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Politics in the Street

Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

Some flash signs, others sell drugs, and many inspire fear. Here, in a 10-block area along Alvarado Street in Westlake, some 18th Street gang members are reclaiming their turf amid the fortunetellers and swap-meet-style shops that used to be movie theaters.

Once targeted by a court injunction that kept them from congregating, 18th Streeters are bucking for control of the low-income and mostly immigrant streets of Westlake and Pico-Union. Some business owners said that street toughs have become more brazen since the injunction was lifted in the wake of the Rampart police scandal.

“They [gang members] feel like they are calling the shots now,” said an Alvarado business owner from El Salvador who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “There wasn’t much gang activity when the injunction was in place. But after the Rampart scandal, gang members feel more free to act.”

Gang injunctions have become a political issue in the debates between Los Angeles mayoral candidates James K. Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. Hahn, the city attorney, believes that injunctions are a key weapon in undermining the power of street gangs, while Villaraigosa says that enforcement tactics should also include social programs to help steer young people away from criminal life.

View from the hood

Hahn stresses that his work in bringing injunctions against some of the nation’s largest and toughest gangs gives him the edge when it comes to reducing crime. On the other hand, Villaraigosa, who went from a street-fighting Boyle Heights youth to speaker of the state Assembly, believes that young people can overcome the lure of crime with good counseling and a second chance.

Out on the streets, far from the campaign rhetoric, the debate takes on a different tone.

About a dozen residents of the Westlake and Pico-Union areas, which are part of the territory covered by the Rampart station, said that the injunctions may not have solved the gang problem, but they did manage to keep some of the most troublemaking gang members in line.

“From one to 10, I give them [the injunctions] a 10,” said a Westlake resident who asked not to be identified. “We are the ones who are living here and the ones that saw that things were much calmer back then.”

It was a mistake to lift the 18th Street injunction, said an Alvarado business owner. “In my country, police are corrupt, but criminals fear them. Not here,” he said, indicating some men outside his window who were making signs at cars. “The next mayor should definitely enforce stricter laws against them.”

Twelve injunctions have been filed by Hahn’s office since 1987, with the latest court order enacted three weeks ago against the Pacoima Project Boys. In September 1999, the City Attorney’s Office asked a judge to lift the injunctions against the 18th Street Gang in Pico-Union and Jefferson Park because of fear that they were tainted by the testimony of corrupt Rampart police officers.

Villaraigosa is not totally against injunctions, but he believes their effectiveness is overstated. They are useful police tactics, but fail to help break the constant cycle of youths joining gangs, said spokesman Ace Smith. He added that Hahn uses the lawsuits as a political ploy to scare the electorate into voting for him.

“They [injunctions] are one of those things that sound very tough, but how do we start getting to the root causes?” said Smith, who criticized injunctions for having only short-term effects on a community. “And the greatest short-term effect is that it creates good press conferences.”

Throughout California, 34 injunctions have been ordered against gangs, with more planned in the city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles County and several cities, such as Pasadena, also have used them. Marty Vranicar, head of the City Attorney’s gang unit, said their usefulness far outweighs the criticism. They are especially good at making life hard for drug dealers.

“Obviously, to run a narcotics operation you need to have a number of individuals out there: the seller, the person who is doing the lookout, and the person who is picking up the dope and the money,” Vranicar said. “You can have a large impact if you can tie those people together and prevent them from being out there.”

Injunctions also diminish a gang’s intimidating presence by keeping it from gathering in large numbers, Vranicar added. Residents are more likely to stand up to street toughs when no fellow gang members are around to help them out.

“The difference between one person trying to hassle a citizen and three gang members hassling the citizen is a quantum leap,” Vranicar said. “The gang gets its power from its ability to intimidate a community; their collective presence is what can really bring an oppressive clout over the community.”

 

Injunctions are not enough to keep gangs from tearing up a community, said William “Blinky” Rodriguez, whose 16-year-old son was shot and killed in 1990 in a drive-by attack in Sylmar. A member of the Victory Outreach Ministries, Rodriguez managed to forgive the killers of his son, and has dedicated his life to bringing peace among rival gangs.

“Injunctions sometimes work up to a point, but it can’t just be suppression; there’s got to be a balanced approach,” said Rodriguez, who heads a gang-counseling center in the San Fernando Valley. “This is a Band-Aid solution.”

No clear solution is in sight for the gang problem, but a good start would be for residents, gang members and law-enforcement officers to get together and talk, Rodriguez said. All angles should be discussed, even faith-based solutions, which he believes are some of the best ways to steer youths from a life of crime. “Ultimately, when I forgave the three guys who murdered my son, it was because of my faith,” Rodriguez said. “I had to walk it the way I talked it.”

For Pico-Union resident William Portillo, a Bible was what led him to leave the gang life. At the age of 19, he found himself in the Los Angeles County Jail for armed robbery. After being involved in a skirmish between Latino and African-American inmates, Portillo was sent to solitary confinement and given a Bible. There, in the loneliness of his cell, Portillo pledged that if God would free him from a possible 16-year sentence, he would leave his gang and consecrate his life to doing good.

Shortly thereafter, Portillo’s sentence was reduced to seven months through a county program. Ten years later, he now heads Prevención y Rescate, an anti-gang program based at Pico-Union’s St. Thomas the Apostle Church.

Portillo and a group of 30 ex–gang members walk and preach in Pico-Union’s and East Los Angeles’ toughest neighborhoods. Injunctions sound good, he said, but gangs have ways of getting around them.

“Gang members laugh at them,” Portillo said. “What has happened now is that the older gang members who are named in the injunctions just move to another place and make younger gang members, called ‘little gangsters,’ do the work for them.”

Besides preaching, Prevención y Rescate also tries to have gang members remove their tattoos and to place them in jobs. Parents, especially in the immigrant communities, are often most in need of counseling.

“When parents from Mexico and other countries come here, they are often blinded by material things. They focus on a new car or a home, and both of them work like crazy to make money,” Portillo said. “They often forget the most important thing, which is their children. No nanny will take the place of the parents, so when their children are ensnared by gangs, it’s too late.”

Often, community programs designed to help gang members work on only one aspect of the problem, Portillo noted. Socially oriented programs, like sports activities or finding jobs for youths, more often than not lack spiritual or psychological counseling even when they are faith-based, while some church-based methods fall short of offering both social and pragmatic alternatives to the gang life.

Jeffrey Grogger, a professor in the department of policy studies at UCLA, conducted a two-year study on injunctions. He concluded that their greatest success has been in helping to reduce violent crimes by 5 percent to 10 percent in the targeted areas. In “The Effects of the Los Angeles County Gang Injunctions on Reported Crime,” he states that this is mostly due to a decrease in aggravated assaults.

“There are many aspects of these injunctions that aren’t necessarily measured by reported crime statistics,” Grogger said. “I can’t say anything about how they affect graffiti or how in practice they affect loitering by gang members.”

Crime statistics went up almost 40 percent in the Westlake and Pico-Union areas in the months after the injunction was lifted. The latest statistics show that crime has decreased, except for violent crimes; more than half of the 16 homicides occurring from the beginning of the year to May 12 are attributed to gangs, said Rampart Captain Michel Moore.

New anti-gang units have replaced the disbanded CRASH units, Moore said, and their success will in large part depend on support from communities. Rampart Station is currently working with many community groups, as well as trying to support prevention programs. “We have substantial challenges ahead of us,” said Moore, who is trying to have a new injunction filed against the 18th Street gang. “We believe that by pursuing and obtaining an injunction we can suppress this violence.”


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