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Shooting a reminder of changing area's dangers

September 19, 2007|Anna Gorman, Ari B. Bloomekatz and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

The signs of progress are hard to miss in the streets around MacArthur Park.

A few aging buildings have been reborn as luxury lofts, new restaurants and an art gallery have opened, and a renovated band shell has brought concerts and family festivals to the park.

There's less graffiti on the walls, more police on the streets and crime is down significantly compared with a decade ago. Gone are the chalk lines on the sidewalks where gang members once marked their turf.

But the teeming neighborhood of mostly Mexican and Central American immigrants remains mired in poverty and urban crowding. The streets are filled with people day and night -- residents, shoppers, street vendors, drug dealers, transients and people selling fake IDs to illegal immigrants. And gang members, despite aggressive crackdowns, remain a powerful force in the district about two miles west of downtown L.A.

Los Angeles prosecutors on Tuesday charged a reputed gang member, Luis Silva, 19, for his alleged role in the shooting at an outdoor marketplace Saturday night on the corner of 6th Street and Burlington Avenue, injuring a vendor and killing a newborn. In the criminal complaint against Silva, he was charged with murder, attempted murder and extortion. An arraignment is scheduled for Oct. 2, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said members of the 18th Street gang tried to extort money from outdoor vendors Sept. 1. One vendor refused to pay. The gang members returned Saturday and opened fire, they said. A law enforcement source said the assailants were seeking $50 from the vendor they allegedly shot.

The shooting, residents and police say, is a reminder of the continuing pull of gangs, who prey on immigrants, many of whom are here illegally and therefore are reluctant to report crimes.

Though more than 100 people witnessed the shooting, few came forward. Police said they are hampered by the fact that many residents have emigrated from Central America, where many are afraid of law enforcement and government.

"What does 40,000 people per square mile mean?" Councilman Ed Reyes said. "It means that people of different universes are existing in the same space and it creates a sub-economy, a subculture in which those with little wallets, those who are existing or surviving on poverty, they get relegated to a level of insecurity, of terror, of influence of the local gangs."

On Tuesday afternoon, dozens attended a candlelight vigil at the shooting site to pray for the victims and to ask for the public's help to continue reforming the neighborhood.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged community members to work with police in apprehending any others involved, saying the murder was not only a priority for him but must be "for every family in Los Angeles."

The Rev. Howard Dotson, who led the vigil, said that the neighborhood has been transformed, but that the murder showed that there is still much work to be done.

"Every weekend the sidewalks are full of people selling secondhand goods just to get by," he said. "It's disheartening to see people struggling for their daily bread and then to see this extortion on top of it. This is going to bring to light what's been happening," Dotson said.

Authorities last year thought they had put a major dent in gang activity with a sweeping indictment of 18th Street gang leaders, who allegedly "rented" corners across the district to drug dealers. The LAPD's Rampart Division, which includes neighborhoods west of downtown, has seen the number of murders fall, from 21 through Sept. 15 last year to 14 during the same period this year. There were also 11 fewer shooting victims this year through Sept. 15 compared with 78 during the same period last year.

But the mostly Latino, multi-generational 18th Street gang -- one of the largest and most notorious in Los Angeles -- still maintains a forbidding presence in the neighborhood, authorities and residents said.

Deputy City Atty. Bruce Riordan, director of the office's anti-gang operation, said the major gangs often extort "taxes" and "rent" payments in an organized way from criminals, drug dealers and businesses, among them street vendors. Individual gang members also often demand money from vendors randomly.

"While some rent and tax collections are as well-organized as a business, other extortions take place purely to finance particular gang members' needs," Riordan said. "One example might be a gang member or members who want to finance a night out on the town by sticking up a guy selling fruit on the street."

Riordan said people who are poor and in the U.S. illegally may feel that they have little choice other than to pay off the gangs. "In many ways these victims are the perfect targets," Riordan said. (The U.S. Census does not track illegal immigration, but the 2000 U.S. Census found that 68% of residents in the densest neighborhoods around MacArthur Park were born in foreign countries).

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