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A Legal Turf Battle : Gangs: Court injunction for a 20-square-block area of Norwalk has tamed Orange Street Locos with curfews and weapons restrictions. Many residents are delighted, but some say targeting one group is unfair.

October 13, 1994|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By most accounts, the tiny Orange Street neighborhood in Norwalk is a changed place.

Children play soccer just feet from an alley where gang members used to fire guns. Families take afternoon strolls down streets they once avoided. One resident who planned to move now intends to stay and remodel her house.

In recent years, this modest enclave of bungalow-style homes and aging apartment buildings, a mile south of Norwalk City Hall, had been a virtual war zone. Authorities and residents say the Orange Street Locos gang terrorized the neighborhood by firebombing homes, taunting passersby, using drugs in public and breaking into cars.

Now, the city has resorted to an unusual weapon--a court-ordered injunction that curbs the gang's activities in the 20-square-block area--and the strategy appears to be working.

"The difference is like night and day," said Ralph Garcia, who has resumed nighttime walks to a nearby market. "Obviously, someone is getting through to them."

But gang members and their parents condemn the legal assault.

"You can't spit on the ground without getting a ticket," complained one 19-year-old Locos member who keeps a watchful eye as he walks through the neighborhood.

The injunction, one of the first used to combat gang violence in Los Angeles County, bars 22 Locos members from carrying baseball bats, crowbars and other potential weapons in public. It also prohibits gang members from harassing people, blocking public thoroughfares and trespassing on property.

The court order lists 19 restrictions, including a 10 p.m. curfew for gang members under 18 and a midnight curfew for adult members. Violators could face up to six months in jail and $1,000 fines.

Most of the targeted gang members have criminal records, including arrests for auto theft, burglary and possession of firearms. Some have been convicted of assault, armed robbery and arson. All have been stopped by sheriff's deputies for allegedly loitering, trespassing or drinking in public.

Since the injunction was granted in August by Norwalk Superior Court Judge Lois Anderson-Smaltz, Locos members have stopped hanging out on the streets and no longer party at night in alleys, residents and authorities say. Sheriff's deputies have had little contact with the Locos and have not arrested anyone for violating the court order.

The gang's "OSL" graffiti moniker, meanwhile, has virtually disappeared from garage doors and apartment buildings. City graffiti removers have not received a call since the injunction was issued.

Residents are thrilled with the changes, prompted in part by additional sheriff's deputies who saturated the area in the weeks after two firebombings last February.

"I feel safe when I'm outside," said Aurora Alcantara, 18. "There's no cholos around like years before, no fights, no noise at night."

The court order follows successful efforts by Los Angeles and Burbank to use injunctions against gangs. In Los Angeles, a judge has upheld two separate convictions against a gang member arrested under terms of its injunction.

In Norwalk, gang members denounce the city's action as unnecessary and complain about overzealous sheriff's deputies harassing and humiliating them at every turn. Some say they cannot leave their homes without being stopped, searched and photographed.

"It's like being picked on," said one gang member. "I don't like the feeling of being up against the car for no reason. People think you're a criminal."

Another Locos member, also 19, put it this way: "They stop us for any reason. All of a sudden, they want to kick everybody out."

Sgt. Larry Anderson, the sheriff's liaison to the city, said the deputies are just doing their job to keep the neighborhood safe.

But parents of gang members question why their sons are being singled out when larger gangs are wreaking havoc in other parts of the city. The Locos gang, with about 60 members, is one of the smallest of 11 gangs in Norwalk, which has an estimated 2,500 gang members in all.

Some parents also complain that their sons have been wrongly named in the injunction. "He don't do drugs. He don't shoot guns. He don't hang out in alleys," one mother said of her son. "But he gets stopped on weekends. It upsets me. He was raised here."

The city, parents say, has overstated the problem and failed to recognize that gang members are responsible young men working hard to improve their lives. "These kids are very bright," said Steve Estrella, whose two sons, ages 18 and 20, are named in the injunction. "They're getting a raw deal."

City officials say they decided to target the Locos because of the severity of incidents, including the two recent firebombings. Gang members had become increasingly defiant in recent years, even throwing rocks and bottles at sheriff's deputies patrolling the area, authorities said.

Depictions of day-to-day life in the Orange Street area are as varied as the descriptions of gang members themselves.

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