino chapter of the Bounty Hunter Bloods was born.
L.A.’s sprawl has turned gritty former Mormon and railroad settlements such as San Bernardino into bedroom communities, ripe territory for construction and for industrial growth. Pinched by spiking real estate prices and displaced by a surging Hispanic migration, many of South L.A.’s blacks are relocating to the Inland Empire. So are gangs.
In October, I spent an evening with Andre (not his real name), who’d left Nickerson Gardens a few years ago for San Bernardino. With the desert and the craggy San Bernardino mountain range a constant backdrop, we drove from point to point around town as he collected envelopes of cash or checked supply at drug spots. “My family moved trying to get away from the trauma of Watts,” Andre explained.
Other Bounty Hunters he knew fled Nickerson because other gangs or the police were hunting them. They go where relatives are, to New Jersey, or Little Rock. Or here, he said. Wherever they go, they bring their relationships, reputations and skills. For an L.A. gangbanger, that usually means the drug or robbery business.
That’s how it spreads, Andre said. “A few knuckleheads from around here start wanting to get down with us. But they’re not official. They’re called add-ons. Outside of L.A. there will always be somebody official in the gang; everybody else is an add-on.” Add-ons are like kites on a string, easily cut off if they draw trouble. “It’s like we rent them. There’s no real connection to us. If we have a shootout, they’re not tied to us whatsoever.”
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