Gangs: Nine Miles and Spreading

Peter Landesman, LA Weekly, December 12, 2007

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What triggered all this depends on whom you talk to. Some say it was an argument at a mall over a young woman, others say it was a yanked necklace. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t have taken much. This was just the latest spasm in a long-running vendetta between the Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunter Bloods, just one of hundreds of hair-trigger blood feuds that disrupt or terrorize neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles, the most gang-saturated city in the world. No one I spoke to could explain why the Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunter Bloods revile each other so; they only know that they do.

Even the gang members were feeling trapped. “I remember us thinking, how long is this going to go, how much is this going to trigger, how bad is this going to get, how many people are going to die?” a former Bounty Hunter named Damien Hartfield told me during the height of the conflict.

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Street gangs, like all closed societies, hold sacred certain articles of faith that are central to their identity. One of them appears to be that the violence has to continue no matter what. After all, the members of the Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunter Bloods are all young black men from the same part of the same city, most of them jobless and without education. Most of their families are Christian. A good number of them are related. There seems no real reason for the feud, except the feud itself. One wonders if the gangs would even exist without the violence between them.

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Nationwide, juvenile gang homicides have spiked 23 percent since 2000. There are six times as many gangs in L.A. as there were a quarter century ago, and twice as many gang members. But as important as the gang activity itself is what’s different about the violence. In America’s urban ganglands, and in L.A. in particular, the ferocity of the thuggery has surged; gang members, their victims and police long on the gang beat tell me the fighting has become more codeless, more arbitrary and more brutal than ever.

And it is everywhere. According to the Department of Justice, today America has at least 30,000 gangs, with 800,000 members, in 2,500 communities across the United States. (Gang experts at the University of Southern California claim the number of American jurisdictions with gang problems has reached 4,000.) Federal, state and local law enforcement across the country agree that street gangs connected to or mimicking the L.A. model have become a national epidemic.

Last January, a report on gang violence commissioned by the Los Angeles City Council found that the gang epidemic is largely immune to general declines in crime nationwide. In other words, gang crime is surging just as other violent crime is decreasing. And unlike other categories of crime, gangs and gang-related crime are spreading to formerly safe middle-class communities, or, “to a neighborhood near you,” says the report’s author, civil rights attorney Constance Rice.

What this means is that the communities gangs come from are pulling away from mainstream society more than ever, and the gangs that plague them, like storm systems, are growing and feeding on themselves, gathering destructive strength. In Los Angeles, law enforcement officials now warn that they have arrived at the end of their ability to contain gangs to poor minority and immigrant hot zones.

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Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest whose Homeboy Industries has helped willing gangbangers in mostly Hispanic East L.A. escape the life, tells me that gang behavior is changing, and the change is chilling. Everywhere he sees signs of the erosion of known and protected codes of conduct, such as methods of assassination that used to protect the innocent, and territorial respect—which he says reflect an accelerating sense of desolation among poor urban youth. Gangs today are less about neighborhoods and rivalries. They’ve become repositories for hopelessness.

“Gangs are the places where kids go when they encounter their life as misery without exception,” says Boyle. “When [gangbangers] go out to commit crimes now, they’re not going out seeking to kill—you can’t reason or rationalize this: These are kids who don’t care. They’re going out hoping to die.”

Last January, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa cried uncle, saying that it was time for government and law enforcement to admit they have failed to stop gangs or even understand what they are. He appealed for federal help to make a Marshall Plan—style push to tackle what’s been an intractable problem.

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The problem is that for the most part traditional (and failed) models of gangs and gang suppression do not apply, because not only are gangs better armed and more ferocious, but they look different. The accelerating current of gang violence is colliding with a growing wave of Hispanic migration from Mexico and Central America into the United States. Hispanic gangs now dominate the hardcore narcotics business nationwide, and they are physically pushing historically entrenched black gangs out of their territories.

Squeezed by a shrinking share of the drug market, desperate for new business, gang members and their families are retreating out of the city, establishing new street gangs where they land. According to the FBI, gangs are showing up and spreading in suburban and rural America, in counties like Westchester and Suffolk in New York, and rural parts of North Carolina and Virginia, places that have no experience with street gangs and organized crime, and police who don’t know how to fight it.

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L.A.’s sprawl has turned gritty former Mormon and railroad settlements such as San Bernardino into bedroom communities, ripe territory for construction and for industrial growth. Pinched by spiking real estate prices and displaced by a surging Hispanic migration, many of South L.A.’s blacks are relocating to the Inland Empire. So are gangs.

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Almost anywhere in America a migrating gangbanger lands, he is fairly sure to find a receptive supply of recruits.

“Trying out gangs is becoming more and more popular,” says Dr. Malcolm Klein, a sociologist at the University of Southern California who has been studying gangs since 1962. “Kids are shown how to ape gang behavior by MTV and the Gap.” Today, rap is a multibillion-dollar industry that dresses up violence with bling and sex. Eventually, real street gangsters picked up on the fantasy and took on the fetishes of gang life as told back to them by millionaire musicians who had either left the streets or were never part of it.

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New Jersey’s hardcore—mostly urban—gang population has almost doubled since 2001, from 9,000 to 17,000. But in the last few years, even nontraditional gang areas in the Northeast like Westchester County, Long Island and Princeton, New Jersey, have started having gang problems. There are tens of thousands of wannabe gangsters in New Jersey alone, Hampton says. Police call them “wangsters.” Mostly, they traffic in what they think is cool about gangs, the sort of young white men of means and options who go to upscale Manhattan private schools and wear baggy pants and talk ghetto.

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“Most of what we’re seeing in the east are L.A. street gangs,” says Special Agent Alec J. Turner, the director of the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center, a joint effort with the U.S. Marshals, the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. “We are seeing influence from MS-13 [Mara Salvatrucha] cliques getting some direction from higher-level MS-13 people in L.A.”

The migration of gang members out of L.A. is an even spray pattern, the FBI says. Gangs have coalesced most heavily in the Northeast, the country’s most lucrative narcotics market, but they are also moving to the Northwest (San Francisco and Seattle) and across the Midwest and South (Little Rock and Charlotte). “And it’s not just national migration,” Turner says, “but also from urban settings to rural settings, based on gangs’ knowledge that law enforcement in rural and suburban areas has less scrutiny. The police are softer.”

Once migrant gang members claim virgin drug territory for themselves, L.A.-style gang chaos and murder is inevitable. “It’s a power struggle between new gangs,” Andre told me. “Who’s running what? Who has more money? Who’s got more squad? That’s what it all comes down to, whose squad is willing to kill. And that is when the young kids come in, because they don’t give a fuck. They come in, and they kill other kids.”

The cycle is hard-wired into the gang dynamic. And because it’s not geography specific, and is spreading through an expanding population of potential recruits, the federal government is making a paradigm shift toward thinking of street gangs under the rubric of domestic terrorism. “There’s an analogy to modern terror organizations,” says the Rand Corporation’s Jack Riley. “The members are not persuadable in any regular sense.”

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As in meiosis, L.A.’s bigger neighborhoods and their gangs will usually divide into subgangs, or cliques, focusing on cul-de-sacs and parking lots that are claimed as sovereign territory. Nickerson’s Bounty Hunter Bloods street gang is split into at least a half dozen cliques around the numbered streets that cross the project (the Five-Line Bounty Hunters hang out on 115th Street, the Four-Lines on 114th Street, etc.). It doesn’t matter that the demarcations separate people identical in race, class and marginality. The people identify with their shared piece of pavement.

Some Los Angeles gangs are strictly robbery crews, others jack cars, Vietnamese gangs specialize in identity theft, Russian and Armenian gangs do mostly extortion and human trafficking. At last count, Los Angeles County had more than 714 gangs and 80,000 gang members. That makes one of every hundred county residents either a hardcore soldier in a gang or an “associate”—the getaway drivers, lookouts, “cookers” (people who know how to turn cocaine into crack) and “hooks” (people who direct customers to drug houses)—or an “affiliate,” a gang member with no specific duties. But no section of L.A. is more defined by gangs than the nine square miles of Watts terrorized by the Bounty Hunter Bloods and Grape Street Crips: the Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs housing projects, along with Imperial Courts and Gonzaque Village, and the streets that connect them.

Every yard, doorway, shop and parking lot is the fiefdom of one of Watts’ 65 gangs and their roughly 15,000 hardcore gang members. In that area alone, gang members shoot 500 people a year, and kill 90. Nearly every citizen living there is enjoined by membership or affiliation; those who try to stay out of the life incur their local gang’s wrath, sometimes with fatal consequences. The average American has a 1-in-18,000 chance of being murdered. In this area of Los Angeles, the chances are 1 in 250.

On New Year’s Eve so much automatic weapons fire pours into Watts’ airspace that LAX air traffic control must divert the flight path of incoming planes. The U.S. military sends its medics to train at local trauma hospitals because the conditions in their trauma units so resemble live warfare. At a community meeting I attended in March 2006, LAPD Chief William Bratton declared the Jordan Downs—Nickerson Gardens area “the most violent community in the country. This is now the most dangerous place in America,” he said.

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Originally, L.A.’s street gangs were social and support organizations for immigrants and packs of neighborhood pals. Mostly their crimes were petty, and scores were settled with fists. Latinos and blacks generally stayed out of each other’s way.

All that changed forever in the late 1980s, when crack cocaine hit Los Angeles and neighborhood affiliation became secondary to what all the gangs now really wanted: a piece of the drug business. By then, Colombian cartels, looking to reduce the risk of American prosecution, had transferred the bulk of the trafficking part of the drug business to Mexican and Hispanic-American gangs. Now in control of the cocaine supply, and suddenly flush, many of them squared up into efficient, vertically integrated, multilevel organizations.

Mexican gang leaders from Los Angeles jailed in Tracy State Prison banded together to retain control of their narcotics business on the street. The Mexican Mafia—or Eme—was born, and has replaced the Cosa Nostra as the most powerful single criminal entity in the country. “They make a big effort to make a business-friendly environment,” Li says. “They are trying to get people in Los Angeles—middle-, upper-middle- and upper-class people—to drive through and buy drugs.”

“But as the war on drugs went into overdrive, and law enforcement had this fixation on crack, it was really seen as a black thing,” a federal prosecutor told me. “Government officials were obsessing about blacks doing crack, but not Hispanics.”

Hispanic gangs weren’t immune from prosecution, the prosecutor told me, but black gangs were seen as more dangerous, their violence more anarchic and lethal to innocent civilians; their communities were seen as being at greater risk than Latino neighborhoods. It virtually became government policy to isolate black gangs.

“Maybe the federal government saw black gangs as a greater threat,” says Lieutenant John P. Sullivan, an intelligence and counterterrorism expert in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. “Or maybe black gangs were just easier to penetrate.”

The effect on black gangs was a virtual decapitation. With most of their leaders in prison, what little organization there was evaporated and black gangbangers turned on each other and themselves. “Whether targeting black gangs was a good idea,” the prosecutor now wondered, “in retrospect I think it probably wasn’t.”

The truth is that gangs are merely reflections of their communities. America’s huge pool of poorly educated urban black men was being pushed farther than ever to the fringes of mainstream society. New studies by experts at Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and other institutions show how the numbers of young black American men without jobs climbed relentlessly during that period. By 2000, 65 percent of black male high school dropouts in their 20s were jobless—unable to find work, not seeking it or in jail. By 2004, the number had climbed to 72 percent (compared with 34 percent of white and 19 percent of Hispanic dropouts). Today, 75 percent of Watts’ adult black male population will at some point go to jail or prison.

The children of these men are born to the belief that they have no options. Impotent and hungry for family, these kids often turn to the embrace of a gang. But what the gang really represents, more than neighborhood, is nihilism.

Leaderless black gangs like the Bounty Hunters have divided into competitive cliques; inexperienced young gangbangers are fighting and killing for control. The Bounty Hunters, for instance, have become notorious for killing each other to move up in the gang. “They mistake the fear they create for respect,” says LAPD Detective Victor Ross, a gang unit detective. “Today, a Bounty Hunter gets what he thinks is respect by murdering his own.”

Recently, in Jordan Downs, a Grape Street clique rebuffed by a 14-year-old boy who refused to join gang-raped his 12-year-old sister, taped the attack, and showed the video to the boy. The boy gave in and joined. Older gang members and veteran police say the neighborhoods are codeless and anarchic. “The hood is lost because we ain’t got no guidance right now,” a hardcore Bounty Hunter Blood told me. “It’s just us young gangsters.”

The differences between black and Latino gangs are stark. And the black gang members I spoke with readily admit that the difference is fatal. Damien Hartfield, the former Bounty Hunter, explained, “Blacks do what they want. When Latinos go gangbanging they have a solid plan. Blacks don’t go to war like that. It’s spontaneous. Something just happens. Latinos make a call, make a plan. They have a structure.”

LAPD Chief Bratton admits he is bewildered by how anarchic L.A.’s black gangs have become.

“African-American violence is totally out of proportion to their numbers,” he said. “With Latinos, there is so much more family structure, while it’s not as if blacks rally around the African-American community just because they are black. They associate more with their gang colors than they do with their own color as African-Americans. It’s almost as if they lost identities as African-Americans.”

Watts and neighboring Compton, historically and famously black neighborhoods, are already roughly 70 percent Hispanic. Hispanic gangs know they don’t need to wage war against black gangs. They are happy to wait it out as black gangs sabotage themselves. Gangbangers in Watts tell me they know they can’t keep up. And they know their fate.

“Ten years from now gangs from all other races besides Hispanic are going to be pushed out of everywhere,” Andre says.

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Gang cops spend their sympathies elsewhere. Their sole purpose is to throw a lifeline to the neighborhood’s innocents, says Sergeant Sean Colomey, head of the LAPD’s Southeast Division gang unit, which patrols Watts, where 47 percent of the children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Gangbangers call the innocents among them “mushrooms” because they pop up in the way of their bullets.

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“If you want to live in Jordan Downs you do not ask the housing authority or the city for permission, you ask the Grape Street gang,” says civil rights attorney Connie Rice. “When Latino families call the housing authorities to complain, the staff, the housing authorities call the Grape Street Crips.”

Grape Street Crips and Bounty Hunters pay residents $1,000 a month plus rent and moving expenses to use their apartments as crack kitchens and dope shops. “The gangs have control of public property for god’s sake!” says Rice. “And they terrorize everybody in there, family after family after family!”

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Lieutenant Sullivan, the intelligence analyst for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, has started to track a demoralizing parallel between the way street gangs are changing in the United States and the inception of home-grown terror cells in Pakistan and the United Kingdom, as well as child soldiers in Africa. “There is debate as to whether gang members are child soldiers because they are not in a declared war. But I think functionally it is the same thing. Whether you declare war or not, we are in a societal conflict.”

Father Boyle, who has watched L.A.’s gangs from the street for 25 years, insists that legal solutions for the “gang problem” miss the point. The key to understanding what we’re really facing, he says, is to be honest about the depth of despair in L.A.’s neighborhoods. “Tough laws are not going to work for kids that don’t believe they have a future. You cannot terrorize a kid into caring. It’s bad math. It won’t work; it has never worked. And when his day is the bleakest, a gangbanger is going to get a gun and go look for his enemy and hope to die.”

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Tattoos, baggy pants and tank tops are out. Smart blazers and university recruits are in.

It’s an extreme makeover for Central America’s gangs. Facing harsh crackdowns by government security forces and citizen vigilante groups, they are trying to lower their profile.

The Mara 18 and Mara Salvatrucha gangs are known throughout Central America and the U.S. for their brazen tactics, including beheading their enemies and covering entire buildings and even their bodies with gang symbols.

Now, according to anti-gang operatives, these traditionally uneducated and aimless youth have begun recruiting high school and college students, and are expanding their criminal repertoire from minor robbery to large-scale extortion, prostitution, car theft and kidnappings.

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Goal of intimidation backfires

Setting themselves apart by tattooing themselves head to toe with threatening symbols and hanging out in large crowds on street corners, their goal was to intimidate law-abiding citizens and rival gangs alike, experts say.

That has changed recently, after El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras adopted tough anti-gang policies, including graffiti-removal campaigns and harsh punishments for gang-related crimes. Many youths have been arrested or killed, allegedly in operations by police or citizen’s groups.

“These days we can’t even go out onto the street, where the police look at us and we end up dead,” said Giovanni Estrada, 25, an imprisoned gang member with tattooed face who goes by the nickname of “Little Crazy.” “That’s why we tell (new gang members) not to paint their faces.”

Both Sammy Rivera, a security adviser for the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and Jose Luis Tovar, deputy police chief in El Salvador, say the gangs’ increasingly lucrative pursuits have attracted high school and college students looking to make a buck. It’s a breed apart from the dropouts and other gang members whose main aim was a need to belong.

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Woman gives up everything for gang

Ingrid Vicente left her husband, two children, government job and law studies to join a gang in 2002. As a secretary at the Finance Ministry, she earned 2,000 quetzales a month. She doubled that in one day as a gang member.

Because she didn’t look like a typical mara, she easily smuggled guns from El Salvador, earning about $650 a day. She also helped uneducated gang members figure out how much they could extort from a storekeeper without bankrupting him.

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Gangs have been forced to recruit people like Vicente to stay ahead of the government’s zero-tolerance policies, which have forced them underground—and into new areas of crime.

No longer able to conduct brazen robberies, the gangs have turned to “other activities that require a better level of organization,” Rivera said.

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