Francisco Real killed people. He smuggled illegal immigrants. He sold drugs and collected taxes for the Mexican Mafia.
Once in jail
He ran a gang and family criminal enterprise that made his street in Glassell Park one of the most dangerous in Los Angeles.
But L.A. being the city of reinvention, last week Real emerged in federal court in a white jumpsuit, shackled at wrists and ankles. He received a 10-year prison sentence from U.S. District Court Judge George Wu — his reward for years of testifying against his family and partners in crime.
Real contributed to bringing down a “tremendous” drug business and gang grip on a neighborhood, says Chris Brunwin, the federal prosecutor in Real's case. “It's an amazing story.”
The sentencing of Francisco “Pancho” Real closes a sweeping L.A. gang-family saga, which stretched from the humid, fruit-growing lands of Guerrero, Mexico, to the broken sidewalks of a neglected, two-block strip of northeast L.A. known as Drew Street.
In the late 1960s, two brothers, Flocelo and Robestiar Aguirre, arrived from Tlalchapa, Guerrero, the seat of a county with a population of 11,000. It's part of a poor, violent farming region of Mexico known as the Tierra Caliente — the hot land.
The Aguirre brothers found work at Van de Kamp's bakery at San Fernando Road and Fletcher Drive in Glassell Park; it supplied baked goods to a string of Dutch-themed coffee shops. The brothers found housing a few blocks away in an apartment on Drew Street, a then-tidy, working-class neighborhood rising up a hill toward Glendale's Forest Lawn cemetery.
The Aguirres' hard work gained them the esteem of the bakery foremen, and soon they were foremen themselves. By the 1980s, men and women from Tlalchapa were streaming up for jobs at Van de Kamp — and housing on Drew Street.
In the late 1980s, a regional apartment boom transformed Drew Street. City planners let developers raze houses to put in dense apartments, but without including open space. Three dozen homes were replaced by hundreds of apartment units, adding 1,500 people to six square blocks.
The poorly considered new density, combined with the departure of manufacturing and union jobs (even Van de Kamp Bakery closed), mangled the neighborhood.
L.A. city leaders and planners were unprepared when the new apartments filled with poor people from Tlalchapa and surrounding villages. Among them was Maria “La Chata” Leon, an urchin who sold popsicles back home, and whose first jobs in America included babysitting for Van de Kamp workers.
At first, the Avenues gang used Drew Street to sell drugs, knowing the immigrants would stay quiet. By the late 1990s, the immigrants' kids were replacing the traditional cholos as the force on the street, and the Avenues' Drew Street clique rose.
The street collapsed into a crack-and-gang hell that grew from the Tlalchapan immigrants' insular world and the 1980s apartment fortresses the gang dominated.
Maria Leon had 13 children with four different men, and by the early 2000s several of her sons became her power base, sustaining the Leon family's drug dealing and immigrant smuggling.
Six of her sons — Francisco “Pancho” Real and his brother, Nicolas Real; Jose Leon and Danny Leon; and Randy Martinez and Jesus Martinez — formed the gang nucleus. They were joined by cousins and distant relations from a dozen extended Tlalchapan families, a strange hybrid of Mexican hillbillies and L.A. gang culture.
Maria Leon and her children ran operations from their home, known as the “Satellite House” because of the satellite TV dish in their driveway.
City agencies began spending big money on Drew Street to fight what city planners had helped create.
Crews trimmed trees on Drew once a year, instead of every five, to give the Los Angeles Police Department “sightlines” up the hill where the gang-riddled apartment buildings were crammed side by side. Police officers drove on Drew Street two cars at a time. Numerous LAPD gang-unit operations seemed to fail.
Francisco Real grew into a leader and shot caller of the Drew Street clique. Rich “Big Cyco” Aguirre — a Mexican Mafia killer who ran Drew Street's criminal enterprises from solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison — anointed Francisco in 2007. Real said, in testimony at his 2010 trial, that he was a reluctant shot caller.
He joined the Drew Street gang in 2004, he testified, to be free to sell drugs.
But he was there for La Eme when he had to be. Once while in Placita Olvera downtown, La Eme's shot caller phoned and told Real that a guy they wanted dead was in a park off Drew Street. He and another homeboy went and gunned down Frank “Kiko” Cordoba; then, Real testified, he went to a gathering of his wife's family.
Three years later, the Mexican Mafia called him again.
“They needed somebody to collect” taxes from local drug dealers — “somebody stable,” to replace two tax collectors who'd been arrested, he testified.
Real didn't want the job but he couldn't refuse. Turned out, he was good at it. A La Eme tax collector, he discovered, had to be “more about having the brains to collect the money and not steal from them. Once you're collecting money, you're not allowed to gang-bang, because you're messing with the money that's going to Pelican Bay.”
Soon he was running through a half-dozen cellphones a month, directing a tax-collecting crew of three guys.
“You could see him standing in his front yard and directing every single thing that happened in that neighborhood,” prosecutor Brunwin said in a recent interview.
By then, Real testified, the Drew Street gang was involved in drugs, extortion, tax collecting, gun trafficking and smuggling of illegal immigrants, many of whom worked off their debts by selling crack.
In February 2008, in a dramatic street shootout with LAPD that closed down local schools and dozens of streets, making headlines throughout California, Francisco's half-brother Danny Leon was killed in the very streets he had terrorized.
That day, after Leon and three others in a car shot and killed a Cypress Park gang member walking with his step-granddaughter, LAPD undercover officers responded. A minute later, Leon emerged from his car with an assault rifle. His death, in the thunderous shootout that followed, marked the beginning of the end for the Real-Leon crime enterprise.
That June, LAPD, backed by a massive RICO indictment, swept the neighborhood of 70 gang members. A community-policing effort followed to rid Drew Street of trash and graffiti and revive residents' confidence in city authorities. In 2009, another 88 Avenues members were indicted.
The Los Angeles City Attorney got a court ruling to demolish the Satellite House as a community nuisance. On the cleared land, city leaders installed a community garden.
Today, Maria Leon and several of her children are in prison. Vegetables grow where the family once built a shrine to Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of Mexican drug traffickers.
Once in jail, Francisco Real turned state's evidence time after time. He deciphered for cops the puzzling, coded gang conversations taken from wiretaps and testified against his own in five cases, all to earn his way out of a probable life sentence.
Two of those he fingered — Rafael “Stomper” Carrillo and Jose “Rival” Gomez — were in the car with Danny Leon the day LAPD shot him down. Real may testify again against Gomez, a close childhood friend he long called his “cousin.” Gomez faces Death Row for allegedly killing his cellmate inside L.A. County Jail.
“Pancho” Real will be out in just four years under the 10-year sentence handed down by Judge Wu. He's been in custody since 2008, all counting as time served.
He'll live in protective custody behind bars. His crime-boss mom and some siblings have disowned Real. The Mexican Mafia has green-lighted him for assassination. In a more unusual move, La Eme has placed a bounty on his head, prosecutors say.
Real will be free in 2018 — but in the worst way.
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