Street gang realpolitik

Will Beall is a Los Angeles police officer with the South Bureau gang homicide unit and the author of the novel "L.A. Rex."

I TALK TO a lot of gangsters in my line of work. A lot of them are like child soldiers, both dangerous and pathetic, at once sharpened and blunted by years of constant predation and grief. Still, I liked this guy last week. He was watchful and laconic, like a lot of cops I know. He got jumped into a gang around the time I became a cop, said he’d done it for the health plan — figuring it was healthier to get jumped in than to keep getting jumped on.

I asked him about violence between black gangs like his and Latino gangs in L.A. He waved the notion away like hanging smoke. “The thing about it is the Eses outnumber us,” the guy told me. “And we’re in business with them.”

He might just be whistling past the graveyard, but I don’t think so. The stats are on his side, at least for now.

In Los Angeles, violence remains an overwhelmingly intra-racial affair. Newton, Southwest, Southeast and 77th Street (where I investigate homicides) are the city’s four most murderous precincts. All are racially mixed, with Latinos and blacks living cheek-by-jowl in midcentury shoebox apartments. In these four divisions, The Times has reported, there were 236 homicides last year — and just 22 of those murders crossed racial lines.

To be sure, there have been interracial battles in the past. In the 1990s, the Venice Shoreline Crips went at it with the Culver City Boys. East Coast Crips once had a beef with Florencia. Varrio 204th Street have targeted blacks in the Harbor Gateway, and the Avenues targeted them in Highland Park. Still, these are aberrations. Outside of prison, even the most ruthless L.A. gangs can be deferential, even cordial, to their cross-racial counterparts. One reason for this accord may be that black gangs are outnumbered: Of Los Angeles’ 39,000 gang members, roughly 56% are Latino and 40% are black. That might explain black appeasement, but not Latino tolerance. In my opinion, the biggest reason for this curious detente is economic. More specifically, it’s drug money.

Both Latino and black gangs in Los Angeles depend on the drug trade (and rely on each other) for their survival. Firmly embedded in blighted neighborhoods where the demand for crack is highest, black gangsters are the Fuller Brush Men of the dope game, hand-to-mouth salesmen living on wit and hustle. Legendary dope men like “Freeway Rick” Ross notwithstanding, few black drug dealers make it past the end of their block. Tales of crack millionaires, like Ronald Reagan’s mythical welfare queens, are largely apocryphal — the stuff of hip-hop music and crime novels.

Street dealing is grueling, risky work. The exposure to narco cops, enterprising stickup crews and gang rivals is high. A black gangster afoot anywhere in South Central is already a target for arrest, penetrating injury or worse. For the street dealer, profit margins are slimmer than one might expect. Crack is so prevalent in places like South Central that addicts have become aficionados who demand relative purity. A Crip once told me his South Central customers would turn up their noses at the stomped-on stuff they sell in San Bernardino.

A gang’s overall lethality often seems to be inversely proportional to its criminal sophistication. After all, random killings are bad for business. They bring dogged cops sniffing around, asking a lot of questions.

Los Angeles’ Latino gangs comprise the rank and file of a hierarchal structure, governed by the Mexican Mafia, or La Eme. Over the years, I’ve learned from gangsters, gang cops, prison officials and federal officials, that La Eme (which originated as a prison gang) and a host of Mexican cartels control nearly all of the cocaine, heroin and marijuana distribution in southern California. The pyramidal organization collects “taxes” from Latino street gangs, rules on territorial disputes and metes out punishment. The gangsters I’ve known accept this authority, and tithe without question. La Eme, while historically racist, appears to at least tacitly approve of this black-brown business arrangement, so long as blacks remain on the bottom tier.

For now, Latino wholesalers are apparently happy to let Crips and Bloods take most of the street risk while they enjoy most of the profits. With their ties to La Eme and the cartels, Latino dealers are black gangs’ only reliable source of wholesale dope. So most black gangsters are forever relegated to retail — what choice do they have? Latinos need only cut off their supply of cocaine to watch them wither and die.

Latino gangs may yet seek hegemony in Los Angeles, but for now we’re left with an uneasy truce, this illicit symbiosis.

We’re not facing some new gang problem in Los Angeles. We’re facing the old one: Black men die at the hands of black men. Brown men die at the hands of brown men. Gangs hold entire neighborhoods hostage, and people are afraid to talk to the police.

“Nothing ever changes,” that guy last week told me. I hope he’s wrong about that part.