Mexican Mafia strategy
For years, the two rival gangs resisted outside pressures to go to war, according to those active in Florencia in the 1990s.
Like many black and Latino gangs, they ignored each other during the worst gang years of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Instead, they focused on attacking rivals of their own race.
But during the mid-’90s, the Mexican Mafia prison gang began directing Latino gangs to stop fighting each other, to “tax” drug dealers and to push blacks from their neighborhoods, according to numerous gang members and law enforcement officers.
Florencia, in particular, had warred for years with 38th Street, a Latino gang to the north.
But under the new rules, Florencia was forced to get along with rival Latino gangs and once even played a pickup football game with 38th Street, said one Florencia gang member who requested anonymity out of fear for his safety.
The Mexican Mafia “didn’t understand how it worked,” he said. “I hate 38th Street. I didn’t have no problem with the guys from East Coast because I grew up with them. It’s kind of hard to say, ‘Now I’m going to. . . kill this black guy just because he’s black.’ But that’s how they wanted to do it.”
In 1996 tensions erupted when members of a gang associated with East Coast Crips, known as the 6-5 Hustlers, killed a Florencia member.
After some retaliation, the gangs held a peace summit at Parmelee Elementary School one night, and that “kind of squashed everything,” the gang member said.
But the fighting resumed when word, perhaps mythical, spread about the East Coast Crips’ drug rip-off of Florencia 13.
Race, gang rivalry and drugs have become impossibly tangled as motives in killings and assaults in the neighborhood, authorities and residents say. The result: a gangland version of racial profiling.
“They just see a young man of the opposite race and they shoot,” said Olivia Rosales, a former hate-crime prosecutor, who prosecuted all the East Coast-Florencia murder cases for the last two years. “They don’t stop to question whether or not they are a member of the gang.”
Of the 20 cases she prosecuted, said Rosales, who now runs the district attorney’s Whittier office, “most of the victims have not been members of the rival gang.”
Demetrius Perry, 22, was shot to death by Latinos yelling a gang epithet as he played basketball in January at Drew Middle School, witnesses said.
“We used to kick it with” Latinos, said Perry’s father, Benny, who is black and grew up in the area. “Now you constantly hear about it: This is their land first and they’ve come to take it back.”
Timothy Slack, who lives a few blocks from Great Hope Fellowship church, said Latino gang members often drive by shooting at blacks. He doesn’t allow his kids to go to the store and he never uses alleys anymore.
Slack grew up in Florence-Firestone when it was mostly black and had few Latinos.
Back then, “they were timid,” he said. “But as their numbers started getting bigger, then they started trying to be tougher. They started thinking they could demand stuff.”
But non-gang-affiliated Latinos have also been killed.
Economy looking up
But “the gang war puts a damper on everything that you do here,” said Joe Titus, 79, who was born in Florence-Firestone and volunteers with several community organizations. “You don’t want to go out at night.”
Fewer people ride bikes; fewer children play outside after school. Movable basketball stanchions, once ubiquitous in driveways, are gone.
Irv Sitkoff, a local pharmacist, said people of one race complain if his employees attend faster to people of the other race.
“You’ve got to very careful,” he said. “Before, we didn’t think about it.”
Sitkoff said his pharmacy has sold grim supplies to customers because of neighborhood violence: more colostomy bags, for example.
One Latino mother bought antidepressant medication from him for many months after her son, an innocent bystander, was killed by a black gang, Sitkoff said.
“She didn’t talk directly about it, but there’s fear,” he said. “How could there not be? I have black families who are the same way.”
Meanwhile, the exodus continues. More black families depart every year for Palmdale or the Inland Empire. Some cliques of the East Coast Crips in the neighborhood don’t exist any more.
One former black gang member said he hasn’t left Florence-Firestone because he still has family and property there.
But “it’s going to come a time when everybody’s going to have to leave,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have to go.”