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The Growing Menace : Police Confront Slashed Budgets and a Shroud of Silence as They Try to Stem a Rising Tide of Extortion and Robberies.

August 01, 1993

IT WAS 6:30 ON A FRIDAY NIGHT, AND TWO TABLES of young Asian men were slurping up $50 worth of steaming pho , Vietnamese noodle soup, at a popular Chinatown eatery.

But when the checks were delivered, both tables refused to pay. Instead, two of the young men signed "Iron Dragon" on the check, followed by a pager number. And they informed the owner that they would return the next day to collect $3,000 from him and expected monthly payments of $700 thereafter.

The anxious owner told the shopping center manager, who contacted police. Eventually, during one of the group's return trips, police arrested four adults and five teen-agers on charges of extortion and assault of a security officer they were accused of beating as he tried to get their vehicles' license plate numbers.

Such arrests are rare in the Asian-American community, where authorities say Asian gangs extort tens of thousands of dollars monthly from fearful merchants unwilling to report the crime because they fear retribution and distrust police.

Though extortion is among the most common crimes committed by Asian gangs, they also routinely engage in armed robberies, particularly home-invasion attacks, and drug dealing. They almost always prey on fellow Asians, capitalizing on the cultural and language barriers that keep victims silent. And beneath this shroud, the number of Asian gang members is increasing.

"It's growing by leaps and bounds because the Asian population in Los Angeles is growing. Every day I speak to someone and hear about another gang I'd never heard of," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Young, an expert on Asian gangs.

The conspiracy of silence between crime victims and gang members, coupled with government budget cuts, has hindered both law enforcement and Asian gang prevention efforts. Because authorities have been unable to pinpoint the extent of the Asian gang problem, government officials have devoted more money to fighting the larger and more visible black and Latino gang problems.

"Perhaps Asians should make some more noise" about the gang problem, said Young, who is one of only four deputies in the department of 7,000 who study and deal with Asian gangs. "If you don't have officers or people tracking the Asian gangs . . . what's going to happen? How are we doing to deal with the problem?"

More Asian gang specialists are needed because of the cultural complexities and the differences between Asian gangs and their black and Latino counterparts. Although the latter are often preoccupied by turf, Asian gangs are mostly motivated by money, authorities said.

Perhaps the most widespread crime among Asian gang members is extortion. Gang members call it "insurance" because they claim to fix broken windows, paint over graffiti and guard the business against troublemakers in return for monthly payments.

"Extortion is actually good for the Chinese community; if they pay us, they don't have to pay (for) insurance (policies)," contends Joe Ung, 23, an ex-gang member now serving a four-year prison term for extortion and burglary. "In this country, (people) don't understand that."

As Ung tells it, the gang first contacts a merchant to ask for a donation, to help the gang "keep the area safe." The merchant doesn't have to pay, but if he chooses not to, the gang "can't help him if something does happen" to his business, says Ung, a 12-year veteran of an Indochinese gang.

But George Yu scoffs at the idea that gang members provide services. Yu, property manager of Far East Plaza shopping mall in Chinatown, said he hears plenty of rumors among merchants about extortion, but few mention any work in return.

He did recall one instance of a shopkeeper who paid a young window washer $25 a month. Yu said he asked the shopkeeper why he kept the youth "when he wasn't even doing a good job."

"I have to," the merchant said with a shrug. "When I first said no, my windows were broken."

But "the little punks . . . don't even want to wash windows," Yu said. They simply use threats of injury or damage to the business to force merchants to pay, Yu said. "With this type of young kid, they really feel they're invincible. These guys have no respect."

The brazen gangs also invade the homes of Asian families. Armed with weapons such as AK-47-type assault rifles and 9-millimeter pistols, the thugs tie up and brutalize a family for hours--often raping the women and beating the men--before escaping with large amounts of money, jewelry and other valuables. Some Asians tend to keep such items at home out of fear that banks will fail, as has happened in their native lands.

Business owners are often targets of home-invasion robberies. Gangs pay a low-level restaurant or nightclub employee a commission of sorts to provide information about where the boss lives, how much cash he or she carries and other intelligence, according to one gang member. Such information helped the 19-year-old and some friends pull off one robbery that netted $40,000 in cash.

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