Targeting L.A.'s 18th Street gang

Part of Los Angeles is run, according to allegations in a lawsuit filed Monday, by a man locked up in federal prison in Florence, Colo. The city attorney's office asserts that Frank Martinez, also called "Puppet," directs the criminal activities of the 18th Street gang in a part of Pico-Union, controlling the sale and distribution of drugs, making rules for conduct and administration in his zone of influence, presiding over the collection of "rent" from businesses under the gang's "protection" and ordering punishment of people who cross him.

An adjacent area, according to the same suit, is run by Sergio Pantoja, known as "Tricky," from the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles. The area around MacArthur Park is said to be controlled by Ruben Castro, called "Nite Owl" and "Tecolote," from the Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution.

The notion that Los Angeles is carved into territories run by criminal enterprises may strike residents as something out of a movie script set in the wrong time (didn't organized crime here end in the 1950s?) or the wrong place (don't the Sopranos work out of New Jersey?).

But the allegations are not new. For more than a decade, police and prosecutors have been charging, and often convicting, 18th Street gang members for criminal actions that oppress communities and undermine the quality of life of the people trying to live, work, worship and go to school there.

Still, the gang persists. It isn't possible to snuff out its destructive power simply by arresting leaders who, prosecutors say, use their federal cells as throne rooms from which they run their kingdoms.

What if the gang's shot-callers and godfathers could be broken financially? What if their riches, gained from squeezing money and spirit out of their neighbors, could be confiscated in civil suits and used at least in part to compensate the communities they have so successfully oppressed for so long?

That's the thinking behind a bill signed into law last year, a follow-up bill by state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) this year, and last week's suit filed by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo.

The earlier bill limited cities, counties and states to going after gang assets that were gained through criminal means. No one sued; causation was too hard to prove. The new version confronts the gang as a nuisance and permits officials to try to get members to pay for the damage they have caused, regardless of where their money came from.

If Delgadillo's lawsuit is a gimmick, filed to get a little media attention and soon forgotten, we don't need it. Gangs too often have provided fodder for political grandstanders. Nor do we need it if it's simply a cover for heavy-handed tactics like civil forfeiture, in which prosecutors take the cars or other property of accused criminals before proving their case.

But this suit appears to be the real thing. It could work. It could be, in some respects, like the suits brought by Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center to defang the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations that preyed on Southern communities. It could help undermine the power of gangs over Los Angeles neighborhoods -- if the city proceeds with equal measures of intelligence and resolve.

City lawyers must recognize that, similarities aside, the gang from which they are seeking money is not the Klan. Even without sheets and hoods, Klan members were always separate from the people they sought to victimize; that separation was the essence of their self-image.

In Los Angeles, by contrast, the line between gang perpetrator and victim is permeable, and sometimes nonexistent. Youth, for their own mental and physical safety, often must adopt gang dress and attitude. The same teenager sized up by a cop as a gangbanger could just as accurately be described by a gang services worker as a casualty, in need of education, work, counseling and hope. Violent criminals should not be coddled, but neither should troubled youth be criminalized.

The "tough on crime" approach to gangs all too often winds up targeting youth on the cusp of gang life. Instead of diverting them, it treats them as hardened criminals and punishes them so severely that their opportunity for a life outside the gang is put out of reach. The city attorney's gang injunctions became a snare that captured young people, branded them as gang members and never -- until this year -- provided them an opportunity to get off the injunction list, no matter how far they sought to distance themselves from their former gang ties. (The city attorney's new "exit ramp" from the list is a wise step in the right direction.)

City lawyers will have their hands full proving in court that a gang is the costly cause of a community's decline, and not just its effect. And they will have to use wisdom to determine when to keep their hands off an asset -- a gold watch bought by a gang member for his grandmother, for example -- because grabbing it does more harm in the neighborhood than good.

The biggest challenge may come at the end of the process, when the damages are awarded and turned over, as the law requires, to the "governing body" of the appropriate jurisdiction. The funds, in other words, will go to the City Council, which for years employed insufficient oversight over gang programs and this year gave up control over prevention and intervention programs to the mayor's office.

City Hall is full of special funds that were meant to reimburse communities for nuisances of one kind or another, but seldom do residents have any say over how the money is spent, and too often council members use the funds to promote their own political interests.

The council shouldn't wait to discuss how any money from nuisance suits against gangs will be spent. Now is the time, before any money comes in, and before anyone knows how much there will be, to hammer out a process that will allow neighborhoods to take part in discussing how they should be compensated. The council must act with as much creativity and diligence as the lawmakers who drafted the bill did, and as the city lawyers who are trying to put it to work are, so far, demonstrating.