The shooting death of a 23-day-old baby has sparked what officials hope will be Los Angeles' most vigorous crackdown yet on gang members charging "rent" to merchants and vendors, a practice authorities believe is thriving despite an overall drop in crime.
Los Angeles police detectives and prosecutors say gangs have long charged "taxes" and "rent" to those working in underground economies: street vendors, prostitutes, drug dealers, some residents and immigrant business owners.
But as gang violence has declined in recent years, authorities said this extortion is increasing because there is less fighting among gangs, who have vetted major boundary disputes and have more time to focus on clamping down on their territories.
The Los Angeles Police Department has received 23 extortion complaints this year, compared with 10 for all of 2006. Although officials believe these numbers represent a tiny fraction of the larger problem, they said it suggests the problem is worsening.
The issue rose in prominence last month after gang members allegedly shot a merchant on 6th Street near MacArthur Park who had refused to pay $50 in "rent." A stray bullet hit the baby boy, who was with his mother and hundreds of others in the marketplace.
In response, city officials and prosecutors are considering new efforts to combat gang extortion including:
Placing surveillance cameras in the crowded shopping districts in the MacArthur Park and Pico-Union areas to better understand how the extortion schemes work and build better cases against gangs.
Meeting with officials from El Salvador, who have experience dealing with gang extortion involving MS-13, which is also active in Los Angeles. Brian Truchon, the FBI's former director of the MS-13 National Gang Task Force, said El Salvadoran authorities recently turned to video cameras after an MS-13 extortion ring squeezed millions of dollars from the country's bus systems.
Assigning more officers to deal specifically with street vendor-related crime. The LAPD tried this strategy in the downtown Fashion District, where vendors and police say incidents of gang extortion are now low.
"This is really the core crime of 18th Street and MS-13," said Deputy City Atty. Bruce Riordan, director of the office's anti-gang operation. "When I started this job 15 years ago, the first day, the detectives took me out and said the No. 1 crime among these gangs is extortion, but said 'it's just so hard to prove.' "
Riordan and others said the rent problem extends beyond MacArthur Park to North Hills in the San Fernando Valley, the Eastside neighborhood around the Ramona Gardens housing project and in some areas of South Los Angeles.
Driving along Olympic Boulevard last month, Officer Randy McCain spotted an illegal vendor at Maple Avenue and jumped out of his cruiser. He told Julio Olivares, 19, that he had an hour and a half to get his dozens of hats and sunglasses off the corner or face arrest. Olivares appreciated the grace period.
"We don't have a license to vend here," Olivares said, packing Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees hats into a large brown box. "I'll have to go and try and get a business permit from the city before I come back." Olivares and his goods were gone in 45 minutes.
McCain is one of a handful of LAPD officers devoted to vending. On a Tuesday afternoon last month, he drove into the neighborhood with a can of orange spray paint, marking lines where legal businesses are permitted on the street, so that authorities could tell them from illegal vendors.
Officials believe cracking down on unauthorized vendors is crucial because they are vulnerable to extortion. Many are illegal immigrants -- and therefore reluctant to go to police or serve as official witnesses to the extortion, authorities said.
The LAPD points to McCain's unit as a potential model for regulating street vendors and keeping gang extortion to a minimum. Olivares said he sets up shop in the Fashion District because there is less extortion there than other places, including MacArthur Park.
A year and half ago, 18th Street gang members began selling DVDs in the district, and police heard rumblings they were working to control the area by using extortion as a means to dominate the territory.
Raul Ortega, 23, a vendor in the Fashion District, said he won't forget what happened when the 18th Street gang members asked him and fellow DVD vendors to pay them rent.
"We told them we wouldn't pay," Ortega said.
McCain said Ortega and several other vendors later got into a bloody fight with members of the gang. He said that a few days later on Maple Avenue, two gang members opened fire on two of the vendors involved in the brawl, wounding at least one of them.
The shooting marked a turning point. Vendors were shocked by the violence and worked with police to keep the gang at bay. Police officers began surveillance on gang members in the area, hoping the pressure would drive them away.