Massive police raid targets L.A.'s brutal Avenues gang

Los Angeles cop Juan Aguilar has been battling the Avenues hoodlums long enough to have seen the gang at its most vicious.

During his five years working an anti-gang detail on streets the Avenues claim as their own in the city's northeastern reaches, gang members are accused of gunning down a man in broad daylight as he held his 2-year-old granddaughter's hand, opening fire on LAPD officers with an assault rifle and killing a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy.

Even as crime has dropped throughout the city, Aguilar says he still braces for the worst when it comes to the Avenues. "When I read the crime reports from the weekend that land on my desk and there hasn't been a gang shooting, I'll say to myself, 'We've had a good weekend.' "

On Tuesday, Aguilar was one of roughly 1,200 police officers and federal agents involved in a massive crackdown on the Avenues -- one of the most entrenched and violent gangs in a city full of them.

"I've been looking forward to this day for a while," the soft-spoken 35-year-old said as dawn broke over the operation's large command post in Elysian Park.

His words summed up a common sentiment expressed by the officers -- both top brass and rank-and-file -- involved in the full-scale assault. It was a cop's cautious optimism that maybe, for the first time, police had gained the upper hand, mixed with the harsh reality that there is plenty more fighting to come.

By day's end, 78 alleged Avenues members or associates were in custody on federal charges related to the gang's extensive drug dealing, previously unsolved murders and other crimes. Five other people were arrested on state charges and 10 people wanted by federal authorities remained at large and were being sought. It was the largest gang sweep in the city in recent years, officials said, and affected a large portion of the gang, which claims about 400 members.

As handcuffed suspects were hauled back to the command post, Aguilar nodded in recognition at many of them. Louie Mora, the alleged gun-toting drug dealer who Aguilar said had tried to go straight, but slipped back into the gang life, walked by. And there was Leonardo Erentreich, the kid they called Fatal, whom Aguilar had watched grow from more innocent days as a tagger into a full-fledged gangbanger accused of armed robbery and drug dealing. Some of them he had at one time tried to help, telling them quietly that the only way to leave the gang is to leave the city. Others had long ago slipped beyond help, he said.

The sweep unfolded in the early morning darkness of Glassell Park and surrounding neighborhoods -- an area that has been the center of Avenues territory since the gang first surfaced in the 1950s. Months of logistical planning by a specialized unit of LAPD gang detectives and a Drug Enforcement Administration task force paid off, and there were no major hiccups. The day's only significant use of force was the shooting of two aggressive dogs by San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputies.

Most suspects went quietly, including Norberto Salazar. An LAPD SWAT team quietly surrounded Salazar's home on Estara Avenue. Using a bullhorn, an officer ordered the occupants out of the house. Several dazed-looking women emerged carrying small children wrapped in blankets and were taken aside for questioning. They were followed by Salazar, who was escorted down the street in stiff plastic handcuffs. On the street corner, beneath a sign advertising check cashing at the El Ranchito meat market, Salazar spoke quietly with detectives for several minutes before being led to a waiting car. He is accused of directing other Avenues members to commit several violent and drug-related crimes, according to police. His brother was not found at the house and is still being sought.

At the command post, dozens of handcuffed men and women were shuffled around and booked in assembly-line fashion in the middle of a sprawling parking lot dotted with hundreds of police vehicles and catering trucks to feed hungry officers. Federal immigration officials were on hand to deal with any undocumented immigrants, although a DEA spokesman said none of the people arrested were found to be in the country illegally.

The operation was the culmination of a yearlong investigation into the gang that stemmed from the August 2008 slaying of Juan Abel Escalante, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. Escalante, 27, was gunned down outside of his parents' Cypress Park home early in the morning as he headed to work as a guard at the Men's Central Jail.

LAPD detectives led the investigation because the killing occurred within city boundaries. Within months, two Avenues members were arrested in connection with the murder. Later, a third member was taken into custody and charges were brought against a fourth, who remains a fugitive. In the course of investigating the Escalante killing, detectives and DEA agents delved into the inner workings of the Avenues and compiled evidence related to a host of other alleged crimes.

Much of the incriminating information in the case came from the suspects themselves after DEA agents got approval from federal judges for an array of wiretaps that allowed them to listen in on gang members' phone conversations.

Over the course of the investigation, cases were built against Avenues members for their alleged roles in six unsolved murders and four attempted murders, police said. The bulk of the charges, however, are for extortion and racketeering crimes that authorities say Avenues members and associates committed as part of the gang's extensive drug trafficking in the area.

Most of the Avenues members and associates included in the indictment are being charged under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Statute, which allows prosecutors to pursue lengthy prison sentences.

The gang, named for the avenues that cross Figueroa Street, has a long, ugly history dating back at least to the 1950s. The group's insignia, which many members have tattooed on their bodies, is a skull with a bullet hole, wearing a fedora. Various cliques of the Avenues claim Highland Park and parts of Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Eagle Rock as their territory. It is linked closely to the Mexican Mafia prison gang, which demands that the Avenues and other Eastside gangs send up a share of the taxes they collect from low-level drug dealers and others selling goods on their turf, police said.

Tuesday's sweep was hardly the first time law enforcement had taken on the Avenues. In 2002, the city attorney won an injunction against the gang, making it illegal for members to congregate in many areas. A few years later, federal prosecutors won hate-crime convictions against Avenues members for the killings of three black men between 1995 and 2000.

In February 2008, the gang re-emerged into the city's public consciousness when a man was gunned down as he stood on a curb holding his 2-year-old granddaughter's hand. The suspects, who police say were members of the Avenues' Drew Street clique, brazenly took on police in a running gun battle, firing at officers with an AK-47 assault rifle. Most recently, in June 2008, the DEA led a similar, but smaller raid on Drew Street members.

That incursion, and the city's subsequent efforts to improve quality-of-life issues in the area, led to a noticeable drop in the gang's drug activity and violence, said Capt. Bill Murphy, who oversees the department's Northeast Division.

At a news conference, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and police officials vowed to follow the gang sweep with additional officers who will try to keep rival gangs from swooping in to fill the void left by the arrests, as well as other resources aimed at improving the quality of life in the area. The city attorney's office also filed three abatement lawsuits against homes used by Avenues members.

Like many others in the department, Aguilar is not under any illusions that Tuesday's crackdown on the gang, however large, might deal a fatal strike.

The Avenues gang, he said, has woven its roots too deep, and for too long, into the hardscrabble pavement of the neighborhood to be broken that swiftly. "This will hopefully be a huge blow," he said, "but it won't be the end of it."

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

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