L.A. Gangs Seek Profit in Peace

Tamara Audi, Wall Street Journal, December 30, 2009

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Gangs that were once bloody rivals now are cooperating to wring profits from the sale of illegal drugs and weapons, law-enforcement officials and gang experts say. In some cases, gangs that investigators believed to be sworn enemies share neighborhoods and strike business deals. The collaboration even crosses racial lines, remarkable in a gang world where racial divisions are sharp and clashes are often racially motivated.

“You see African-Americans dealing with Hispanics on obtaining narcotics and weapons. We’re seeing Hispanic gang members involved with the Eastern European criminal figures,” said Robert W. Clark, acting special agent in charge of the criminal division of the Los Angeles field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Where they see opportunities to collaborate, they do.”

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But gang-related violence is at a 30-year low in Los Angeles, according to experts. Gang-related homicides in Los Angeles totaled 128 in through October of this year, compared with 312 in all of 2002. All reported gang-related crimes, including rape, assault and robberies, totaled 4,899 through October, compared with 7,432 in 2002.

The sharp drop is undoubtedly a landmark success for law-enforcement officials and policy makers, who have used aggressive policing and rehabilitation programs to tackle the problem. But the reports of alliances between formerly warring gangs potentially offers a different explanation: Gangs are committing less violence because they are partnering on criminal activity, creating new challenges for law enforcement.

“Now, instead of having 200 guys that are arch-enemies with 200 other guys, you have 400 guys working together against law enforcement,” said the sheriff’s detective, Mr. Lyons.

There are still plenty of rivalries and violence. One Los Angeles-area Latino gang, Barrio Hawaiian Gardens, was charged this spring with hate crimes against African-Americans–including targeted shootings.

And the number of gang members has been on the upswing nationally. There were about one million gang members in the U.S. in 2008, up from 800,000 in 2005, according to the National Gang Threat Assessment, compiled by the National Gang Intelligence Center and the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Some regions of the country–like New England, with 640 gangs–are seeing an increase in violence as gangs grow and fight for control of neighborhoods and the drug trade, the report said. But there is cohesion in other regions, like Washington and Oregon, where “alliances between gangs may result in the expansion of criminal networks and increased criminal activity in the Northwest Region,” the report says.

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But intensifying pressure from police has also prompted gangs to work together, said Jorja Leap, a University of California, Los Angeles professor and gang expert. “They really are united against what they perceive to be a common enemy–law enforcement,” said Ms. Leap, who now advises Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca on gangs.

Ms. Leap said gangs form links to survive–and to maximize profits. “The market is tougher and they’re consolidating,” she said.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said gangs are “treating their activities more like businesses than before. In business, you work with whoever you have to.”

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During a two-year investigation of the Athens Park Bloods, an African-American gang entrenched in south Los Angeles, investigators learned the members had formed a pact with a Hispanic gang called Barrio 13. Eventually, 22 people were charged–20 African-Americans and two Hispanics.

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