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Promise And Peril In South L.a.

With crime in decline, a fragile sense of hope

As a wide-ranging LAPD injunction restricts gangs on their own turf,

June 07, 2009|Scott Gold

The boys had made no effort to hide the shotgun, so it was found, loaded, right where they'd left it, on the top bunk in their bedroom, next to a pile of clothes and two school books, "Decimals" and "The Language of Literature."

The LAPD had pulled up to the little house near midnight, with the boys in the back of two squad cars. There had been gunfire in the area, near Vernon Avenue, and the brothers had been picked up during a street sweep. They were known to the police; the older one had been in the Barrio Mojados gang for four years and walked with a slight limp after being shot by rivals. He was now 17.

Their mother let the police inside. There was soup on, still warm, and the house smelled like onions. The lights were dim, bathing the place in the color of a week-old bruise. Sgt. Rick Arteaga cornered the mother, Maria Garcia. "This is a dangerous weapon, in a room where four children sleep," he told her. "You are the parent here!"

Garcia, 35, tried to explain: The boys' lives were at risk, she told him. The gun was for defense. There were no jobs, not here; they had no money to move away from their troubles. Finally, defeated, she whispered: "This is South-Central."

And so it's been for decades -- the cradle of the thug life, the home, still, to many of the city's 400 gangs. But nights like this one are no longer explained away as simply the way things are and the way things will be.

Looking to capitalize on declining crime rates, and gang violence in particular, the LAPD has doubled its rate of gang arrests in some pockets of South Los Angeles, as South-Central is now known officially, and has implemented a new enforcement strategy against six gangs, including Barrio Mojados. Meanwhile, a wave of construction is underway and, in an area long crippled by an absence of social services, community-based groups are bringing job training, kids' baseball -- even a free Internet "cloud" over one neighborhood.

This is still a troubled place, and will be for years to come. But police, residents and civic leaders alike believe there is an opportunity here, however fragile, to restore a sense of community that many feared was lost forever in the crack-and-bullet epidemic of the 1980s and '90s. If so, South L.A.'s identity within the city could begin to shift, revealing a far more dynamic place than the one cemented in the public consciousness as an intractable ghetto.

Poor and transient

Last month, the LAPD began rolling out an injunction restricting the movements and activities of gang members in a 13.7-square-mile stretch of South Los Angeles -- the largest such injunction in state history.

All told, the six targeted gangs, which include Florencia 13, one of the largest and most powerful in Los Angeles County, have at least 3,000 members. The injunction's territory, south of downtown and the University of Southern California, is nearly twice the size of the city of Santa Monica.

The area, home to more than 250,000 people, is a rambling patchwork of the city's core: century-old bungalows; abandoned factories and weed-choked brownfields; venerable neighborhoods like Vermont Square; storefront churches; bustling stretches of mom-and-pop barbers, auto body shops and taquerias.

The neighborhood is poor and transient, creating a vacuum where a gang "ecosystem" has formed, according to the city's 276-page court filing supporting the injunction, "where each gang enables and affects the existence of other gangs."

Police see the injunction as a critical tool in the already formidable arsenal they've been given by courts and legislators to tackle gangs. The injunction makes it a crime, in itself, for gang members to be together in public -- leaning against a backstop at a park, for instance, or standing together on a street corner.

"It makes it a crime -- an arrestable crime -- to hang out together," said Sgt. Alex Vargas, who leads a Newton Division gang unit.

And officers, on the fly and in the field, can "serve" unknown gang suspects with the injunction without first having to prove gang affiliation in court.

In the most basic terms, the injunction makes it a pain in the neck to be in a gang -- more trouble, officials hope, than it is worth.

Newton counts 41 gangs within its nine square miles and is known within the LAPD as "Shootin' Newton." The division has already stepped up enforcement, recording 295 gang-related arrests in the first five months of the year, almost twice the 151 arrests made in the first five months of 2008.

Those numbers are likely to rise further under the injunction, because the new rules will address a scenario that is both common and confounding: when officers find a group of gangsters together but cannot investigate because there is no obvious criminal activity.

"You know they're up to no good. But you basically have to leave," Vargas said as he rumbled in his cruiser through the area's potholed streets. "As an officer you can't do much without a gang injunction. And they know it."

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