LONG BEACH — Two weeks ago, in the darkness of late evening, five young Vietnamese men armed with handguns walked into the North Long Beach apartment of a middle-aged Vietnamese woman and ordered her to lie face down on the floor.
"They said, 'If you don't do what we say, we'll kill you.' And she complied," police Sgt. Robert Titus said.
The young men, bare-faced and brazen, took everything the woman had--about $4,000 in jewelry she had been unwilling to entrust to a bank.
Two weeks earlier, as the owner of a 10th Street Cambodian market was locking his shop for the day, three unmasked Vietnamese in their 20s stole the purse of the merchant's wife, firing three shots when challenged and wounding a passer-by.
Witnesses Fear Retaliation
And, in a third recent Long Beach robbery by a group of young Vietnamese, the Cambodian owner of a central-city shop and his family were forced to lie face down while their home was looted of more than $24,000 in cash, jewelry and gold.
Again, the armed thieves did not bother to cover their faces. "Witnesses are deathly afraid of retaliation," Titus explained. The robbers also count on their victims' proven distrust of a criminal justice system that arrests law-breakers and then releases them within hours on bail, he said.
As ranking officer of Long Beach's small anti-gang unit, the sergeant has, out of necessity, acquired a quick expertise on Southeast Asian gangs.
Since last fall, identified Asian gang crime has dramatically escalated in Long Beach, said Titus and other Police Department officers.
"I don't think there is any question that Southeast Asian crime is a growing problem," Deputy Chief David Dusenbury said last week. "It is serious, and a lot of it goes unreported."
Asians themselves are the victims of a growing number of strong-arm offenses, such as robbery and extortion. But the criminal activities of Indochinese youths are reaching well beyond the 35,000-resident Asian immigrant community in the central city, police say.
Nearly every Long Beach neighborhood has been hit by a rash of auto burglaries and thefts by Vietnamese youths from Orange County and, increasingly, by home-grown Cambodian and Vietnamese delinquents, local police and Southeast Asian community leaders say.
Big Jump in Auto Thefts
Police said that last year's dramatic 19% increase in automobile burglary--993 incidents more than the previous year--and 17% jump in auto theft--722 more car thefts than the previous year--were partially the result of Asian gang activity, especially on the city's affluent Eastside.
Sharp increases continued during the first three months of this year, crime reports show.
On the Eastside, in shopping center parking lots, "it was getting so they would steal stereos as fast as (drivers) could park their cars," said a Long Beach undercover officer.
A crackdown this spring has reversed that trend, police said, but department statistics are not yet available to confirm the reduction.
Not only have immigrant youths from here and Orange County discovered Long Beach's criminal opportunities, the city also has become a destination for somewhat older roving bands of Indochinese criminals who move from city to city nationwide, preying on their native countrymen, said several area police officials.
Valuables Kept at Home
Southeast Asians are robbed because they often keep valuables in their homes, are easily intimidated and are reluctant to cooperate with police, who were frequently corrupt in their homelands, police said.
A local Asian crime specialist, who works undercover and requested anonymity, said he knows of several cases in which local Vietnamese youths have hopped planes to commit crimes in other cities. For example, two were convicted recently of a jewelry store robbery in Toronto, Canada, he said.
"They're highly transient. They plan robberies here and call for help from Houston or San Diego," the officer said.
The thieves generate confusion by working out of town and using different names when arrested, he said. And the absence of any centralized computer file of Southeast Asian criminals makes the thieves' job that much easier, Deputy Chief Dusenbury said.
Different Name Each Time
One Vietnamese teen-ager, arrested five times by Long Beach police since last fall, has used a different name each time, Titus said. But a tattoo has revealed his identity, the officer said.
Long Beach police acknowledge that they have only begun to understand the workings of Asian gangs in this city and have no clear idea of how many youths are committing crimes here. They say their arrests indicate that individual Asian gangs may have no more than a few members who operate as a team in carrying out thefts. Unlike long-established Long Beach black and Latino gangs, the Southeast Asian gangs usually cannot be identified by dress or gang name.