ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Back in the time of mobsters like Al Capone, the FBI made gang busting its number one priority. Now the FBI is focusing on gangs once again, street gangs such as MS-13, the Bloods, or the Crips. In Los Angeles, FBI agents are helping police put away gang leaders who in the past have been untouchable.
As part of a series on the gangs of L.A., NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on how the feds who helped break the gang's hold on one neighborhood.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: In Los Angeles, if you're looking for a fake ID, MacArthur Park is the place to go. And even if you aren't looking, the street dealers will come looking for you.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible)
DEL BARCO: It's a gritty area but you can still see the beauty of the MacArthur Park that used to be, a neighborhood with a lake and lots of paddleboats surrounded by nice high-rise apartment buildings. That's the place Norm Langer remembers.
Mr. NORM LANGER (Manager, Langer's Deli): Primarily it was a Jewish recreation area.
DEL BARCO: Langer sits inside the deli his father opened here 61 years ago. Today, he still runs it and it's provided him with a front row seat to the deadly gang violence that turned MacArthur Park from a mecca to a menace.
Mr. LANGER: The park was overrun with drugs, minimal amount of prostitution and anytime you got drugs involved, you've normally got gang involvement.
DEL BARCO: Langer says he came close to closing down the family business like so many others here did. MacArthur Park was out of control and the gangs were running it, says LAPD Homicide Chief John Egan.
Mr. JOHN EGAN (LAPD): There was one year we had almost a 160 homicides in eight square miles. And I can still remember being in this general area where we're standing now near 7th and Alvarado at a situation or scene where we were investigating a homicide and hearing shots fired, and three or four blocks away another murder happened almost simultaneously. There would be robberies, shootings, stabbings in the park, drug sales. We would play cat and mouse with them.
DEL BARCO: In the 1980s, immigrants started moving into the neighborhood, fleeing bloody civil wars in Central America. Alex Sanchez arrived from El Salvador as a teen and soon joined a street gang that became known as the MS-13, the Mara Salvatrucha. Sanchez says they fought over turf with rivals in the 18th Street gang, the Wanderers and the Crazy Riders.
Mr. ALEX SANCHEZ (Former Gang Member): MacArthur Park was divided into four different sections. They were controlled by four different gangs. For the most part it was people that were dealing drugs in those different sections.
DEL BARCO: Through the 1990s, the gangs fought bitterly over control of the drug trade. Longtime resident Sandra Romero and Alex Alonso remember how violent MacArthur Park was.
Mr. ALEX ALONSO: It was considered one of the most drug-plagued communities in the United States.
Ms. SANDRA ROMERO: It was the haven for all the gang members and the drug dealers.
Mr. ALONSO: They were involved in drug dealing, murder.
Ms. ROMERO: People smoking crack, prostitution in little rolling brothel vans.
Mr. ALONSO: It looked like Beirut, Lebanon in that area.
DEL BARCO: Gang members demanded that local drug dealers and even small-time food vendors pay protection. Efrain Castellanos has been taking Polaroid pictures of people in the park for 37 years. He says he was threatened by the gangs too.
Mr. EFRAIN CASTELLANOS (Photographer): They collect money from me, $20 each week.
DEL BARCO: What did they say?
Mr. CASTELLANOS: For now you have to pay rent. If you don't want to pay rent, be careful. You don't pay, they maybe shoot me...
DEL BARCO: They tried to scare you?
Mr. CASTELLANOS: Uh-huh.
DEL BARCO: A decade ago, L.A. police officers from the local Rampart division's anti-gang unit got caught up in a massive corruption scandal. Cops were accused of framing and shooting gang-bangers and stealing their drugs to sell them. More than 70 officers were implicated, and for a time the gang unit was disbanded. Former MS-13 member Alex Sanchez says MacArthur Park was caught in the middle.
Mr. SANCHEZ: People that lived in that community were frightened of law enforcement and were frightened of the gangs.
DEL BARCO: But Rampart Police Captain Egan says things changed after William Bratton took over as chief and began a partnership with agents from the FBI, the ATF, and the DEA.
Mr. EGAN: We really want to go after the, you know, the higher-ups in the organization, the so-called shot callers. So we actually were able to take quite a few individuals off the street.
DEL BARCO: Egan says federal agents are able to pay more for informants and provide more intelligence, surveillance and wiretaps, and they're able to prosecute under federal statutes that carries stiff sentences.
Mr. EGAN: It's been a real help to us having them involved because they bring all kinds of other resources and ability to access intelligence that may not be available to you at the operational level, and when the Feds get involved, when the FBI gets involved, you know, you're looking at some serious time on those charges.
DEL BARCO: Federal immigration agents continue to deport undocumented gang members with felonies, and gang injunctions by LA's city attorney authorize police to arrest gang members who are seen together in public. As a result of all of these efforts, Egan says, the number of homicides has been declining since the high mark of a 106 murders more than a decade ago.
Mr. EGAN: In 2006, 30; 2007, 25; 2008, year to date, five.
(Soundbite of knocking)
DEL BARCO: Captain Egan knocks on the wood table outside of Mama's Hot Tamales, a popular new restaurant across the street from the park. Here Sandra Romero, Mama, has hired the food vendors that are no longer allowed on the streets. Every month Romero gathers artists, activists and police at her restaurant for a group called Rediscover MacArthur Park. They plan catered art shows and concerts to entice people back to the neighborhood.
Ms. ROMERO: We've served over a thousand tamales to the community to show the world that we're in solidarity with LAPD to make our neighborhood the best it can be. Fighting crime one tamale at a time. I know I feel we've taken our park back.
DEL BARCO: New video surveillance cameras now monitor the entire park and patrol officers roam around on new three-wheeled police vehicles.
(Soundbite of siren)
Ms. ROMERO: It's like you're fighting crime with Tamale's and tricycles.
Mr. RYAN SCHATZ (LAPD): You got to start somewhere, you got to start somewhere.
DEL BARCO: Officer Ryan Schatz and his partner say since gang violence is down, they're left to pursue less violent crime, such as giving citations to illegal fruit vendors.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
DEL BARCO: Alex Sanchez, who runs the gang intervention group Homies Unidos, says local and federal policing has just pushed gang violence to other parts of the city and outside the country to Central America. Sanchez points to the newly converted lofts around the park that are driving up rents. He says that's what's driving the new effort to clean up MacArthur Park.
Mr. SANCHEZ: Yes, the park is changing; it's being gentrified and the community that has suffered all those years are being told to move out. We feel that we're losing - we're losing our home that we made away from home.
DEL BARCO: Sanchez says with the clean-up effort something else has been lost, some of the flavor of the immigrant community.
Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.
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