The heart of Los Angeles' latest effort to hold down street violence is in an unremarkable fortress of a building, surrounded by narrow streets, small houses, tiny stores--and the 18th Street gang.
Here, in the detective headquarters of the LAPD's Rampart Division, just west of downtown's corporate high-rises, prosecutors and police officers laboriously pieced together the 300 pages of details and documentation they hope will win an injunction against 50 members of the gang, which dominates the lives of too many poor immigrants in the surrounding Pico-Union neighborhood.
If, as expected, a judge grants the injunction, Psycho, Lil Wicked, Silent, Baby Lucky, Commando and 45 others with similarly colorful monikers, will be banned from congregating in groups of two or more. They will be forbidden to use pagers or cell phones, to fight in public, to spray graffiti or to engage in all the other activities that make up 18th Street's terror campaign against this area's innocent residents. If any of the 50 young men named breaks any part of the injunction, the cops can jail him.
This is the latest of such injunctions sought by the city, and probably the most difficult to enforce. That's because Pico-Union, one of America's poorest and most crowded neighborhoods, is so isolated from the rest of Los Angeles by language and poverty, conditions that have made its residents perfect prey for a local clique of the well-armed, ruthless gang that law enforcement say is now the county's largest.
Last Tuesday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Fox led me downstairs to the Rampart offices of the LAPD anti-gang unit known as CRASH, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums. There, we were joined by Dets. Terry Wessell and Rich Duran and another prosecutor, Nicole Burshen.
What seemed to make them most angry was the 18th Street gang's ability to behave like a vicious occupying army. But, perversely, the people the gangsters oppress are their own, fellow immigrants--mostly families--from El Salvador and other parts of Central America.
Fox said the prospect of an injunction has been welcomed by residents too frightened to oppose the gang openly on their own. "Not until I began going into the community and hearing about their problems did I see how happy (about the possible injunction) they were," she said.
A stranger, driving through Pico-Union, would not find it particularly threatening. The streets are crowded and the colorful shops busy. Picturesque street peddlers sell food and trinkets. A casual visitor might find it all a charming example of multicultural L.A. But this is an urban neighborhood, not a theme park, and newcomers have no idea of the violence regularly inflicted on residents too frightened to complain.
Much of that violence surrounds the drug trade that flourishes in Pico-Union, a well-known shopping place for substance abusers from throughout Los Angeles County.
Gang members sell drugs. But the 18th Street gang's main source of income, the detectives and prosecutors told me, is extorting money from dealers unaffiliated with 18th Street. Documents that the anti-gang team submitted to the court say major drug dealers pay the gang $3,000 a week for franchise rights to a single street. Small dealers and prostitutes pony up a weekly payment of $50.
You might say extortion like this is a victimless crime, one bunch of crooks preying on another. But such thinking ignores the harm done to so many others, while the extortionists ply their trade.
These guys can't shoot straight. When they open fire at rival gang members or deadbeats slow with payments, the bullets too often hit innocent people--children at play or on the way to school, mothers and fathers walking home from work or to the corner store.
When cops chase the extortionists and drug dealers, the crooks often run into mom-and-pop restaurants, drop their weapons and drugs behind the counter, and eat until the cops go away. A bakery owner was forced to move because 18th Street members made him store drugs for them. In addition, the gang extorts money from legitimate businesses, in the manner of old-time gangsters selling "protection."
Even a man doing home repairs wasn't spared. A gang of 18th Streeters, drinking in front of his house, beat him badly for no apparent reason.
In some communities residents organize against crime. But here, even many of those whose children have been killed by the 18th Street gang are too terrified to report the killers' names or to testify in court.
That is why veteran Det. Wessell and the others believe in the injunction process. "I have been doing gangs for nine years," said Wessell. "I've done Operation Hammer. I've been on other task forces. We have tried every known enforcement activity in the arsenal."
Now, it's time to try this. The people of Pico-Union are entitled to their piece of the American dream they've come so far to share: They have a right to work their way out of poverty, to raise their children in safety and to live in peace.