The Ramona Gardens housing project in Boyle Heights was for decades a bleak bastion of crime, a spartan collection of World War II-era buildings controlled by the Big Hazard gang. It was so notorious for shootings, drug dealing and racially motivated attacks that the Los Angeles police dared enter only in groups.
But in recent years, the gang's grip on Ramona Gardens and the surrounding neighborhood has lessened considerably, and crime has tumbled. Black families, who for years steered clear, are once again living there. And police, viewed in the past as an invading force, are stationed in the area.
On Wednesday, authorities pushed to further weaken the gang's power in a federal racketeering indictment and an early-morning raid involving about 800 agents and officers.
Dubbed Operation Resident Evil, the sweep was the result of an investigation several years in the making that involved the FBI, the LAPD, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the IRS.
"We have moved to take control of the neighborhood," Acting U.S. Atty. Stephanie Yonekura said.
A total of 38 gang members were indicted on charges alleging drug deals, acts of intimidation and violence, illegal weapons sales and threats made against black residents of Ramona Gardens.
The indictments underscore what residents of the neighborhood believe: The situation has definitely gotten better, but there is a long way to go. Gang graffiti is a reminder that Big Hazard, which has ties to the Mexican Mafia, is still a force. Earlier this year, Ramona Gardens apartments where some black residents lived were firebombed, a case that remains unsolved.
"As long as you don't get involved with those crazy men, everything is good," said one 78-year-old resident, who declined to give his name out of fear the gang would seek him out.
"No one can say anything to them because they'll come after you. I don't get involved with them. I just see what they do."
Built in 1941 at the bottom of a valley bordered by a freeway, warehouses and railroad tracks, Ramona Gardens is relatively invisible to outsiders. The geography made it nearly a fortress to gang members who lived inside. Separated from the outside community, it housed the poorest of the poor, who became easy prey. At one point, police were told never to venture into the area without heavy backup.
Big Hazard came of age in an area believed to have the oldest existing gangs in the city. During the height of its reign, fear was a way of life in the neighborhood. Parents kept their children inside on hot afternoons, and residents stayed quiet about the crime that took place right outside their windows. The insular community of 497 residences appeared to exist outside the law.
In the 1990s, firebombs were thrown into the Ramona Gardens homes of several black families, sending them packing. Around that same time, two consultants who contributed to the film "American Me" — a film about the Mexican Mafia — were killed. One had grown up in Ramona Gardens and became a gang counselor. She was ambushed by a masked gunman who shot her in her driveway.
But these days it's unusual to see active gang members hanging out on street corners. Although still a serious problem in many neighborhoods, gangs are a far cry from their violent heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, when L.A.'s bloodletting turned drive-bys, gangsta rap and the gang life into part of American pop culture.
The landscape in the area where Big Hazard claims territory has changed dramatically due to relationships formed among residents, the housing authority and the Police Department, said Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.
"They don't have the influence they once did," Beck said.
The LAPD has assigned officers to Ramona Gardens, something that would have seemed untenable in past years when tensions with law enforcement flared into standoffs. Officers take part in local sports programs and volunteer with the Girl Scouts.
Authorities say Big Hazard has about 350 members and is still heavily entrenched, although its activities have become more covert. Gang members, once recognizable by their dress, blend into the background.
"That fear and intimidation is right below the surface, and the community feels it," said Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Kirk Albanese. "Even though it may not be as outward as it was 15 years ago, the fear is inside of people, and we're trying to prevent that. This is a war. Today was a battle, and we're going to continue until we win the war."
Wednesday's sweep cast a wide net for a gang known for drug trafficking, and the indictment alleges several violent acts in aid of racketeering, about three dozen narcotics offenses and several crimes related to the illegal possession of firearms. According to the Department of Justice, Big Hazard taxed drug dealers who operated in its territory, set up video surveillance at drug houses, and threatened and assaulted residents who cooperated with law enforcement.
The lead defendant is Manuel Larry Jackson, known as "Cricket," who authorities say gave directions to Big Hazard and also was a member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang.
"He was taken under the wing of the leader in the Mexican Mafia," said Richard Valdemar, a retired sheriff's sergeant and gang expert. "He was of a younger generation — young guys who did the dirty work for the old guard."
Police are investigating the killing of another named defendant who was shot Friday. Danny Miranda, who went by Raccoon, was identified in court papers as a gang enforcer.
Outside one Ramona Gardens building Wednesday, flowers, candles and cans of beer sat on the sidewalk as a mini-altar. A framed picture of a raccoon with wings had the words "Raccoon Big Hazard."
For a new generation of residents in and around Ramona Gardens, Big Hazard is a name with history that lacks real-life context. Walls bear Mexican-themed murals, but a few "BH" tags are scribbled throughout.
Twenty-year-old Emmanuel Zambrano grew up in Boyle Heights and has lived in his home near Alcazar and Tremont streets for about eight years. On a nearby fence, the letters "BH" were spray-painted in white.
Nevertheless, he has noticed a shift in the neighborhood.
"You can walk down the street without a single worry," he said.
Zambrano said police constantly patrol the area and there are cameras in every corner.
"It's kind of good in a way," he said.
Inside Ramona Gardens, police now walk foot beats and coach in a sports program.
Residents say they are aware of the gang's presence but feel they are not held hostage to it. Still, many interviewed declined to give their names, citing concerns for their safety.
One woman quickly ushered a young girl back into their home when asked about the gang.
Another resident, a 54-year-old man who has lived in Ramona Gardens for 11 years, said that the tagging wasn't as bad as it used to be and that he had seen the gang presence change.
"There's not that many," he said, about gang members. "I think they're all in jail by now."