As night falls on a San Fernando Valley public housing project, 10 gang members laugh at the notion that a court injunction could bring them down.
The Pacoima Project Boys were hanging out on the tattered western fringe of San Fernando Gardens, more than a month after the city of Los Angeles secured an injunction barring them from congregating in public. The gang members, heavily tattooed, some showing off the crack cocaine they were selling, said they controlled their turf more now than ever.
"We're untouchable," said Edward, a 21-year-old who refused to give his last name and is known as Pee Wee.
Six months ago, then-City Atty. James K. Hahn announced plans to seek the injunction against the 200-member gang. On Aug. 22, a San Fernando Superior Court judge issued the order, but the Los Angeles Police Department has yet to enforce it. The delay has disturbed some residents and business owners.
An LAPD gang detective said no Pacoima Project Boys have been arrested because officers have been busy investigating a rash of shootings elsewhere in the Foothill Division. Other officers have been redeployed to security assignments prompted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Det. Carlos Sanchez, leader of the Foothill gang unit. He added that a crackdown will begin soon.
"Once we start," Sanchez said, "it will make a big difference to the people who live in Pacoima."
The injunction makes it a misdemeanor for any two gang members to associate in a so-called "safety zone." Violators face up to six months in jail. The police say the gang has been involved in drive-by shootings, street robberies and auto thefts, as well as drug dealing.
The slow start in enforcing the injunction has raised questions in the neighborhood about the LAPD's tactics and priorities.
The manager of a Van Nuys Boulevard used-car lot said the police should spend less time giving tickets and more on the gang.
"They stop a lot of drivers, but they're not doing anything about the crime," said Raphael Figueroa, 43, whose lot has been vandalized several times. "I know the police have a tough job, but something needs to be done."
Richard Calloway, a longtime Pacoima resident, worried about a return to the gang bloodshed of the early 1990s. "I heard about the injunction when they announced it, but that was it," said Calloway, 49. "If the police don't stay up on it, it's gonna spread again like a cancer."
Connie Rodriguez, president of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, wondered whether the injunction had been "a political move" by Hahn, who proposed it during his mayoral campaign.
"It might be a quick fix, but the gang will just go someplace else," she said.
Deputy Mayor Matt Middlebrook said doubts about the mayor's motives were "just silly."
"James Hahn was the innovator of gang injunctions back in 1987," Middlebrook said. "Pacoima was just another in a long string of injunctions to fight gang violence."
The injunction zone is bounded by Paxton Street on the north, Glenoaks Boulevard on the east, Pierce Street on the south and San Fernando Road on the west. San Fernando Gardens is the heart of the gang's turf. This year, there have been 36 robberies, 43 assaults, 62 auto thefts and one killing reported in the area, according to the LAPD.
Although other gangs in the Foothill area have been more active this year, the LAPD targeted the Project Boys because they have been the biggest problem during the last decade, a deputy city attorney said.
Injunctions are in force against 10 other Los Angeles street gangs, including two in the Valley, according to the city attorney's office.
Authorities say that the Project Boys originated in San Fernando Gardens in the early 1980s, and that many members are in jail.
"Some of us are cousins and the police are saying we can't be with our families," said Project Boys member Mark Oseguera as he shot caroms on a board set atop a trash can. "They blame us for everything. That ain't even right."
Oseguera, 23, and another Project Boy said when the police try to arrest them, the gang members simply run.
"We're just too fast for them," said Jose, 19, who also refused to give his last name and goes by the street name Wizard.
Before the police can make arrests, gang members must be notified of the six-page court order, Deputy City Atty. Jim McDougal said. No Project Boys have been notified so far, he added.
"We want to serve notice to as many gang members as we can," said McDougal. "This injunction is not temporary. It lasts forever. So if they hide out for two weeks or two years then come back, we can arrest them."