From social club to gang
It started as a social club in the 1930s for Latino farmworkers in the western San Fernando Valley. Over the years, it evolved into a car club, paralleling America’s infatuation with the automobile.
Later, in the 1970s, life within the club took a darker cast as drugs and guns began to infiltrate the nation’s urban neighborhoods. No longer an innocent social network, Canoga Park Alabama mushroomed into a full-fledged street gang named for the neighborhood on which it preyed and a street that spans its turf.
Now, the 500-member Latino gang has become the focus of a crackdown by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton. The gang is one of 11 -- and the only one in the Valley -- on Los Angeles’ target list.
Police officials say Canoga Park Alabama was largely responsible for a 44% rise in gang crime last year in the Valley, where five active gangs claim turf. Citywide, gang crime rose 14%.
But on the streets of Canoga Park, there is debate on exactly how much the Canoga Park Alabama is responsible for crime -- and whether police can root out an organization with such deep history in the area.
“We worry about them constantly,” said Margaret T. Pontius, program manager at the Guadalupe Community Center, located in the heart of the gang’s turf. “The influence is out there. The younger children, when they reach the pre- and early teens -- it seems to be such a great thing to say you’re a part of CPA.”
But others in Canoga Park are more dubious.
“I don’t think the CPA is a big deal,” said Mary K. Paterson, executive director of the Canoga Park Business Improvement District, which is responsible for painting over graffiti on Sherman Way.
“It’s such an old gang that most of the gang members are incarcerated,” she said. “Maybe some kids are trying to look cool or something, but there’s not a lot really happening.
“I think it’s blown out of proportion.”
Still, Paterson said: “The graffiti’s annoying. It’s everywhere -- on the sidewalk, on telephone poles, on buildings. We have it removed right away.”
Alex Alonso, an academic who studies gangs and runs the website www.streetgangs.com, also questions why the gang is on the most-wanted list.
“There are at least four or five gangs in South Los Angeles alone that are worse, such as Florencia 13 or Eight Trey,” he said.
“It wouldn’t make my Top 50,” he added. “They wanted to include a gang from the Valley bureau .... I can name 50 gangs that do more violence.”
But officials from the Los Angeles Police Department reject the criticism, saying they have ample evidence that the gang is responsible for major crimes. Lt. Paul Vernon said the gang’s influence is spreading to other parts of the West Valley.
Canoga Park Alabama is active in 4.65 square miles of the Valley floor, roughly bounded by Topanga Canyon Boulevard east to Winnetka Avenue and from Roscoe Boulevard south to Vanowen Street.
Block after block of aging, high-density apartments line the residential streets in this overlooked part of the West Valley, mere miles from the upscale Topanga mall.
On Milwood Avenue, just off Sherman Way in Canoga Park, the empty lot next to one such building is littered with trash. Locked metal gates provide the only entrance to a complex that many Spanish-speaking immigrants call home. Soiled sofas and mattresses, long abandoned, sit forlornly on nearby street corners. “CPA” is spray-painted in large, white letters on the trunk of a tree across the street.
Lately, LAPD Lt. Tom Smart said, officers have seen graffiti in the neighborhood containing the letters “NK,” which he said stands for a derogatory term for blacks and the word “Killer.”
“There’s word out on the street to kill blacks,” said Smart, who speculated that the message was coming from gang members in prison seeking retaliation for some real or perceived slight or injustice endured behind bars.
Canoga Park Alabama has been responsible for 11 shootings in the last six months, according to the LAPD. In comparison, there were 11 shootings by the gang in all of 2001, department records show.
Of those committed in the last six months, 10 involved Latino gang members shooting blacks. Nine of the 10 included racial slurs prior to the shootings, police said. So far, police have made arrests in five of the incidents.
Because there are no black gangs in the Valley, the gang’s targets have been bystanders with no gang affiliation, including two Pierce College football players shot in separate incidents, Smart said. Both recovered.
From Feb. 1, 2005, through Jan. 31, 2006, Canoga Park Alabama was responsible for 34 violent and property crimes, police said, including four murders, three attempted murders, 18 felony assaults, seven robberies, one assault on a police officer and one carjacking.
That figure climbed to 74 in the same period in 2006 through Jan. 31 of this year, police said.
Though gang-related crimes in 2006 were up 44% in the LAPD’s Valley Bureau, the 1,477 offenses were far below the number in historically more violent South and Central Los Angeles areas.
There were 2,596 gang-related crimes reported in South Los Angeles and 2,898 in the area patrolled by the Central Bureau, which includes Rampart, the Eastside, northeast Los Angeles and downtown.
As darkness fell in Canoga Park on a recent Saturday night, few pedestrians roamed the sidewalks and traffic was light.
“It’s almost eerily quiet for a Saturday night,” Smart said as he cruised the neighborhood in a police car.
He drove past Lanark Park, a city park known for gang activity and ringed by apartment buildings. All appeared calm as young men and women standing around on their front stoops or by their parked cars gazed nonchalantly at the passing black-and-white.
Police theorize that gang members are lying low until the crackdown eases.
Smart drove past a yellow-roofed hot dog stand and toward Glen Square, an aging strip mall that houses a coin laundry, a fast-food Chinese restaurant and a liquor store, among other shops. The corner parking lot is notorious for its open-air drug dealing.
“Whatever you want -- methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin -- you can get it there,” Smart said. “We can’t keep a police unit at one shopping center 24/7.”
On another day, from his perch inside the hot dog stand, 27-year-old Daniel Ferrell saw more bloodshed than most men witness in a lifetime.
Two of his friends were shot dead by a carload of gang members as they sat in the outdoor patio of the restaurant fronting Sherman Way. One friend shouted “Screw your gang!” as the car drove up. When the pair claimed affiliation with Temple Street, a rival San Fernando Valley gang, the response was a spray of bullets.
“My friends act hard in front of people,” Ferrell said, explaining the verbal outburst. Gang members “killed both of them, in front of customers.”
That was two years ago. In his eight years working at the fast-food eatery, Ferrell has seen knifings, shootings, holdups at gunpoint and ordinary harassment outside.
All told, Ferrell said he has testified in four trials that have put members of the Canoga Park Alabama gang behind bars.
For his part, Ferrell said he would be leaving his job at the hot dog stand, which sits across the street from the Canoga Park public library.
He said he is fed up with all the crime and wants to move on to a better-paying, more secure job.
“I’ve seen nothing nice around here,” Ferrell said. Gang members “don’t have a heart.”