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Former shot-caller is now spilling gang's secrets

Showing no emotion, a former leader of the Avenues clique testifies about murder, extortion and drug deals. Ailing and in custody, he is vilified by his family, which once terrified a neighborhood.

February 08, 2010|By Sam Quinones
  • Francisco "Pancho" Real collected "taxes" for the Mexican Mafia from about 40 drug dealers in the 12-square-block neighborhood surrounding Drew Street -- totaling $150,000 to $200,000 in nine months.
Francisco "Pancho" Real collected "taxes" for… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Pancho Real was at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church with his wife and daughter one Sunday in October 2006 when his cellphone rang.

He was summoned to a park near his home on Drew Street, a drug and gang haven in Northeast Los Angeles, to kill a man he didn't know. The Mexican Mafia wanted a paroled Avenues gang member named Frank "Kiko" Cordova dead.

Real left church with his family and called another gang member, Carlos Renteria.

At the park that afternoon, they figured out who Cordova was but saw he was among children.

Outside the park, Real said, he told the mafia's representatives , who conferred with others by phone. They told Real to shoot Cordova anyway.

Real and Renteria returned and saw Cordova walking away from the kids.

"We said, 'There he goes. Let's roll,' " Real testified.

Real said he fired in the air to scare onlookers as Renteria walked across the park and shot the parolee. (Renteria was charged last summer with Cordova's murder.)

Back on Drew Street minutes later, Real changed his sweat shirt, met his wife and daughter at his stepfather's and went about his Sunday.

That scene, described step by emotionless step, captured the life of opposing impulses of Francisco "Pancho" Real, former leader of the Drew Street clique of the Avenues gang and a member of a notorious crime family.

He ordered up extortions and robberies and taxed drug dealers, but said he didn't use drugs, attended church every Sunday and attempted, as an attorney skeptically put it in cross-examination, to be a "kinder and gentler shot-caller."

In testimony over two weeks in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Real, 28, offered a firsthand account of life in one of Southern California's most notorious Latino gangs. The Avenues gang has roamed Northeast L.A. since the 1950s. Its Drew Street clique, of newer vintage, dates to the 1990s.

A short man in a white jumpsuit, shackled and with slicked-back hair falling to his shoulders, Real spoke slowly, leaning into a microphone on the witness stand next to Judge Lance Ito.

He was ostensibly there to testify, immune from prosecution, in a preliminary hearing for three alleged Drew Streeters charged in the shooting death of a member of a rival gang on Feb. 21, 2008.

Minutes after that attack, a fourth suspect in the shooting -- Real's half brother Daniel "Clever" Leon -- was killed in a shootout on Drew Street with Los Angeles police gang detectives, allegedly after firing at them with an assault rifle.

Leon's death was ruled a justifiable homicide. At the time, by all accounts, Pancho Real ran Drew Street. He knelt by his brother's body, then challenged officers to kill him as well. Four months later, he was arrested and charged with racketeering. Now he is an informant and is being treated for cancer. So Ito allowed prosecutors and defense attorneys wide latitude in questioning him.

"In the event this witness is not available in the future, this is your opportunity," Ito said at the hearing, which concluded two weeks ago.

Real testified for days. Kids on Drew Street, he said, were raised as drug dealers amid a swirl of half brothers, baby mamas, aunts, second cousins and stepfathers. They hid guns, drugs and money in a maze of apartments while spotters alerted Real to every police car; a neighborhood auto shop worked on most of their shot-up cars, he said.

The whims of incarcerated prison-gang members, expressed in rectum-smuggled notes, translated into Drew Street killings or beatings. Gang members knew one another by nicknames that seemed to reflect a cross between "A Clockwork Orange" and the Seven Dwarfs: Droopy, Nasty, Tricky, Flappy, Creeper, Menace, Pest.

Not everything Real said could be confirmed. But as his testimony stretched on, law enforcement representatives slowly filled Ito's gallery: four homicide detectives; two uniformed officers; six, then eight sheriff's deputies.

From the stand, Real clinically issued shards of chilling detail:

Daniel Leon had laser eye surgery to make himself a better street marksman. The gang had a hard-core crew -- known as the A Team or the Killer Squad, including Leon -- that would go on "missions" against rival gangs. A Mexican Mafia prison gang member, held in maximum security, had a "secretary" handling his affairs on Drew Street.

Real admitted having smuggled immigrants and selling drugs for years. But he painted himself a reluctant shot-caller -- unwilling even to become a Drew Street member when beaten into the gang in 2004.

He was anointed the street's shot-caller in the fall of 2007 by representatives of the Mexican Mafia, who asked him to take the job after another leader was arrested.

He said his main responsibility was collecting "taxes" for the Mexican Mafia from about 40 drug dealers in the 12-square-block neighborhood surrounding Drew Street -- a total of $150,000 to $200,000 in his nine months as gang leader. He said he gave the money to mafia associates every Thursday.

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