With crime in decline, a fragile sense of hope

Maria Garcia's son is led away in handcuffs after a loaded shotgun was found in his room. The 17-year-old is an alleged member of Barrio Mojados and has been shot by rival gang members. Audio slide show >>>
Maria Garcia’s son is led away in handcuffs after a loaded shotgun was found in his room. The 17-year-old is an alleged member of Barrio Mojados and has been shot by rival gang members.
Audio slide show >>>
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
First in a series of occasional stories

The boys had made no effort to hide the shotgun, so it was found, loaded, right where they’d left it, on the top bunk in their bedroom, next to a pile of clothes and two school books, “Decimals” and “The Language of Literature.”

The LAPD had pulled up to the little house near midnight, with the boys in the back of two squad cars. There had been gunfire in the area, near Vernon Avenue, and the brothers had been picked up during a street sweep. They were known to the police; the older one had been in the Barrio Mojados gang for four years and walked with a slight limp after being shot by rivals. He was now 17.

Their mother let the police inside. There was soup on, still warm, and the house smelled like onions. The lights were dim, bathing the place in the color of a week-old bruise. Sgt. Rick Arteaga cornered the mother, Maria Garcia. “This is a dangerous weapon, in a room where four children sleep,” he told her. “You are the parent here!”

Garcia, 35, tried to explain: The boys’ lives were at risk, she told him. The gun was for defense. There were no jobs, not here; they had no money to move away from their troubles. Finally, defeated, she whispered: “This is South-Central.”

And so it’s been for decades -- the cradle of the thug life, the home, still, to many of the city’s 400 gangs. But nights like this one are no longer explained away as simply the way things are and the way things will be.

Looking to capitalize on declining crime rates, and gang violence in particular, the LAPD has doubled its rate of gang arrests in some pockets of South Los Angeles, as South-Central is now known officially, and has implemented a new enforcement strategy against six gangs, including Barrio Mojados. Meanwhile, a wave of construction is underway and, in an area long crippled by an absence of social services, community-based groups are bringing job training, kids’ baseball -- even a free Internet “cloud” over one neighborhood.

This is still a troubled place, and will be for years to come. But police, residents and civic leaders alike believe there is an opportunity here, however fragile, to restore a sense of community that many feared was lost forever in the crack-and-bullet epidemic of the 1980s and ‘90s. If so, South L.A.'s identity within the city could begin to shift, revealing a far more dynamic place than the one cemented in the public consciousness as an intractable ghetto.

Poor and transient

Last month, the LAPD began rolling out an injunction restricting the movements and activities of gang members in a 13.7-square-mile stretch of South Los Angeles -- the largest such injunction in state history.

All told, the six targeted gangs, which include Florencia 13, one of the largest and most powerful in Los Angeles County, have at least 3,000 members. The injunction’s territory, south of downtown and the University of Southern California, is nearly twice the size of the city of Santa Monica.

The area, home to more than 250,000 people, is a rambling patchwork of the city’s core: century-old bungalows; abandoned factories and weed-choked brownfields; venerable neighborhoods like Vermont Square; storefront churches; bustling stretches of mom-and-pop barbers, auto body shops and taquerias.

The neighborhood is poor and transient, creating a vacuum where a gang “ecosystem” has formed, according to the city’s 276-page court filing supporting the injunction, “where each gang enables and affects the existence of other gangs.”

Police see the injunction as a critical tool in the already formidable arsenal they’ve been given by courts and legislators to tackle gangs. The injunction makes it a crime, in itself, for gang members to be together in public -- leaning against a backstop at a park, for instance, or standing together on a street corner.

“It makes it a crime -- an arrestable crime -- to hang out together,” said Sgt. Alex Vargas, who leads a Newton Division gang unit.

And officers, on the fly and in the field, can “serve” unknown gang suspects with the injunction without first having to prove gang affiliation in court.

In the most basic terms, the injunction makes it a pain in the neck to be in a gang -- more trouble, officials hope, than it is worth.

Newton counts 41 gangs within its nine square miles and is known within the LAPD as “Shootin’ Newton.” The division has already stepped up enforcement, recording 295 gang-related arrests in the first five months of the year, almost twice the 151 arrests made in the first five months of 2008.

Those numbers are likely to rise further under the injunction, because the new rules will address a scenario that is both common and confounding: when officers find a group of gangsters together but cannot investigate because there is no obvious criminal activity.

“You know they’re up to no good. But you basically have to leave,” Vargas said as he rumbled in his cruiser through the area’s potholed streets. “As an officer you can’t do much without a gang injunction. And they know it.”

Critics say injunctions fail to distinguish between hard-core “bangers” and hangers-on. Even in the roughest areas, just 15% of men join gangs, and just 10% of those commit the vast majority of crimes, according to city officials.

The legal foundation of injunctions is the notion that civil liberties can be curtailed in the name of public safety. The city has 41 gang injunctions, so there are now more than 10,000 people who live under different rules -- complicating any criminal enterprises they might undertake but also complicating matters when their mother asks them to run to the corner store.

“In some areas, you have to have some relationship with the gang just to walk safely down to buy bread and milk,” said the Rev. Jeff Carr, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s “gang czar.” “I don’t think those are the kids you want to sweep up and send into the criminal justice system.”

Relations between police and the community remain strained. Officers say they have found glass in their food at unfriendly restaurants. “Little kids give you the finger,” said Sgt. Art Silva, a Newton gang-team leader. And yet there are signs the relationship is improving; some residents say they are feeling emboldened and safer, in part because of the injunction.

On a recent night, Silva steered his car past Trinity Recreation Center, off Adams Boulevard. Many parks in the area have pretty much been ceded to gangs; Trinity is a hangout for Primera Flats. On this night, though, the park looked like any other, with soccer games underway. Residents say they’ve begun returning, cautiously, to parks they avoided in the past.

“Thank you for driving by!” a woman shouted at Silva from the grass. Silva waved at her. “That’s all anyone wants,” he said as he drove away. “To grow up in a nice area. To have a place to play.”

Projects take root

Head south on Central Avenue from downtown Los Angeles and you’ll find something that would have been inconceivable in some pockets of South L.A. for many years, even during Southern California’s boom times: signs that say “Open During Construction.”

Tens of millions of dollars’ worth of projects are underway: schools, senior and family housing, grocery stores, even a nine-acre park with a wetlands ecosystem. It is a surprising cloudburst of construction for this area -- much of it within sight of the Newton police station.

Along one two-mile stretch of Central, within the injunction area, three mixed-use developments are under construction. All told, they will offer nearly 300 affordable-housing units and 68,000 square feet of retail space.

One of the most awaited developments is a $40.6-million project at Central and Adams that will include a Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market. A recent report concluded that much of the area is a food “desert” where it is virtually impossible to buy healthful fresh produce.

At 43rd and Central, City Councilwoman Jan Perry is preparing to open a $13-million constituent service center, a junior City Hall of sorts.

Much of the financing for those projects came from public sources, such as federal housing tax credits and local housing and redevelopment loans.

But City Hall consultants have determined that the residents of Perry’s City Council district, which roughly overlaps the injunction area, spend $2 billion a year on goods and services -- and often leave the area to do it because of an insufficient retail market. So officials hope -- and believe -- that public investment will lead to more private investment.

City redevelopment officials are in early talks to lure retailers, including big-box stores, to a stretch of Washington Boulevard, the northern boundary of the injunction area.

One recent morning, two LAPD officers drove down a trash-strewn alley off Ascot Avenue to keep tabs on the “wet house,” a notorious hangout for Barrio Mojados. (Mojado means “wet.”)

The walls were still covered with graffiti: “BMS,” the gang’s three-letter tag, and names of rivals crossed out in a sign of disrespect. But a work crew had just finished laying a new driveway and was preparing to paint. Jaime Valencia, a local resident, climbed from the roof to report that he’d recently bought the home for $105,000 and was turning it into a rental.

“There is a sense of possibility here,” said Brian Center, executive director of A Better LA, a nonprofit that combats violence in South L.A., funding gang intervention, “moonlight” basketball teams and other programs. “There is an opportunity right now to change things, to not repeat the mistakes of the past, to not screw it up this time.”

Gangs’ large shadow

Danielle Lafayette, a City Hall gang reduction manager in South L.A., recently visited an elementary school inside the injunction area and found first-graders “Crip walking” -- a distinctive heel-toe dance step used by Crips to celebrate initiations and the kinship of gang life.

“First-graders?” she said. “Really?”

It is difficult to overstate the defining influence of gangs here.

Gangsters collect “taxes” from street vendors and small businesses, sometimes carrying clipboards in broad daylight.

Gang officers from the LAPD’s Newton Division, the one most responsible for enforcing the new injunction, recently discovered an elaborate graffito in an alley, challenging them -- by name.

A few weeks ago, Jefferson High teachers found a student’s drawing of the “devil horns” hand sign associated with the Mara Salvatrucha gang. They quickly confiscated and hid the notebook -- not because they were surprised to find evidence of gang allegiance, but because the school is dominated by a rival gang, 38th Street. If the author were identified, a social worker said, it would mean “a death sentence.”

Still, significant progress has been made in recent years -- and that’s why the injunction is a delicate issue.

In the two LAPD divisions responsible for the injunction area, Newton and 77th Street, serious crime reported through the end of May fell 11% compared with the same period in 2007. Homicides dropped by a third. In particular, the declared gang warfare that has been such a plague has dropped markedly. The city’s 167 gang-related homicides in 2008 were a 26.8% reduction from 2007 -- and another world from the early 1990s, when gangs killed, on average, a person a day.

To some residents, even some city officials, the launch of the injunction seems out of step with declining crime. The sense on the streets, said Tony Zepeda, the mayor’s recently departed gang reduction program manager in the Newton area: “Why do we need this now?”

Yusef Omowale looks the part of an L.A. gangster: close-cropped hair, oversized white T-shirt, baggy jeans. But Omowale, 37, went to Pitzer College in Claremont, lives in leafy Monrovia and for four years has been director of the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, inside the injunction area.

On a recent afternoon, he sipped tea as Brazilian jazz played at the library, which maintains a collection of documents and photographs related to social justice. He said he has routinely walked white researchers to their cars at the end of the day, only to be stopped by officers assuming that he, a black man, was harassing them.

That was before the injunction. Now, he said, he fears the neighborhood could wind up resembling a police state.

“I can’t imagine another neighborhood where people get stopped to see if maybe -- maybe -- they are doing something wrong,” Omowale said. Under injunctions, he said, “you are being criminalized because of the circumstances you find yourself in.”

The LAPD, however, has come a long way since its military-style response to the initial wave of gang violence. Now, police are taking steps to ensure public support for the injunction -- to show that the department has more in mind than the “hookin’ and bookin’ ” tactics of the past.

“There is a line between prosecution and oppression,” said Bruce Riordan, the city attorney’s director of anti-gang operations. “We’ve evolved.”

Anyone “served” with the injunction will receive papers spelling out how he can be removed from it. Gang members will not be targeted while they attend intervention or prevention programs, and some can avoid jail time if they can prove they’ve held a job for 90 days.

Officers are being instructed to use discretion. The message, said Riordan: “Don’t arrest everyone because you can. Arrest them because it’s the right thing to do.”

The LAPD is even enlisting civic activists -- people who have criticized the police in the past -- to convince a wary public that the injunction will improve the quality of life.

“It’s all about respect,” said Capt. Mark Olvera, who oversees Newton and is widely credited with helping to implement a more sophisticated and responsive style of policing there. “That dignity you give them is going to pay you back in the long run.”

‘It’s a miracle’

That doesn’t mean this will be easy. On any given day, somewhere in the injunction area, there is a reminder of that.

In late March, gangsters opened fire on two men in a car near Vernon Avenue, spraying a narrow street with a fully automatic Uzi. None of the gangsters were hit.

Across the street, 54-year-old Zoila Luna Diaz was watching her favorite telenovela in the living room of the home she has shared for eight years with her two grown daughters and two grandsons. A stray bullet came through the window, went over the back of the couch and struck her over her left eyebrow.

The bullet traveled across her forehead -- under the skin but never penetrating the bone -- before exiting near her right temple. It then crashed through the TV and ended up in the wall, under a framed depiction of the Last Supper. Had her head been turned a fraction to the left, she would have been killed.

Es un milagro,” she said. “It’s a miracle.”

She began to cry -- for herself, her daughters, her grandsons.

“The children have no place to be free, to play,” she said.

In a back bedroom, her 7-year-old grandson, Kevin, who heard the shots that night and rushed to her side, leaned back on a Spider-Man pillow and stared at the ceiling. A copy of Salmo 91 -- Psalm 91 -- hung from a nail near his head. “No temeras el terror nocturno,” it read. “Do not fear the terror of night.”

“I want to go to a new place,” he said. “But this is where I live.”