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Taking sides in the Valley

A gang injunction in parts of Sylmar and San Fernando splits locals.

September 26, 2008|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

Daniel, 15, lives on a tree-lined street at the northern tip of the San Fernando Valley.

It is a place of whiplashing contradiction. In one direction there are elegant Craftsmans, their roots as deep as the area's historic olive groves, and tidy cul-de-sacs with driveway basketball hoops. In the other there is a poor, old-world barrio -- barren lots overtaken by weeds, a tiny house with a hand-painted sign hung from a coat-hanger that reads: "RANCH EGGS."

Daniel is no less confounding.

Around his neck, he wears a cross etched with the words of the Lord's Prayer. He is spellbound by narrative writing and excels in martial arts and Aztec dancing. Still, he has become numb to violence and crime. A gang, San Fer, has long defined his neighborhood's cultural and social structure. His father, a gang member, is in prison; his uncle was shot dead, by another gang member.

Daniel has been in trouble -- for poking a kid with a stick, for possession of a cigarette. He is not a gang member, but lately, he has looked the part -- oversized T-shirts; baggy jeans.

By the time he went out with friends one night last week to tag houses with graffiti, he was at a crossroads.

This summer, law enforcement officials enacted an injunction targeting San Fer. It is the 37th gang injunction in Los Angeles and the largest yet, covering nearly 10 square miles in Sylmar and San Fernando, and it has left a troubled community deeply divided.

San Fer began decades ago as a protectorate for farm laborers.

Today, the gang's members -- an estimated 900 or 1,000 people -- extort "rent" from businesses, steal cars and deal drugs, officials say. It also has ties to the Mexican Mafia, a "super gang" that has charged San Fer with collecting "taxes" from second-tier gangs.

"This is a big gang covering a big territory," said Bruce Riordan, the Los Angeles city attorney's director of anti-gang operations. "They have quite a bit of muscle."

Through the injunction, authorities effectively "sue" the gang on behalf of the public, restricting members' activity. Members, for instance, are prohibited in many cases from associating with each other in public and from visiting places that have been used in the past for planning or recruitment.

The injunction brought a wave of police attention, and Daniel might have been wise to remember that when a friend handed him a can of baby-blue spray paint. (The Times is withholding his last name because, his family said, expressing ambivalence about the gang could endanger him.)

First, Daniel considered painting his nickname, but then thought his friends would find that "stupid." He decided to paint the name of the area where he lives, which he shortened to the name of the gang that had defined so much of his life: "San Fer."

"A mistake," Daniel said.

A squad car pulled up. Daniel, eager to establish street credibility, did not run. By the end of the night, he was sent home with papers indicating that he could be a target of the gang injunction. A relative who raised him said she fears this could be the moment that pushes Daniel down the wrong path.

Gang injunctions come with daunting complexities in communities where a criminal enterprise has touched thousands of people -- many of whom are not hard-core criminals or gang members themselves.

What should be done about teenagers who identify with a gang but do not participate in its criminal activities? If a gang spans generations, like San Fer, should an uncle be prohibited from speaking with his nephew if both are gang members? Officers are forced to make difficult judgments on the fly, Riordan said. "Is someone meeting a family member because of something legitimate? Because they are going to church?" he asked. "Or because of something else?"

Authorities have attempted to inject safeguards against overreaching.

The San Fer injunction is the first, for instance, in which suspected gang members are given papers not only "serving" them, but telling them how to challenge their inclusion if they feel they have been wrongly accused.

Prosecutors have also begun using, without legal obligation, a greater burden of proof to target new gang members.

"We are seeking a balance," Riordan said, "between aggressive prosecution . . . and enlightened enforcement."

Many local residents are hailing the injunction as a new chapter for a pocket of the Valley that they feel is a forgotten piece of the metropolis.

"If this is going to help put more officers in the area, I'm all for it," said Jeanne Rowe, 82, a civic activist and an accountant who recently completed her 46th year of tax preparations. "If they need more help in doing their job, I'm all for it."

But not everyone is -- not by a long shot.

At community meetings this year, critics have complained that the injunction is heavy-handed and broad, criminalizing, in a sense, an entire community.

"What is going on here is very unjust. Just because people are scared does not make it right," said Luis Rodriguez, whose home is inside the injunction boundaries.

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