Drew Street, the once-scary two blocks into which the city of LA has poured enormous resources to reverse a serious gang and drug problem, shows a few signs of reverting to old ways.
A shooting on the street, followed by two others in a rival gang neighborhood, yesterday. A month ago, a Drew Streeter chased a black family down the street with a shotgun; the family left the area immediately. In December, a murder of a Drew Street gang member.
Of course, that would have been a couple days mayhem a few years back. That all of this is noteworthy is a sign of how far the street in Glassell Park, abutting the Forest Lawn cemetery, has come. Over the last three years, there were major sweeps, prosecutions, the razing of a notorious house, with a community garden in its place. Now, no drug bazaar, no kids in hoodies lurking by cars, very little graffiti.
Still, talking with some folks on the street, they seem to see a more brazen attitude among the little gangbangers who remain. Could be a good story, but first I want to talk to the cops about it all, which I wasn’t able to do today. Hoping to do so on Monday.
The other day, on my way out of town on vacation, I stopped by a San Bernardino County Courthouse to hear a bit of the trial of Richard Gatica.
Richard Gatica is accused of strangling his cellmate at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga in 2006. He then propped up the cellmate for more than a day, pretending to talk and play chess with the cellmate, and moving the corpse occasionally, so that jailers wouldn’t realize what had happened.
Gatica, who grew up in Rosemead, was already doing two life terms in prison when this happened. So prosecutors are asking for the death penalty.
I happened to catch the testimony of the psychiatrist, employed by the prison system, who examined Gatica for several hours and reviewed thousands of pages of documents about him, and concluded Gatica suffered from several kinds of mental illness.
The doctor described a childhood of apparently nonstop abuse by a sadistic mother who “was severely mentally ill, both because of addictions and because of an innate mental disease which appears to be major depression. … Mr. Gatica was, along with his younger brother, the focus of his mother’s illness and anger in that Mr. Gatica was physically and emotionally abused through much of his childhood.”
Among the mental illnesses Gatica developed was post-traumatic stress disorder.
The doctor went on to say that later, in the prison system, Gatica was incarcerated in a special housing unit, SHU, which amounts to solitary confinement, where inmates are denied human contact, often sunlight and are let out of a cell an hour a day. The SHU is reserved usually for inmates who’ve committed some crime in prison, or been part of a prison gang. Gatica lived in a SHU for a dozen years, the doctor said.
“He grew up without a father in the home and with a crazy abusive mother who was also a drug addict. There wasn’t much opportunity for Mr Gatica to learn coping skills, how to be a loving, caring person. What he learned was how to be a drug addict and a criminal. Being in the segregated housing unit only reinforced Mr Gatica’s dwelling in his internal world of disassociation and very pathological defense mechanisms.”
One of which, the doctor said, was to develop an extreme phobia to germs to the point where he would scrub his cell with a toothbrush “20 to 30 times a day or [wash] his hands 20 to 30 times a day.”
Gatica sat in his seat, dressed in a lavender shirt, a tie, black slacks, glasses, short, gelled hair — looking like a business executive and watching the very middle-class jury absorb all this.
The reason is the Mexican Mafia, the prison gang that has controlled street gangs for most of two decades.
In the story, a gang member killed a friend who’d been going around collecting taxes from area drug dealers in the name of the Mexican Mafia, when he wasn’t designated to do so.
The story doesn’t say how good of friends these guys were, but there were many years when Latino street gangs would never kill one of their own like this.
The Mexican Mafia’s taxation scheme — ordering Latino street gangs to tax drug dealers in neighborhoods and kicking up the money to MM members in prison and their associates — changed that. These kinds of killings mark a huge, though quiet shift in Southern California gang culture.
I wrote a story several years ago about the Dead Presidents case in the West Side Verdugo area of San Bernardino, in which, on MM orders, members of two allied, neighborhood gangs murdered their presidents: two brothers, Johnny and Gilbert Agudo, the presidents of 7th Street and Little Counts, respectively.
The victims and the suspects had all grown up together; some had been babysat by the mothers of the others. Yet the mafia had twisted relations in the gang to such a point that, like some Shakespearean play, they turned on each other one bloody night in 2000.
“After what happened, that just broke up the neighborhood completely,” said one guy from the area that I talked to. “Nobody trusted nobody.” Indeed, the gangs really haven’t reconstituted since then.
In Avenal state prison once, I interviewed a 22-year-old gang member who’d murdered a friend he knew from kindergarten, who was at the time even living with this kid’s family because his own had thrown him out. This was on orders of the local mafia member, who said that the friend had to go, apparently over some debt of some kind. The details weren’t clear ever to the 22-year-old, who, without asking a question, took his friend for a ride and shot him in the chest in an isolated part of the San Gabriel Valley.
He told me he wanted, above all, to be a carnal — a Mexican Mafia member — some day and looked up to the Big Homies the way a little leaguer looks up to a MLB player. He’d since dropped out and was on a protective custody yard, a Sensitive Needs Yard, which I’ve written about before in this blog. He also said that because he looked sweet and much younger than his years, he had to do more violence to get the respect of his gang brethren. That was also part of it.
He’s now doing 55 years to life.
This never used to happen in Latino neighborhood gangs — this turning homeboy on homeboy, unless one had snitched. They were clannish things, happy to war with their enemies, but all about “protecting” the neighborhood and not ever about killing each other.
But this kind of killing has been happening across SoCal since the MM’s edicts on taxation were issued in the mid-1990s. Usually the orders come from some old incarcerated MM gang member who hasn’t been on the streets in the lifetime of those homeboys who are about to kill, or to die.
Now, one gang member told me once, when your best homies you knew from kindergarten call and say let’s go for a ride, you don’t do it.
Members of the tribe, each of which earns a ton of money from their casino, feel in with San Bernardino gang members and through them with the Mexican Mafia members in that area. Now it’s become a campaign issue, according to the story.
The Mexican Mafia prison gang remains the most fascinating criminal enterprise in California. It’s able to force street gang members to exact taxes from local drug dealers. When MM members began this system in the early 1990s, it amounted, and still does, to the first region-wide organized crime in the history of Southern California, which had been spared the Italian mafia and others.
Local gang members were ordered to do the bidding of the MM — also known as “Eme”, which is Spanish for the letter M — whose influence in the prison system is vast. Gang members hopped to it, for the most part. The revenue is shared among taxers, shotcallers and the mafioso from each areas of SoCal.
Today, years after its formation, the Eme taxation system is often as ingenius as the member in that area, which is to say sometimes enormously so, sometimes not at all.
In Huntington Park, the Eme member, doing life in Pelican Bay State Prison, ordered gang members to tax popsicle vendors and street drag-queen prostitutes, as well as drug dealers. One transgender told me recently they had to pay taxes to even live in the area, as the considered their presence a besmirching of the barrio’s rep.
Out in SB County, according to fed documents, the local Eme figured out that some members of the San Manuel Band were juicy sources of cash. In 2008, Sal “Toro” Hernandez, the Eme member from San Bernardino, was implicated in the whole thing. A DEA document, according to newspaper reports, said the Eme was extorting money from tribe members, who each reportedly earn $100,000 a month in revenue from their casino.