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L.A. Gangs: Rock and a Hard Place

April 12, 1987|Robert Conot | Author Robert Conot spent two months researching gangs and their involvement in the Los Angeles drug trade

April 14, 1985, was a summer-like day in South-Central Los Angeles but husky Alonzo Botswen (a pseudonym to protect confidential legal records) kept wearing the spiffy blue leather jacket that identified him with the Crips gangs. Concealed was the beeper-pager, standard equipment for the drug dealer, making telephone taps all but obsolete; when someone calls a dealer, the beeper sounds, and the dealer goes to a public phone to contact caller. Inside his waistband, Botswen had another item: a 9-millimeter Browning automatic, obtained from a "homeboy," an acquaintance from the old neighborhood or gang.

A 22-year-old black, Botswen typified the widespread association between broken families, poverty, gangs, drugs and violence. His parents, who had 10 children, were divorced. Like tens of thousands of kids in similar circumstances his introduction to drugs came in grammar school--sniffing glue and drinking alcohol. Semiliterate, he was the classic high school dropout who gravitates to the streets and fathers children he cannot support. By the time he was 20 he had a baby by one girlfriend and a second child on the way by another.

His encounters with the law began when he was nine years old and resulted in a variety of charges ranging from purse snatching and possession of PCP to burglary and armed robbery. Repeatedly placed on probation after a few months in jail, he was able to confuse the legal system by using a variety of aliases; it took officers a number of years to discover that Alonzo Botswen, Swen Alonso and Lon Bots were the same person. (Until the recent computerizing of fingerprints in Los Angeles, it was easy to get away with this kind of deception; even today, the 48-hour time limitation on booking sometimes enables suspects to obtain release before discovery.)

Sentenced to two years in state prison for robbery in June, 1984, Botswen was paroled early in December of the same year although already on probation under one of his aliases. The Los Angeles County probation officer who discovered that fact wrote to a fellow officer: "Despite problems of 'dual supervision,' the probationer needs more supervision. With his miserable prior criminal record, he won't be with you long before he does another serious felony."

But since each probation officer has a case load of about 500 adults or 350 juveniles, he has only the most perfunctory idea of what his charges are doing. Soon, Botswen was working for a cocaine dealer operating out of a yellow rock house with barred windows on West 79th Street. One day he was given $3,000 worth of cocaine to deliver but instead went into business for himself. This did not sit well with the dealer, who insistently buzzed him on the beeper.

On April 14, Botswen decided to talk things out. The dealer was waiting for him at the rock house, just inside the porch door. A few feet away, cradling a shotgun, was a guard, 17-year-old "Goldfinger." According to Botswen, the dealer asked him if he had the $3,000. When Botswen said he didn't, the dealer became belligerent and then said, "Shoot him!"

Goldfinger leveled the shotgun as Botswen pulled the Browning automatic out of his waistband. They fired point-blank at each other. Goldfinger, hit in the abdomen, doubled over, still clutching the shotgun. Botswen, his shoulder shattered, dropped the automatic and took off over the fence. The dealer also fled, leaving Goldfinger dying in front of the house. Witnessing the scene, "Shorty," a scraggly bearded street person, wrenched the shotgun from the dying Goldfinger's grasp and scooped up the Browning, which he later sold--one of the ways that guns enter floating urban arsenals.

Botswen survived after being treated at Watts' Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital, which handles more gunshot wounds than any other hospital in the United States. Although the killing of Goldfinger was deemed self-defense, Botswen was returned to prison as a parole violator.

Though details may vary, the records of case after case reveal a pattern of introduction to violence, death and drugs at an early age. Drugs have been part of the American poverty scene ever since the 19th Century, when opium and morphine were ingredients of patent medicines used to dope up children while their mothers worked in sweatshops. Different drugs--marijuana, LSD, PCP, cocaine--come and go but conditions remain the same.

What has changed in the last half- dozen years is not the arrival of a new drug but a new form of an old one, a drug that, in the terms of pushers and users, was conceived by genius.

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