Eighteen members of a street gang were indicted Wednesday and charged with using violence and intimidation "to control, oversee and direct" cocaine sales in the area around MacArthur Park.
The park, surrounded by poor, largely immigrant communities, was the site of the fatal shooting last month of a 23-day-old baby, the unintended victim of what officials called an extortion attempt by street criminals.
Wednesday's indictment charges the members of a subset of the 18th Street gang called the Columbia Lil Cycos with a conspiracy, which authorities say was directed by Sergio Pantoja out of a tattoo shop that he owns on West 6th Street.
"A new generation of gang members has risen to fill the power vacuum created after we successfully prosecuted the prior leadership," U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien said. "Today, we have again cut off the head of this organization and dismantled its narcotics distribution operations."
The Los Angeles city attorney's office filed a companion abatement lawsuit to shut down operations at Pantoja's business, Unico's Tattoos. Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, said the action was designed to "remove a gang asset and staging area."
Herbert Brown, head of the FBI in Los Angeles, said the government was trying to "liberate" residents from fear of the 18th Street gang.
"We're hopeful today's enforcement actions encourage members of the public to come forward and report crime in neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles, and that citizens understand they do not have to live in fear, that the 18th Street gang does not control the area in which they live, and that together we can prevail."
The charges came in multiple indictments alleging that the clique was responsible for narcotics distribution, firearms trafficking, illegal firearm possession and immigration violations. In total, authorities said, a dozen people have been arrested; four defendants were already in custody and two defendants have been identified only by street nicknames.
Pantoja, 31, who is known on the street as "Tricky," and his wife, Ingrid Veronica Flores Tercero, 34, were arrested Wednesday. They face potential life sentences if convicted.
The main indictment lists 158 acts from Feb. 16, 2005, to June 8, 2007, constituting the alleged conspiracy. The indictment did not state the total amount of cocaine involved in the trafficking, but it cited three transactions on separate days in April 2006 involving quantities of up to 48 grams.
The charges cite many alleged conversations in which gang members referred to cocaine as "food," "rent" was used to describe fees charged to dealers for operating in gang territory, and different styles of the drug were called "chunky," "skinny" and "flat."
Six years ago, 26 members of the clique were prosecuted for drug distribution by federal authorities.
"It was a successful prosecution of members of the clique," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Brian R. Michael, who will prosecute the new case. "When you take out the leadership of these gangs, it creates a vacuum. This is a new generation of gangsters who have tried to step in."
In an indication of the increasing violence of the neighborhood, the Los Angeles Police Department received 23 extortion complaints this year from the MacArthur Park area, double the number for all of 2006.
On Sept. 16, gang members allegedly shot at a vendor on 6th Street at MacArthur Park. A stray bullet hit the baby boy, who was with his mother and hundreds of others in the marketplace. That incident was not mentioned in the indictments Wednesday.