Ask just about anyone who lives in Los Angeles and they'll tell you they can't remember a time when gang violence wasn't a problem.
Over generations, street gangs have become more organized and vicious than ever.
In the third of a four-part series on new ways to combat street gangs, NPR looks at law enforcement's push to bring gang members up on federal charges.
The Enterprise Theory
Los Angeles Police Department Supervisor Robb Berke stands on the stoop of an apartment in South Central L.A. where the police have just served a search warrant.
Behind him, through the open door, officers are scouring the apartment — opening kitchen cabinets, flipping over furniture. They are looking for drugs or guns. The unmistakable skunky scent of marijuana coming from inside is noticeable even from the stoop.
"The purpose of this particular warrant was just to get inside the location and get narcotics recovered," Berke says. "We weren't as worried about getting someone arrested with it right now; we can do that at another time. We're more concerned about the intelligence we can gather while inside here. That helps us out a lot more."
Apparently, drug houses in South Central L.A. all look alike. The furnishings generally consist of the bare necessities that gang members might require while waiting to make a drug sale: a television, a couch, a bed. Nothing more.
The cops on Berke's squad spend about 40 minutes in the apartment. When they finish searching the place, Berke leaves his LAPD business card on a table. He attaches a note suggesting the residents call if they have any questions.
Berke smiles: "They never call."
His team found only a small amount of marijuana in the apartment.
"It's not the case of the century," he says. "We're not talking about pounds and pounds or crates of it."
But he doesn't really seem disappointed.
That's because Berke and his squad are taking a longer-term view. The search is part of a broader gang-fighting strategy based on what's called enterprise theory. The police come and gather evidence in an effort to take down the gang itself — the entire enterprise. The idea is to piece together enough crimes linked to a particular gang to build a case that would bring federal charges, not just state or local charges.
Part of the strategy is based in the fact that, when it comes to prison, there is a huge difference between federal time and state time in the minds of a southern California gangster.
"State [prison] time is not what they like — I mean they would rather be out," said LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, who has been working gangs at the department for 30 years. "But they are basically going to a venue where they are comfortable. When a true gangster is what they call 'down for the gang,' he leads a pretty good life inside prison. When you go to federal prison to Minnesota or South Dakota — or something — they don't have that kind of support."
While Beck can't be sure that the prospect of decades in federal prison stops some members from committing crimes, what he does know is that it has been invaluable in helping the police develop information. He says that nothing creates an informant faster than the prospect of 20 years in a federal penitentiary.
The U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Thomas O'Brien is responsible for bringing cases against these gangsters.
He sits in the 12th-floor office at the U.S. courthouse. From this vantage point, Los Angeles stretches out as far as the eye can see. O'Brien rattles off examples of federal indictments against L.A. gangsters. He says his group wired confidential informants in Arbor division, also known as "ghost town" in the city, in a four-month operation. The informants purchased narcotics and weapons from gang members in the neighborhood.
The U.S. attorney's office has used that operation to take down dozens of gang members and indict them on federal racketeering charges.
"We are routinely getting sentences from 10 to 20 years and above," O'Brien says. "If you don't think that has an impact, I think it does. I think that word goes out to the streets, and they realize, 'You know what, the fun and games are over.' People are doing some serious time for these crimes."
Life Without Parole
The Department of Justice has made gang prosecutions a priority.
Consider this: A couple of years ago, federal officials in California probably prosecuted about 50 to 100 gang members a year. O'Brien says this year they are on track to prosecute 1,000.
About a month ago, O'Brien's office indicted 30 gang members on federal charges. The investigation lasted four months — it is almost unheard of for the federal government to move that quickly.
Tom Diaz has just finished a book about Los Angeles' Latino gangs and law enforcement's efforts to disband them. Diaz, who also works at the Violence Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., says local law enforcement just doesn't have the muscle they need to dismantle gangs.
"It is not that local law enforcements agencies couldn't do it, they really don't have the resources for some of these techniques," Diaz says. "And secondly, they don't have the backup of the very tough federal laws, some of which are unparalleled in their ability to put leaders in prison for very long periods of time."
In the federal system, offenders serve out their entire sentences because there is no parole. So a sentenced to 15 or 20 years or life imprisonment means exactly that.
Discouraging the Younger Generation
The LAPD estimates that just 5 percent to 10 percent of gang members in Los Angeles commit 65 percent to 70 percent of gang-related crimes. That's why local and federal authorities are naturally setting their sights on those offenders.
The idea is not just to put them away, but also to discourage the younger generation — what U.S. Attorney O'Brien calls "eager beavers" — from stepping into their shoes.
"It might have been good idea to sling dope 15 years ago," he says. "You have a nice Rolex, you have a nice car. You are having a good old time. If you get caught, you might do a year in county jail but you'll be out in a month. [If] you're actually earning your stripes, you become a big shot because you showed you can go to jail and come back out again. But that's over."
Police will be the first to tell you they can't arrest their way out of the gang problem. What has refocused minds on the issue is the concern is that street gangs in this country appear to be at a critical stage of development. Latino gangs, in particular, are increasingly transnational, developing ties with international syndicates such as the Mexican mafia. That is why law enforcement officials are trying to attack the problem now, while they still can.