For decades, the 5th and Hill gang allegedly was the biggest drug dealer in downtown Los Angeles.
The leaders lived in the suburbs and other parts of L.A., where they produced thousands of heroin balloons at their homes and then had middlemen deliver them downtown, police said. There, day laborers, homeless people and even some children as young as 12 allegedly helped peddle the heroin.
The LAPD had struggled to destroy the gang, frequently arresting low-level dealers only to see them replaced immediately.
But on Wednesday, police said that after a months-long crackdown, the gang -- and with it a main source of heroin in Los Angeles -- had been dismantled.
Police said they recovered 45,000 balloons of heroin during the 10-month investigation. They also found 85 pounds of tar heroin, they said, enough when diluted to fill half a million balloons.
Officers arrested 31 people who they alleged were leaders of the gang, as well as scores of alleged street sellers who worked for them.
They reached the kingpins, detectives said, because of video surveillance tapes that tracked the movement of drugs in and out of downtown.
The LAPD's much-touted crackdown on skid row crime has led to 5,400 arrests and a 30% drop in crime since it began in September. But the alleged demise of the 5th and Hill gang offers a glimpse into how drug dealing was able to flourish downtown for decades.
The gang thrived because its leaders stayed far away from the actual drug sales, LAPD Capt. Andrew Smith said.
Authorities believe that the gang got the heroin in bulk from Mexico. The drugs would come to the homes of the gang's leaders in Santa Fe Springs, Fontana and South Gate. There, authorities allege, women meticulously processed and diluted the heroin, packaging it in single-dose "balloons."
Downtown turned out to be an ideal spot to find dealers because of the low-income immigrants and people down on their luck there. Smith said the gang could offer some of them better money than what they could earn doing manual labor.
The gang typically charged $5 to $10 per hit of heroin, with the dealers storing balloons in their mouths to avoid detection. When they made a sale, the dealers would spit out the balloon and give it to the customer, Smith said.
Young teenagers -- some related to the dealers, other found on the downtown streets -- were used not to sell the drug but to move it among sellers, Smith said. The teenagers were given the risky job of conveying significant quantities of drugs to various street corners.
But 5th and Hill used the couriers' ages to its benefit, police said.
"They took advantage of the fact that they were children and knew we could not bring serious charges against them," Smith said.
The gang got its start in the 1970s as a loose band of thugs who committed street robberies downtown. By the 1980s, the gang had evolved into a huge source of heroin in drug bazaars spread across skid row. By the mid-1990s, the gang controlled many of the key intersections along 5th Street and Broadway, where people from across Southern California came to buy heroin.
Detectives said 5th and Hill's customers were not all from downtown. Many were tracked back to the San Gabriel Valley, Hollywood, South Los Angeles and beyond. An LAPD detective who impersonated a 5th and Hill drug dealer nabbed actor Brad Renfro last year when he tried to buy eight balloons of heroin.
The gang, Smith and others said, was not known for feuding with other gangs, but it did use violence to protect its business.
LAPD Senior Lead Officer Kathy McAnany said 5th and Hill employed "enforcers" who would threaten and beat up rivals as well as their own dealers who got out of line.
"About two years ago I and another officer rolled up on a beating of a homeless guy by one of the gang's enforcers," she said. "He was putting a ... whooping on him."
The arrests come as the LAPD enters the seventh month of a major crackdown on drugs, crime and blight in downtown.
It is part of a larger effort by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton to revive the skid row area, which has the largest concentrations of homeless people and drug dealing in the city. More than 20% of all Los Angeles drug arrests occur on skid row. While the crackdown has resulted in a surge of arrests, it has also met with ire from the American Civil Liberties Union, which claims that police are harassing homeless people and unfairly arresting some of them.
The LAPD assigned 50 extra officers to downtown in September, and this deployment helped bolster the attack on 5th and Hill, Smith said.
Police started arresting hundreds more suspects a week. And slowly, Smith said, they got low-level dealers to identify middlemen, who then ultimately connected them to top leaders.