Los Angeles cop Juan Aguilar has been battling the Avenues hoodlums long enough to have seen the gang at its most vicious.
During his five years working an anti-gang detail on streets the Avenues claim as their own in the city's northeastern reaches, gang members are accused of gunning down a man in broad daylight as he held his 2-year-old granddaughter's hand, opening fire on LAPD officers with an assault rifle and killing a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy.
Even as crime has dropped throughout the city, Aguilar says he still braces for the worst when it comes to the Avenues. "When I read the crime reports from the weekend that land on my desk and there hasn't been a gang shooting, I'll say to myself, 'We've had a good weekend.' "
On Tuesday, Aguilar was one of roughly 1,200 police officers and federal agents involved in a massive crackdown on the Avenues -- one of the most entrenched and violent gangs in a city full of them.
"I've been looking forward to this day for a while," the soft-spoken 35-year-old said as dawn broke over the operation's large command post in Elysian Park.
His words summed up a common sentiment expressed by the officers -- both top brass and rank-and-file -- involved in the full-scale assault. It was a cop's cautious optimism that maybe, for the first time, police had gained the upper hand, mixed with the harsh reality that there is plenty more fighting to come.
By day's end, 78 alleged Avenues members or associates were in custody on federal charges related to the gang's extensive drug dealing, previously unsolved murders and other crimes. Five other people were arrested on state charges and 10 people wanted by federal authorities remained at large and were being sought. It was the largest gang sweep in the city in recent years, officials said, and affected a large portion of the gang, which claims about 400 members.
As handcuffed suspects were hauled back to the command post, Aguilar nodded in recognition at many of them. Louie Mora, the alleged gun-toting drug dealer who Aguilar said had tried to go straight, but slipped back into the gang life, walked by. And there was Leonardo Erentreich, the kid they called Fatal, whom Aguilar had watched grow from more innocent days as a tagger into a full-fledged gangbanger accused of armed robbery and drug dealing. Some of them he had at one time tried to help, telling them quietly that the only way to leave the gang is to leave the city. Others had long ago slipped beyond help, he said.
The sweep unfolded in the early morning darkness of Glassell Park and surrounding neighborhoods -- an area that has been the center of Avenues territory since the gang first surfaced in the 1950s. Months of logistical planning by a specialized unit of LAPD gang detectives and a Drug Enforcement Administration task force paid off, and there were no major hiccups. The day's only significant use of force was the shooting of two aggressive dogs by San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputies.
Most suspects went quietly, including Norberto Salazar. An LAPD SWAT team quietly surrounded Salazar's home on Estara Avenue. Using a bullhorn, an officer ordered the occupants out of the house. Several dazed-looking women emerged carrying small children wrapped in blankets and were taken aside for questioning. They were followed by Salazar, who was escorted down the street in stiff plastic handcuffs. On the street corner, beneath a sign advertising check cashing at the El Ranchito meat market, Salazar spoke quietly with detectives for several minutes before being led to a waiting car. He is accused of directing other Avenues members to commit several violent and drug-related crimes, according to police. His brother was not found at the house and is still being sought.
At the command post, dozens of handcuffed men and women were shuffled around and booked in assembly-line fashion in the middle of a sprawling parking lot dotted with hundreds of police vehicles and catering trucks to feed hungry officers. Federal immigration officials were on hand to deal with any undocumented immigrants, although a DEA spokesman said none of the people arrested were found to be in the country illegally.
The operation was the culmination of a yearlong investigation into the gang that stemmed from the August 2008 slaying of Juan Abel Escalante, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. Escalante, 27, was gunned down outside of his parents' Cypress Park home early in the morning as he headed to work as a guard at the Men's Central Jail.
LAPD detectives led the investigation because the killing occurred within city boundaries. Within months, two Avenues members were arrested in connection with the murder. Later, a third member was taken into custody and charges were brought against a fourth, who remains a fugitive. In the course of investigating the Escalante killing, detectives and DEA agents delved into the inner workings of the Avenues and compiled evidence related to a host of other alleged crimes.