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
Every yard, doorway, shop and parking lot is the fiefdom of one of Watts’ 65 gangs and their roughly 15,000 hardcore gang members. In that area alone, gang members shoot 500 people a year, and kill 90. Nearly every citizen living there is enjoined by membership or affiliation; those who try to stay out of the life incur their local gang’s wrath, sometimes with fatal consequences. The average American has a 1-in-18,000 chance of being murdered. In this area of Los Angeles, the chances are 1 in 250.
On New Year’s Eve so much automatic weapons fire pours into Watts’ airspace that LAX air traffic control must divert the flight path of incoming planes. The U.S. military sends its medics to train at local trauma hospitals because the conditions in their trauma units so resemble live warfare. At a community meeting I attended in March 2006, LAPD Chief William Bratton declared the Jordan Downs–Nickerson Gardens area “the most violent community in the country. This is now the most dangerous place in America,” he said.
I first visited Nickerson Gardens one night last January, trolling the streets with a Los Angeles Fire Department paramedic captain named Marc Segal. Built in 1955 as temporary housing for military personnel, Nickerson is the largest project west of the Mississippi, with roughly 5,000 residents. Its 1,054 federally subsidized units — which rent for as little as $175 a month — are arranged around parking lots. They are painted institutional white and labeled like cell blocks.
As we neared the project, Segal told me to put on a Kevlar vest. Nickerson Gardens was then in the grips of the lethal gang war that had begun with the Demond Whiting shooting that Christmas Eve.
“The Fire Department used to not get shot at,” he lamented. Now, paramedics are wary of entering the projects without heavy police escort. That means the sick and the wounded sometimes wait a long time for rescue.
“Now tell me if you notice anything strange,” Segal said as we approached Nickerson Gardens. I looked, considered, and then replied, “The fence.”
Nickerson Gardens is partly enclosed by a 7-foot wrought-iron fence topped by sharp spikes, the sort usually meant to keep intruders out. But these spikes stabbed down into the projects; they were there to keep people in. “These people are born in a prison,” Segal said, and then drove quickly with his headlights off.
The street lamps were out, and nearly all the windows were dark. I could make out the silhouettes of people hanging out in doorways, and the glowing cherries of their cigarettes. Later, I learned that most residents of Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs keep their lights off at night to avoid becoming targets in drive-by shootings. Segal was relieved when we got out of there. “I probably shouldn’t have done that,” he said.
It wasn’t always this way.?
Originally, L.A.’s street gangs were social and support organizations for immigrants and packs of neighborhood pals. Mostly their crimes were petty, and scores were settled with fists. Latinos and blacks generally stayed out of each other’s way.
All that changed forever in the late 1980s, when crack cocaine hit Los Angeles and neighborhood affiliation became secondary to what all the gangs now really wanted: a piece of the drug business. By then, Colombian cartels, looking to reduce the risk of American prosecution, had transferred the bulk of the trafficking part of the drug business to Mexican and Hispanic-American gangs. Now in control of the cocaine supply, and suddenly flush, many of them squared up into efficient, vertically integrated, multilevel organizations.
“They quickly understood the benefits of economic diversification, and that the real money is in wholesaling drugs coming over the border to other gangs,” Luis Li, a former assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the Department of Justice’s L.A. organized-crime division, told me.
Mexican gang leaders from Los Angeles jailed in Tracy State Prison banded together to retain control of their narcotics business on the street. The Mexican Mafia — or Eme — was born, and has replaced the Cosa Nostra as the most powerful single criminal entity in the country. “They make a big effort to make a business-friendly environment,” Li says. “They are trying to get people in Los Angeles — middle-, upper-middle- and upper-class people — to drive through and buy drugs.”
“But as the war on drugs went into overdrive, and law enforcement had this fixation on crack, it was really seen as a black thing,” a federal prosecutor told me. “Government officials were obsessing about blacks doing crack, but not Hispanics.”
Hispanic gangs weren’t immune from prosecution, the prosecutor told me, but black gangs were seen as more dangerous, their violence more anarchic and lethal to innocent civilians; their communities were seen as being at greater risk than Latino neighborhoods. It virtually became government policy to isolate black gangs.
“Maybe the federal government saw black gangs as a greater threat,” says Lieutenant John P. Sullivan, an intelligence and counterterrorism expert in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “Or maybe black gangs were just easier to penetrate.”
The effect on black gangs was a virtual decapitation. With most of their leaders in prison, what little organization there was evaporated and black gangbangers turned on each other and themselves. “Whether targeting black gangs was a good idea,” the prosecutor now wondered, “in retrospect I think it probably wasn’t.”