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Here's a startling number. For the past 25 years, murder has been the leading cause of death among African-American men between the ages of 15 to 34. That statistic comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says it's mainly due to gang violence. In the first of a series about new ways of combating gangs, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston looks at how the FBI is tearing a page from the playbook that helped it fight the mob.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Los Angeles is the most gang-saturated city in the world. In just the nine square miles that make up LA's Watts neighborhood alone, there are 65 gangs and roughly 15,000 hardcore gang members.

Unidentified Man #1: He's southbound, Wilmington from (unintelligible). I'm pulling into…

TEMPLE-RASTON: What that means is if you're a cop working the LA streets, most of the calls you respond to are gang related.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) six. I'm pulling into the parking lot (unintelligible) six (unintelligible).

TEMPLE-RASTON: Sergeant Herb Cirilo is with the LAPD 77th Street Gang Unit. He's been with the department since 1987 and worked gangs as a police officer for about four years during the early 1990s. Now he's supervising the 77th's gang squad. He has a shock of dark hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and ends a cell phone call to his wife with the phrase, see you later, kiddo. One recent even he was weeding through rush hour traffic to provide some backup on a robbery call.

Sergeant HERB CIRILO (LAPD, 77th Street Gang Unit): We're a little ways down the road, but we're trying to get there.

Unidentified Woman: (unintelligible) eleven suspect.

Okay. They followed some robbery suspects into this apartment complex, so we'll try to get up there and back them up. Right now I don't hear any other units backing them up just yet.

Unidentified Man #2: We've got running…

TEMPLE-RASTON: The car is flying up the Harbor Freeway as the dispatcher provides a blow by blow of what's unfolded on the ground. Three robbery suspects have bailed out of their car and the cops are chasing them on foot. Cirilo rolls up in his squad car, about four minutes after the first radio call.

Sgt. CIRILO: How you doing, sir?

Unidentified Man #3: We've got a - all of them are in custody.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There were police cars parked at odd angles all over the street. Residents are lined up along the sidewalk wearing those sheepish expressions that people wear when they're staring at something they know they shouldn't be staring at. But they just can't help themselves. Their eyes all seems to be trained on one man: the suspect sitting handcuffed in the back of the squad car. Cirilo recognizes the guy. He's a member of the East Street Wilmas.

Sgt. CIRILO: This gangster they have in the backseat, I recognize him from back in the early, mid-1990s, here. So I'm going to walk up there and just say kind of hi to him. And it's funny, because again, now dealing with the Hispanic gangs, a lot of these guys, they commit crimes, they go to jail, they get out of prison, they come right back to the neighborhood and then they prey on other people still, it continues. It's just their daily conduct.

TEMPLE-RASTON: It used to be that gangs were more concerned about tagging and turf than committing crime. Now gangs are more like syndicates, like the mafia. They shake down merchants in their neighborhoods. They commit brazen robberies, and they run guns and drugs.

Supervisory Special Agent Robert Clark is the point man in the FBI's Los Angeles gang division. He says if you think of where the mafia was at the turn of the century, that's the stage Latino gangs are at now.

Special Agent ROBERT CLARK (FBI, Los Angeles Gang Division): The families were just beginning to come together. And again, that same model was present across the board with Hispanic gangs.

TEMPLE-RASTON: With that in mind, local and federal authorities have begun looking at breaking up gangs more strategically. Now they look for key players, the shot callers who are responsible for most of the violence, or the drug dealers with the biggest connections. They found that arresting these key players does more to hobble gangs than big sweeps or scatter shot arrests.

Ms. CONNIE RICE (Gang expert, Civil Rights Attorney): It does seem smarter to me.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Connie Rice is a gang expert and a civil rights attorney in Los Angeles.

Ms. RICE: It seems like they're going after it like they've finally figured out how to go after the Italian mob. And it seems to work best with the higher hierarchical criminal syndicates that are primarily organized for crime.

TEMPLE-RASTON: No recent incident illustrated this change in mindset and closeness of the new federal and local partnership more than the reaction to the killing of a gang member named Brandon BL Bullard a couple of months ago at a Watts housing project called Jordan Downs.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hey, now Jordan. Hey, now Jordan. Hey, now Jordan.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bullard was one of the key players in The Grape Street Crips. That's the gang that basically rules the 103 two-story shotgun-style buildings that make up Jordan Downs. Jordan Downs is depressing in the extreme. There are few trees and just patches of dirt between the structures. The buildings themselves are labeled building 42, building 43. It gives the whole place a prison-camp feeling

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Rapping) 'Cause we don't care what they have to do (unintelligible), 'cause all they want to do is (unintelligible)…

TEMPLE-RASTON: Brandon Bullard was known for taking care of people in the Downs. He gave them money, provided protection. He cut such a figure that when he was just wounded by a rival gang three years ago, it sparked six weeks of tit-for-tat violence between the East Coast and the Grape Street Crips. Twenty-six people were wounded and nine died before the violence stopped. This time, when news of his murder spread, police braced for the worst.

Unidentified Newscaster: Brandon Bullard was killed January 26th during a fight at a party. Mario Proctor was killed the following day in a drive-by shooting. Arrests have been made in both killings.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A day and a half after the Bullard killing, police responded to 10 different shootings in Watts. Seventeen people were wounded, and four were killed. As the death toll started to mount, Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton responded by pulling together an unusual meeting. Thomas O'Brien, the United States Attorney for the Central District of California, was one of the people Bratton called.

Mr. THOMAS O'BRIEN (United States Attorney for the Central District of California): Myself, the FBI, DEA, ATF, and ICE, and we sat at a very long table with mostly law enforcement with us present, too, and Chief Bratton threw it out, here's our problem. How are we going to fix this?

TEMPLE-RASTON: To understand just how revolutionary this is, you need to know that federal agents and local cops traditionally spend a lot time throwing elbows. Local cops see federal guys as condescending, telling them what to do and how to do it. So calling the feds in so early in the process was a bit of a departure. The FBI Assistant Director in Los Angeles is Salvador Hernandez.

Mr. SALVADOR HERNANDEZ (FBI Assistant Director, Los Angeles): We were there to talk about the strategy long-term, how we could stop that kind of thing from happening again before it ends up in that kind of violent weekend. And so that - while not unprecedented, was somewhat new to us.

Deputy Chief CHARLIE BECK (LAPD): That's the wave of the future, and that shows the difference in the way that we work.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Charlie Beck is the Deputy Chief of the LAPD, and has been working gangs here for more than 30 years.

Deputy Chief BECK: This is our sandbox, and we know when things are going to develop. We're good at that, but we need to bring more resources to bear than the Los Angeles Police Department alone. And so we're able to do that because of partnerships that have developed.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Hernandez said the change was inevitable.

Mr. HERNANDEZ: You do this for 20 years, you start to realize you're doing the same thing over and over again. And while that's your job, you try to do it well, it isn't necessarily the answer. I think people have started to understand that.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The meeting yielded results. Within a month, the U.S. Attorney's Office brought indictments against 18 of the gang members that Chief Bratton said were responsible for the bulk of the violence. O'Brien says more indictments are on the way. It's still too early to tell if using the same techniques that disbanded the Gambino family in Little Italy will be able to do the same thing to the gangs of L.A.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, NPR's Mandalit del Barco talks to gang members about law enforcement's new strategy.

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