Tag Archives: gangs

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“Whether you declare war or not, we are in a societal conflict”

The following was excerpted from an 8-page story titled L.A. Gangs: Nine Miles and Spreading posted on December 12th at laweekly.com.

I took the liberty of eliding large sections of “human interest” narrative to focus more closely on the statistics and statements of public officials. I also bolded certain sections I find particularly insightful or alarming.

The meat begins on page 2:

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.

From page 3:

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.

Los Angeles is the epicenter of the nation’s gang crisis, and an effective assault on gang crime will require increased suppression, intervention and prevention measures,” Villaraigosa said after Rice’s report was released. “Street gangs are responsible for the majority of all the murders in Los Angeles and nearly 70 percent of all the shootings. We must work to address gang violence in a truly comprehensive way.”

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.

From page 4:

“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.”

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.

From page 5:

It wasn’t always this way.

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.

“They quickly understood the benefits of economic diversification, and that the real money is in wholesaling drugs coming over the border to other gangs,” Luis Li, a former assistant U.S. attorney and chief of the Department of Justice’s L.A. organized-crime division, told me.

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.

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 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.”

From page 7:

Gangbangers call the innocents among them “mushrooms” because they pop up in the way of their bullets.

From page 8:

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.”

I asked De’Andre Perry what he’d do if someone gave him a one-way ticket out of Watts and enough money to start a new life. He paused and looked around at the desolate buildings. “I am not going to die for these bricks,” he said. But the gang was more state-of-mind than geography. “Wherever you put me I am still going to be me. I am still going to have Bounty Hunters on my arm, embedded in my brain. Wherever you put me I am going to be hood. Wherever I am at, I am going to make it my hood.

The next time someone tries to tell you how much we need immigrants, how wonderful and hard working they all are, that our economy would collapse without them, that we are a nation of immigrants, or that we should celebrate diversity because it is our great strength, please point them here.

It’s not that I expect anyone dishonest or deluded enough to spout such nonsense would actually face the facts at this late hour and change their tune. I’d just like to take this opportunity to sincerely and emphatically invite them to go fuck themselves.