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From social club to gang

Canoga Park Alabama, once a Valley farmworkers group and later a car club, has been targeted in L.A.'s gang crackdown. Some question its actual threat.

March 21, 2007|Amanda Covarrubias and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

It started as a social club in the 1930s for Latino farmworkers in the western San Fernando Valley. Over the years, it evolved into a car club, paralleling America's infatuation with the automobile.

Later, in the 1970s, life within the club took a darker cast as drugs and guns began to infiltrate the nation's urban neighborhoods. No longer an innocent social network, Canoga Park Alabama mushroomed into a full-fledged street gang named for the neighborhood on which it preyed and a street that spans its turf.

Now, the 500-member Latino gang has become the focus of a crackdown by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton. The gang is one of 11 -- and the only one in the Valley -- on Los Angeles' target list.

Police officials say Canoga Park Alabama was largely responsible for a 44% rise in gang crime last year in the Valley, where five active gangs claim turf. Citywide, gang crime rose 14%.

But on the streets of Canoga Park, there is debate on exactly how much the Canoga Park Alabama is responsible for crime -- and whether police can root out an organization with such deep history in the area.

"We worry about them constantly," said Margaret T. Pontius, program manager at the Guadalupe Community Center, located in the heart of the gang's turf. "The influence is out there. The younger children, when they reach the pre- and early teens -- it seems to be such a great thing to say you're a part of CPA."

But others in Canoga Park are more dubious.

"I don't think the CPA is a big deal," said Mary K. Paterson, executive director of the Canoga Park Business Improvement District, which is responsible for painting over graffiti on Sherman Way.

"It's such an old gang that most of the gang members are incarcerated," she said. "Maybe some kids are trying to look cool or something, but there's not a lot really happening.

"I think it's blown out of proportion."

Still, Paterson said: "The graffiti's annoying. It's everywhere -- on the sidewalk, on telephone poles, on buildings. We have it removed right away."

Alex Alonso, an academic who studies gangs and runs the website www.streetgangs.com, also questions why the gang is on the most-wanted list.

"There are at least four or five gangs in South Los Angeles alone that are worse, such as Florencia 13 or Eight Trey," he said.

"It wouldn't make my Top 50," he added. "They wanted to include a gang from the Valley bureau .... I can name 50 gangs that do more violence."

But officials from the Los Angeles Police Department reject the criticism, saying they have ample evidence that the gang is responsible for major crimes. Lt. Paul Vernon said the gang's influence is spreading to other parts of the West Valley.

*

Canoga Park Alabama is active in 4.65 square miles of the Valley floor, roughly bounded by Topanga Canyon Boulevard east to Winnetka Avenue and from Roscoe Boulevard south to Vanowen Street.

Block after block of aging, high-density apartments line the residential streets in this overlooked part of the West Valley, mere miles from the upscale Topanga mall.

On Milwood Avenue, just off Sherman Way in Canoga Park, the empty lot next to one such building is littered with trash. Locked metal gates provide the only entrance to a complex that many Spanish-speaking immigrants call home. Soiled sofas and mattresses, long abandoned, sit forlornly on nearby street corners. "CPA" is spray-painted in large, white letters on the trunk of a tree across the street.

Lately, LAPD Lt. Tom Smart said, officers have seen graffiti in the neighborhood containing the letters "NK," which he said stands for a derogatory term for blacks and the word "Killer."

"There's word out on the street to kill blacks," said Smart, who speculated that the message was coming from gang members in prison seeking retaliation for some real or perceived slight or injustice endured behind bars.

Canoga Park Alabama has been responsible for 11 shootings in the last six months, according to the LAPD. In comparison, there were 11 shootings by the gang in all of 2001, department records show.

Of those committed in the last six months, 10 involved Latino gang members shooting blacks. Nine of the 10 included racial slurs prior to the shootings, police said. So far, police have made arrests in five of the incidents.

Because there are no black gangs in the Valley, the gang's targets have been bystanders with no gang affiliation, including two Pierce College football players shot in separate incidents, Smart said. Both recovered.

From Feb. 1, 2005, through Jan. 31, 2006, Canoga Park Alabama was responsible for 34 violent and property crimes, police said, including four murders, three attempted murders, 18 felony assaults, seven robberies, one assault on a police officer and one carjacking.

That figure climbed to 74 in the same period in 2006 through Jan. 31 of this year, police said.

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