Heavily armed police and federal agents stormed into a Glassell Park neighborhood Wednesday morning to wrest control away from a street gang -- and loyalists with deep family ties to its members -- that has in effect turned the sequestered swath of run-down apartments into rogue territory.
With a sweeping federal racketeering indictment, more than 500 agents, including 10 SWAT teams, arrested 28 people in an attempt to root out the Avenues gang members who have ruled the area with violence and near impunity.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, June 27, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Gangs: An article in Thursday's Section A about a gang sweep in Glassell Park should have noted that the 10-month investigation that resulted in the arrests of 28 was led by a Los Angeles task force of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The indictment, which grew out of a 10-month investigation, names 70 defendants -- mostly connected to the Drew Street clique of the larger Avenues gang. The gang dates to the zoot suit era in Northeast Los Angeles and is closely connected to the Mexican Mafia prison gang. Twenty-six defendants were already in custody and 16 are at large.
Prosecutors allege that the gang committed three murders, shot at police, extorted businesses, conducted home invasion robberies, taxed drug dealers for the Mexican Mafia and threatened potential witnesses -- all as part of an enterprise to distribute methamphetamine and rock cocaine in the area. Authorities say undercover agents conducted scores of drug purchases from the gang during the investigation.
U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O'Brien called the sweep "the largest gang take-down in recent L.A. history."
He said he was confident that by targeting so many defendants with heavy federal charges, the effort would accomplish what previous crackdowns, convictions, injunctions and evictions have so far been unable to do: break the gang's grip on the low-income neighborhood, which is heavily Latino.
Half of the defendants could face life in prison without parole if convicted, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Francisco "Pancho" Real, 26, who was identified as the leader of the Drew Street clique, brought in $1,200 a day in drug money alone, according to a wiretap recording described in the indictment. He was arrested at his home in Glendale.
The gang stirred a storm of media coverage and police attention after a wild, rolling shootout in February.
The indictment suggests that the shooting stemmed from a brewing turf battle between the Avenues, backed by the Mexican Mafia, and the Cypress Park gang.
On Feb. 21, in order to prevent Cypress Park from dealing drugs in their territory, the indictment alleges, Real's cohorts shot to death one of its members, Marcos Salas, as he held his 2-year-old granddaughter's hand in front of her elementary school. Minutes later police pulled over the three suspected gunmen, who then opened fire with an assault rifle. Police fatally shot one of them, Real's half brother Daniel Leon.
Authorities had wiretaps on Real's phones at the time. The day after the shooting, Real shrugged off Leon's death, using a profanity to say "[stuff] happens," according to the indictment.
The gang didn't skip a beat after the shootout, the summaries of the wiretaps suggest.
In March, Real ordered the owner of a local tire shop to pay him $30,000 within 24 hours, prosecutors allege, or he would kill him and burn down his shop. When the owner of an adjoining tire shop told Real that he did not understand why they had to pay him, Real said they were operating in his territory, the indictment alleges.
Real is one of 13 children of Maria Leon, the matriarch of the gang and a defendant in the case, according to law enforcement. She has a criminal record with three drug arrests and was in custody Wednesday morning for reentering the country after a deportation.
The family hails from a sweltering, lawless part of the Mexican state of Guerrero, as does much of the neighborhood. Based on their shared roots, many residents maintain a fierce solidarity and loathing for the police.
On Wednesday, an 81-year-old woman on Isabel Street, Olga Martinez, called the police "gestapos" after they broke down her door looking for her son. Numerous other residents declined to talk.
"We don't know anything, we didn't hear anything, we didn't see anything," said a woman who lives on Drew Street and declined to give her name.
The layout of the small neighborhood -- cut off by San Fernando Road, backed up against Forest Lawn Memorial-Park -- helps this separation from mainstream society persist just four miles from downtown Los Angeles. With few entrances, spotters easily monitor who comes and goes. Gang interventionists, common in other tough neighborhood, don't even go there.
"The Drew Street gang ordinarily is vigilant to the presence of 'outsiders,' " the indictment says. "Gang members are likely to identify and physically threaten to kill them."
The Avenues, which police estimate has about 400 members, had a bout of infamy in 1995 when members shot and killed 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, whose family made a wrong turn into a dead-end street in Cypress Park.
The dense configuration of apartments on Drew Street allows gangbangers to disappear when police roll in.