Gangs Cling to Westside Haunts
The crime statistics on the Westside tell one story: Violent crime went down 45% in the last two years.
But the fatal attacks on three Westside-area high school students in recent months tell another.
First, Santa Monica High School student athlete Eduardo Lopez was gunned down in February as he walked with two other teenagers.
A few months later, Venice High School student Agustin Contreras, 17, was fatally shot on campus as he tried to protect his younger brother from gang members trying to steal his cross necklace.
And last week, gang gunfire claimed the life of 16-year-old Hamilton High School student Ana Interiano as she walked with friends in the South Robertson area.
All three shootings occurred in rough pockets of the Westside that in recent years have seen significant gentrification as people priced out of tonier neighborhoods swooped in and fixed up houses, block by block.
But police say that although gentrification has helped reduce crime, it hasn’t pushed out gangs from areas long claimed as their home turf.
LAPD Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, who a generation ago worked the West Los Angeles area as a gang enforcement officer, said gentrification has shrunk the territory of some gangs from several square miles to several blocks -- but they remain a force.
“They’re more compartmentalized in that area,” he said.
And even when gang members move out of neighborhoods, they don’t always abandon their territories.
Oscar de la Torre has seen this shift on the streets of Santa Monica’s tough Pico district.
“They come back to their old stomping grounds because that’s what they know,” said De la Torre, founder of the Pico Youth and Family Center in Santa Monica.
He said he has noticed trouble with “weekend gangsters” -- people who “come in on the weekend, hang out with the homies, maybe even do some stupid [stuff], and then you go back to your house.”
De la Torre cited several instances in recent months when retaliatory shootings were carried out by gang members who were visiting their former neighborhoods.
As recently as last Wednesday, according to the Santa Monica Police Department, a Bellflower man was one of five suspects arrested on suspicion of attempted murder at Pico Boulevard and 26th Street. A source familiar with the case said the 18-year-old and his family had moved out of the area a few years ago in hopes that he would get away from the local gangs.
Residents in the neighborhoods around Robertson Boulevard, which has seen much revitalization in the last decade, say they have experienced some of the same trends.
People who could not afford upscale neighborhoods such as Beverlywood, Rancho Park and South Carthay flocked over the last decade to the rows of Spanish-style homes on the east side of Robertson Boulevard.
In these areas, residents and police said, crime has been declining as more middle-class and upper-middle-class families put down roots, often taking over homes that were once rentals.
But farther south, in areas dominated by more densely populated apartment buildings, crime and gang activity have continued to flourish.
A Times analysis of Los Angeles Police Department crime data found that this area recorded nearly 50% more aggravated assaults and robberies than the area to the immediate south and 20% more than the neighborhood to the north.
Connie Collins, president of the La Cienega Heights Community Group, said her neighbors regularly encounter gang members who prevent them from parking in their own spaces because the gangsters “own this neighborhood.”
Collins said they have long complained to police about gang activity. But the killing of Interiano as she walked home from summer school at Hamilton was a turning point in both community outrage and action.
“This is really an insidious thing that’s creeping into the neighborhood,” Collins said. “It’s heavy on my heart, and it just takes my breath away.”
Authorities believe Interiano had no gang ties, and was shot by gang members who might have been aiming at some nearby boys.
Though that shooting occurred during the week, Collins and others in the South Robertson area said they have noticed the “weekend gangsters” effect.
Even when gang members and their families move away or are evicted, they will return to hang out in front of the same residence, she said.
“Their friends know where to find them. They come out and talk, drink, talk trash and wreak havoc,” Collins said. “It’s an umbilical cord that hasn’t been cut.”
LAPD Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger said that although police have been doing a much better job of keeping on top of the latest crime spikes, weekend homecomings by gangbangers illustrate the transient nature of crime -- and the difficulty in fighting it.
“Imagine crime as [a] balloon,” Paysinger said. “When you squeeze it, the air doesn’t necessarily go away; all we do is displace it to another location.”
Paysinger and others said that although crime overall is down, they notice some troubling trends on the streets.
“We are seeing the kind of inhumane, violent acts that you didn’t see two years ago from more experienced gang members,” Paysinger said.
De la Torre, the Santa Monica activist, agreed that the rules appear to be changing.
“If you were walking with your mother, if you were walking with your girlfriend, they would give you a pass,” he said, referring to certain codes that gangs observed. “It’s not like that anymore.... Now you have kids getting killed in crazy, odd places during the day.”
Tom Hayden, a former state senator and the author of “Street Wars,” said government leaders need to focus more on what he considers the root cause of gang problems: a lack of opportunities for young men in poor areas.
“That’s not a problem we can police ourselves out of,” he said. “One thousand more cops won’t solve the problem. We need education, rehabilitation and jobs.”
Meanwhile, back at South Robertson, Ada Adapinto hopes officials can do something.
She lives in an apartment on Garth Street, where two more people were shot last Thursday.
“I don’t go out because it scares me,” the mother of two said in Spanish. “I shut myself inside with my daughters.”