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PROMISE AND PERIL IN SOUTH L.A.

Living the American dream, with a gang twist

Some members of Florencia 13, one of L.A.'s largest gangs, live a suburban, settled lifestyle with good jobs. But they are proud of their ties to the gang, which they call 'the neighborhood.'

December 31, 2009|By Scott Gold
  • Roberto "Flaco" Becerra and Juana Godinez enjoy a moment together. Becerra works as a foreman on high-end construction sites and enjoys a comfortable suburban life. He's also proud of his ties to the Florencia 13 gang.
Roberto "Flaco" Becerra and Juana Godinez enjoy a moment together.… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

In a working-class neighborhood east of the Los Angeles city limits, Roberto Becerra ducked under the eave of the Spanish-tile roof he recently rebuilt for his mother and stepped into the RV parked in the driveway.

He's been working on the camper for months now. New carpeting. A TV on a swivel. Little houseplants on the bookshelves, tied to the wall so they don't fall over. The thing's got some years on it; the sunset-style paint job screams 1970s. "But it's coming along," he said, brushing his hand along the new drapes.

Becerra's is a thoroughly suburban American life. Sort of.

He's nuts about hockey and Oktoberfest. He works as a foreman on high-end construction sites. He's got a kid on the way, and when he has time he jots a few words in a baby book. When asked to describe his reaction when he learned of the pregnancy, he wrote: "Daddy told every one of his employees."

Look closer, though, and you'll find a curious key chain hanging from a nail on one wall of the house. It's the hand of a skeleton, the fingers contorted to form the letter "F."

There's another "F" next to Becerra's right eye. Another on the hockey jersey he bought his girlfriend recently. Another on the bill of the hard hat he wears at work -- reminders, everywhere, of his allegiance to one of the largest and most confounding gangs in the metropolis: Florencia 13.

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In recent years, Florencia has been subjected to mass arrests and one of the largest federal indictments of a California street gang. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office set aside a prosecutor to exclusively handle homicides committed on Florencia's turf.

Once gangs evolve into full-fledged criminal enterprises, authorities often saddle them with court injunctions that limit their movements and activities. Florencia has three such injunctions.

But according to law enforcement officials and gang members, Florencia has grown ever more powerful and influential, subsuming smaller gangs and staying ahead of the police by diversifying its criminal pursuits.

According to gang members, Florencia now has 46 active "cliques" and as many as 7,000 members.

Other large gangs -- such as 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha, which rival or exceed Florencia's size -- are composed of loosely affiliated cliques scattered across a wide area. But most of Florencia is clustered in a contiguous area that now includes not just Florence-Firestone, its historical domain, but Huntington Park, Bell, Walnut Park and stretches of South L.A. and Watts.

The cluster is five miles wide and as deep as three miles -- where a single gang is dominant, where kids can often be heard shouting "F-1-3!" That scope presents law enforcement with a daunting challenge, because the gang has become virtually synonymous with the community itself, particularly among Latino men.

"They are so deeply rooted," said Adan Torres, a veteran Los Angeles County sheriff's detective who has devoted much of his career to policing Florencia. "You can't go on any block without encountering one of them. . . . The homeowners are former gangbangers who made it, but now their kids are gangbanging. It's a cycle."

Indeed, many are born into it.

When Sonny Ontiveros was a boy, both of his parents were sent to prison; his father was killed there, and his mother served 15 years for robbery. Ontiveros, now 34 and a father of five who works the graveyard shift as a machine operator, said that he was, in effect, raised by Florencia -- "the only familia I ever had."

Florencia has become both a menacing street gang and a way of life. In that void, there are hundreds of veteranos like Roberto Becerra -- proud, unapologetic members of Florencia, yet seemingly uninvolved in the gang's criminal enterprises.

Becerra is known to all as Flaco, the nickname he has scrawled on the ceiling of his otherwise spotless RV. He lives a content, uncluttered life in an odd netherworld, a 43-year-old man with "TOWN DRUNK" tattooed across his knuckles and two hands clasped in prayer etched on his chest, a gang member with a day job and a business card.

Born in the '50s

Oh, Florence, I love you so

Oh, Florence, be true to me

"Florence," The Paragons, 1957

Borrowing its name from East Florence Avenue, Florencia began in the 1950s as a neighborhood protector near Roosevelt Park, a bustling, diverse enclave of bungalow-style housing built to serve the workers at the nearby factories. It was a time of fedoras and zoot suits, of car clubs and doo-wop music like that Paragons tune, which was adopted as the gang's theme song.

But in the ensuing years, Florencia moved into increasingly serious criminal enterprises, particularly after becoming an ally of the Mexican Mafia, a powerful prison-based "supergang" that shapes much of the state's gang activity.

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