Tag Archives: Los Angeles
It would have been easy to miss some stunning news a few days ago.
It came buried in the back pages of a December 30 LA Times article on how crime was rising. Rising across the board! First time since 2003! Yikes!
The real stunning story, though, was this:
The city will register only 280 homicides for all of 2015. That would seem sad, and for 280 victims and their families and friends, it most certainly is – I can say this as a reporter who has covered hundreds of murders in his career. I know how murder can destroy not just one life, but the lives of the surviving family as well.
To understand, however, why that number could actually be encouraging news, a remarkable event, you need the context. Here’s some:
Pitched as a 10 percent increase, 280 homicides is actually the city’s third lowest homicide figure since 2000 and part of a drop in crime that has been going on since roughly 2007. In fact, apart from 2013-2014, the city hasn’t had that few homicides since 1967, when L.A.’s population was a third smaller than it is today (roughly 2.4 million people then compared with 3.8 million today).
You’ll remember, perhaps, that in August there was a collective freak-out at the increase in homicides that month. I thought folks should have maintained some calm and context, and dealt with it seriously and professionally, which is what it appears LAPD proceeded to do. The rest of the year saw monthly homicide numbers fall again.
My guess is that in a heavily armed culture, and a very large city, we won’t see homicides dropping to, say, 200 a year. So it’s possible that we’re at about the lowest crime levels a city the size of L.A. can reasonably produce. I’d love to be proved wrong, but barring a deep change in our permissive gun culture or a massive tax increase doubling the size of the LAPD, I’d bet against it.
If those numbers crept up consistently year after year, that would be cause for great concern. But at this point, if crime figures rise 10 percent, or drop by that much, from one year to the next, it’s worth understanding and addressing with calm and context — but not frothing over.
I say this after, again, years as a crime reporter, and fully aware that some areas of the city, and of the region, still have serious problems and that these need attention.
Nor am I saying murder is okay if it’s below a certain number. Just that there are stories we ought also to pay attention to.
The real story is not that crime or homicide rose 10 percent.
The real story is that, while we witness blooms of intercultural savagery around the world, in our region of races, languages, and religions from every corner of the globe, crime has become negligible – a minor part of life and not just for wealthy folks, but, importantly and especially, for working people.
Some notorious headlines notwithstanding – yes, Rodney King, we can all get along and, by and large, in Southern California, we are. In the end, the 2015 homicide figures, as painful as they are for some families, did reflect that.
(Hate crime, btw, is almost nonexistent, certainly compared to the volume and the sheer violence of those crimes in the early and mid-2000s, most of them committed by Latino street gangs against blacks, which you can read more about in a chapter essay that I wrote for this anthology.)
The real story is that this drop in crime began during the country’s Great Recession, and is taking place in a region where poorly paid service jobs have replaced so many good-paying union jobs with solid benefits; where dense apartment complexes have replaced so many single-family homes.
The real story is how many working-class neighborhoods, where murder once stunted life and commerce, are now mercifully at peace, and property values are reflecting that.
And, above all, the real story is that gang violence has dropped so precipitously. (Remember: L.A. used to have way more than 280 gang-related homicides, in years when total homicides topped a thousand.) And so has gangs’ public behavior that did so much to blight those working-class neighborhoods that could least afford their crap. Gangs no longer have the run of the region.
This morning I was out on a street that was notorious for its gang in the 1990s. I found it quiet, pleasant, unscarred by graffiti. On the contrary, the houses seemed improved, freshly painted – one of many such neighborhoods all across Southern California.
Later, I was in Lincoln Park, talking with Braulio Garcia, a Mexican immigrant who has owned La Guadalupana Market (pictured above) since 1988. Up to about decade ago, he said, gangs were everywhere in Lincoln Park. A few blocks away is a gang mural, apparently from the 1990s, that lists the members of the neighborhood crew, and giving an RIP to a few friends who didn’t make it. Now, Mr. Garcia told me, he doesn’t see gangs or their graffiti at all.
Certainly lifted my spirits.
So on that note I’ll leave you, while daring to suggest that things are looking up, and hoping, meanwhile, that we have a Happy New Year, one and all.
Parks, by and large, are now free of gang presence. They are, generally speaking, places where families can play and relax without the fear that not so many years ago kept them away.
As I say in the piece, this mostly benefits working-class families who couldn’t use gang-infested parks near where they lived years ago.
This marks a real revolution, I think. Dominating parks was part of how gangs emerged and grew strong in Southern California.
Hope you like the piece.
There’s been a dust-up recently over a meeting that LAPD investigators held with Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, a former influential member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, in which he explained to them the inner workings of his former crime pals.
The mayor is criticizing the meeting, questioning why it was held. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has called for a review of the decision to hold it. LA Police Commission President Steve Soboroff has called for an investigation into the meeting. Soboroff called the meeting a “giant waste of resources” and “very very misconceived.”
I don’t know what happened at that meeting, but if it was anything like the kind of law-enforcement seminar Enriquez has given dozens of times in the past, then Soboroff need to reassess that opinion.
What is the problem here?
Why would you not want a former Mexican Mafia member to be educating police brass on the workings of one of the most influential, and little-known, institutions in Southern California life today?
Boxer has made a second career (behind bars – he’s serving life in prison) of teaching law enforcement about how his old mates work. I’ve interviewed him extensively. That’s what he does, and, an articulate fellow, he does it pretty well. (He’s co-author, with local TV reporter Chris Blatchford, of the book, The Black Hand, released in 2009.)
Far from being a “giant waste,” this seems to me to be essential work. The Mexican Mafia is one of the most important institutions in Southern California, particularly in communities with large Latino populations and gang problems.
The Eme used to be just a prison gang. But two decades ago, it marshaled the forces of street gang members to tax drug dealers in their areas, and sometimes also fruit vendors, bars, prostitutes and others – and funnel the proceeds to Eme members, their families and associates.
With that, it became Southern California’s first regional organized crime syndicate.
It’s probably less than that description implies, as it’s run by drug addicts locked away in maximum security prisons, who use drug addicts and criminals as their go-betweens. The miscommunication can be monumental. Still, the mafia has changed life in many parts of this region.
In some SoCal towns, its members are more important than the mayor, with enormous impact on town budgets. Its members can create – have created – crime waves with simple orders to associates who pass them along to gangsters on the street. The Eme has been shown to have alliances with Mexican cartels.
Sounds to me like anyone willing shed light on an organization like that ought to be welcome.
By the way, I contend that Enriquez’s decision to drop out while he was in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay in 2001 was a crucial moment in state prison history, as it helped pave the way for the mass defection of gang members in prison.
It wasn’t the only factor pushing that along, but it was important because it showed the Eme’s soldiers and lieutenants that their higher-ups weren’t going stick with the program. Also, two other mafia members – Angel “Stump” Valencia and David “Chino” Delgadillo – quickly followed him into PC, with several others after that, including Boxer’s old Eme buddy, Jacko Padilla, who controlled the Azusa area.
Protective custody in state prison went from a few hundred to, today, tens of thousands of inmates on what are known euphemistically as Sensitive Needs Yards. Many of them are Southern California Latino gang members. All that picked up enormous momentum after Enriquez dropped out.
The stories are again fantastic — about Albert Einstein in East L.A., a Czech “almost blind” boy growing up in a Communist boarding home, a young man going to Tijuana to help a deported friend return, a woman on her deathbed remembering the last time she saw her kids, and a girl on her way to Mexico, a child bride.
Please think of coming.
My third TYTT: ELA workshop at the library begins the Saturday following that – January 31.
Over the next year, with the generous support of the County Library, I hope to be expanding the workshops to other parts of L.A. County – Compton, South Central and elsewhere.
A legendary Compton indoor swap meet is closing this week, and vendors say they believe it will be replaced by a Walmart.
In a tersely worded December 1 letter to vendors, some of whom had been in the CFC since it opened, the owner, Soo Lee, told them they had 30 days to get out. That deadline was later extended another two weeks – leaving this Thursday as the day when the lights go out.
Shortly before Christmas, the center put up large signs announcing a “Close Out Sale” – and thanking customers for years of patronage – that vendors had not agreed to. Vendors say this left them with little time or opportunity reduce inventory and find a new location.
Of several CFC merchants I spoke with, all said they believe the space will be occupied by a Walmart, though the owner, Soo Lee, has said nothing about his plans for the enormous space. So this may be rumor as much as anything.
Walmart did not confirm a new store at the Compton swap meet. But the company didn’t quite deny one in the future, either. Here’s the statement a spokeswoman emailed me:
“While we are always looking for ways to better serve our Compton customers, we don’t have any new projects to announce.”
Okay. Still leaves the question of what will go into the center that was making the owner push the vendors out so abruptly after so many years in business.
Walmart last summer put a store in the new azalea Shopping Center in South Gate, four miles away, and traffic was so heavy the store wasn’t able to keep its shelves stocked for the first few weeks, according to a shopping center spokeswoman.
Of course, Walmart has also had problems locating inner-city stores in Southern California. Inglewood famously turned away the giant retailer, fearing it would lay waste to numerous mom-and-pop merchants.
“If Walmart comes, all the merchants on Long Beach Boulevard and around here will be wiped out,” said Kirk Kim, owner of Cycadelic Records, which has rented space near a swap meet entrance since CFC opened.
Compton Fashion Center opened in the space of what had been a Sears in 1983. It was the first large Korean-owned indoor swap meet in Southern California.
With that, in a region then becoming a magnet for immigrants from across the world, the indoor swap meet idea took off. Swap meets became a safe place for immigrants, speaking little English and without much capital, to wedge into a cranny of the American Dream.
“The holy grail of the hood,” one Yelp customer called it.
At Cycadelic Records in the 1980s, Kirk Kim’s father, the late Wan Joon Kim, and mother, Boo Ja — Korean immigrants who spoke little English – became the first to sell and promote the gangster rap then emerging from Compton garages. The couple, known as Pops and Mama, sold the first records by NWA frontman Eazy E, and dozens of other rappers that grew to chronicle the city’s crack-and-gang nightmare, as West Coast gangster rap became an international phenomenon. His shop and the center have been in numerous rap music videos.
But a lot has changed since then. National retailers have discovered the hood. Whether the indoor swap meet is slowly fading away is an open question.
Kirk Kirk believe the CFC owners have been keeping vendors out with an eye to attracting to a big-box retailer. Whatever the case, he said, foot traffic has dropped along with the number of vendors.
Last week, the center was slowly emptying. Stalls sat abandoned. Owners were boxing product and sweeping the floors.
“It’s sad. These folks are like my family,” he said. “I see these people more than I see my sister.”
Photos: Kirk Kim; t-shirts and dresses in booths at Compton Fashion Center.
Today I drove through the Drew Street neighborhood and found an L.A. miracle.
Fabrizio Uzan had purchased a triplex out of foreclosure. When I met him, he was redoing the downstairs unit with new refrigerator and stove, new toilet and bathroom sink and shower, new floors and paint.
His property is at the corner of Drew and Estara – one of the most dangerous gang corners in all of Los Angeles a few years ago.
Uzan lives in Hollywood but thought the area had turned around and bought the property. He is upgrading the unit with a thought to charging $1500 for the one-bedroom, up from $925.
He told me he’s in no hurry to rent it. Rather, he wants a quality tenant. Under the old owner, the previous occupants had squeezed two families into the unit. Those days are over, he hopes.
“Good people won’t pay high rent for a shitty place,” he said. Indeed.
Uzan’s investment in this property marks a stunning moment in the history of Los Angeles, I believe.
From my count, Uzan is one of about eight or ten property owners – new and old, residents and landlords – who appear to be investing in fixing up their units/houses on the once-notorious street. Investing in real estate on Drew was lunacy a few years ago. Not any more, apparently.
There’s still some gang graffiti to be seen in the area. But that doesn’t seem to daunt many urban pioneers here. The gunfire and late-night insanity of the round-the-clock drug dealing are gone. No more screeching tires startling people from their sleep at night.
This is one street, and a tiny one at that. But I see the corner of Drew/Estara as a barometer of L.A., one that measures important changes to working-class neighborhoods where gangs dominated (and some still do) across the city.
Which is why I wrote about it in my story that Pacific Standard Magazine put on its cover and called “The End of Gangs.”
I’m very proud of my cover story in the January’s edition of Pacific Standard Magazine about the decline of gang violence and gang presence in Southern California.
I’ve been watching this phenomenon quietly unfold for several years. It amounts to a revolution in criminal behavior in the region that essentially invented the modern street gang, then exported it to much of America.
It’s not necessarily to say that, literally, all gangs have stopped existing, though some have. Rather, it’s to say that their behavior is so much more underground, low-profile, so quiet, that it amounts to about the same thing for many working-class neighborhoods that were besieged by these guys for so long. Some are still active but none is as active as gangs were a decade or two ago.
These were truly street gangs, meaning they took their power, identity and reputation from their streets and how well they “defended” them.
Areas like Drew Street, mentioned in the piece, are now seeing a resurgence that was denied them for many years due to the stifling presence of their local gangs.
Anyway, I hope you like the piece. Daily Beast selected it as one of the Best Longreads of the Week – so that was nice….Let me know what you think, please.
L.A., and the Fashion District in particular, is the “epicenter” of narcodollar money laundering, mostly by Mexican drug cartels, said authorities at a press conference today.
They came together from the FBI, DEA, IRS and US Attorney’s office to announce a bunch of arrests in the Fashion District early Wednesday and describe a scheme through which dollars are laundered into pesos.
In one location, they came upon boxes of cash that they expected would total $35 million when they were done counting, which they weren’t by midday. They seized another $19 million in bank accounts and $10 million at a house in Bel-Air – $65 million in all.
Among all that’s interesting in this topic is the fact that virtually all of this takes place within the immigrant economic ecosystem in L.A., which has long fascinated me as it basically involves almost no native-born Americans. In this case, mostly Chinese sewing-company owners were doing business with Mexican drug traffickers.
Apparently these exchanges with Fashion District businesses on behalf of drug traffickers has become a popular way of laundering money ever since 2010 when Mexico put strict controls on the quantities of dollars that could be deposited in its banking system without being reported.
Used to be traffickers would just pack stack of dollars into a car and drive home. Now putting that money somewhere isn’t as easy. Hence this new Black Market Peso Exchange scheme.
Basically, it works thus: traffickers in the US with ill-gotten bucks find a peso broker – someone whose job it is to search out companies already selling goods into Mexico. A trafficker delivers large quantities of these dollars to Fashion District companies to pay for massive deliveries of clothes down to Mexican clothing importers who are in the scam.
“The cash never crosses the border, but the goods do,” said Robert Dugdale, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s criminal division in L.A. The Fashion District firm sends the clothes to a clothing importer in Mexico. The clothes are sold for pesos and the pesos are given to the cartel traffickers, after the broker takes a cut for himself.
A lot of this appears to depend on Fashion District clothing companies with owners who are willing to say nothing when some guy shows up with a duffel bag of cash, using only a nickname as ID.
Homeland Security had previously sent out notices to 160 companies in the district, telling them of U.S. legal reporting requirements for cash. The selection of which companies were notified “was not random,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations here.
Apparently this scheme has sent floods of cash through the Fashion District. Be interesting to see after all this what happens to some of these companies.
One Fashion District company – Q.T. Fashions on 12th Street – allegedly laundered $140,000 in ransom money for the kidnapping of a cartel courier, a U.S. citizen, whose load of cocaine was confiscated by law enforcement. To get repaid, members of the Sinaloa Cartel kidnapped him, took him down to Mexico, tortured him and got the family to take the ransom money to QT Fashions, which allegedly got the cash down to Mexico. The hostage was eventually freed.
Photos: Stashes of cash; Source: US Attorney’s office
No corner of the city appears better protected than 41st and Broadway in South Central LA.
There are five virgin murals on three buildings at one corner, and another two on a mini-market a block away.
“We’ve put up flowers and kind of modern rock n roll paintings,” said a woman named Dolores, from Guatemala, who was behind the plexiglass at the mini-market.
“But the cholos come and spray-paint them. So we had the Virgins painted. They’re not cheap – one cost $800 and the other $500. But the cholos respect them.”
Today’s RICO indictment of the El Monte Flores gang offers another glimpse of the Southern California gang underworld and how it’s changed.
The gang also allegedly participated in the wave of race-hate crimes by Latino street gangs against blacks, ordered up by Mexican Mafia prison gang members.
For several years during the late 1990s and well into the 2000s, Latino street gangs were the county’s leading, and by far the most violent, perpetrators of race hate crimes.
This is about the 7th or 8th indictment of a Latino gang alleging this. Others include Hawaiian Gardens 13, Azusa 13, Avenues, Florencia 13, etc.
El Monte Flores – from El Monte and South El Monte – is one of those Latino street gangs that grew up in the numerous barrios that emerged in post-WWII Southern California, places where Mexican-American workers lived.
Now, 50+ years later, the gang, like virtually all Latino gangs in the region, pays homage and obedience to the Mexican Mafia. In this case, the orders allegedly come from an Eme member named James “Chemo” Gutierrez, who just finished a 20-year federal sentence for murder in time to catch this indictment.
Reading between the lines of the indictment, Gutierrez took over in 2007 for Frankie “Frankie B” Buelna, the long-time Mexican Mafia member who was killed in a bar fight in Pomona and before his demise controlled many of the gangs in the San Gabriel Valley.
What’s interesting about these RICO indictment is how they have become almost as routine as morning coffee.This is the 25th or 26th in the last six or so years. So many that the US Attorney apparently no longer holds press conferences to announce them.
Still, the indictments are powerful things and have gone a long way toward changing gang activity in the region.
Federal prison sentences are longer than state time. There’s no parole. Plus, guys are sent to prisons in South Carolina, or Arkansas, or Minnesota – far from friends and family. No girlfriend’s going to be visiting any gang member in Arkansas. Plus, so many gang members are wrapped up in each indictment. the EMF was tiny, with 41. The Florencia and HG13 indictments each involved over 100 defendants.
The effect has been to either neutralize many gangs, or force them underground, giving the neighborhoods a welcome breather from the constant blight, graffiti, shootings etc that for so many years accompanied the presence of any LA street gang.
I was in downtown L.A. and encountered the Stations of the Cross near La Placita. So I made this short video.
Let me know what you think. I’m trying to put out one of these a week.
Share it if you like it … and feel free to subscribe to my Youtube station: True Tales Video.
I was meandering online this morning when I came upon the obituary of a woman who died a couple years ago.
I was struck by its simplicity — the spare way it summed up a life. I’ve removed her last name and re-lined the obituary to highlight its poetic sense. Hope you like it …
March 16, 1913 – March 5, 2011
Born in Zacatecas, Mexico, Guadalupe was the mother of 7 children.
She came to the U.S. in 1945 and raised her family in Los Angeles
With her husband, Luis , to whom she was married 77 years.
Up until the last days of her life
She lived in her home on Sichel Street in Lincoln Heights.
She loved her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren deeply.
All of us will miss her.
The barefoot Triqui Indian basketball team, from the mountains of Oaxaca, is in Los Angeles for a couple weeks.
The team of 10 and 11-year-olds from the village of Rio Venado, Oaxaca was welcomed with a brass band and a press conference at Casa Oaxaca in Mid-City.
A full schedule awaits. A tournament next two Saturdays. Visits to UCLA, USC, Disneyland, and the Lakers. As well as meals at several of the many Oaxacan restaurants that have proliferated in Pico-Union and West LA in the last 10 years.
The team formed out of an academy set up three years ago in Rio Venado, with a focus on bringing education to the isolated Triquis in the mountains of Oaxaca.
Since then, the boys, playing barefoot, have become something of international stars. They won a tournament in Argentina. They’ve toured Orlando and played the San Antonio Spurs barefoot in Mexico City, winning 10-4.
The Triquis (Tree-Kees) are considered among the poorest indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico. (Los Angeles has few Triquis, but they form a large part of the Central Valley agricultural labor force.) For years, the Triqui region has seemed stuck “in the 18th Century,” said Sergio Zuniga, the coach. “Their dream before was to finish elementary school and go the U.S.”
The academy formed to change that, with Triqui teachers. It adopted the attitude of making do with what it had available, which in Rio Venado doesn’t include tennis shoes. One thing that was available was basketball, which is a huge sport across the mountains of Oaxaca.
“In Mexico, we don’t teach the culture of competitiveness,” Zuniga said. “What we’re doing with these kids is teaching them competitiveness — that they learn to win and lose.”
Since then, the image of shoeless four-foot Indian basketball players has captured the imagination and sympathy of people across the continent.
The team amounts to a public-relations strategy to call attention to the long-forgotten Triqui region, where average education is four years. The Indian-taught academy spent its first 18 months without any help at all. But as the team garnered attention in the Washington Post and CNN, the Mexican government has supported it, promised to build houses for the players’ parents and pay for the kids’ education, including college.
“The idea for the school wasn’t to place blame [for the Triqui situation], but simply to act,” Zuniga said. “With Indians, we’re forming winners. This has astonished people [across the Americas] — how Indians are changing their history.”