Friday, May 14, 2004

HIGH DESERT GANGSTERS

If you’ve been following the local crime news lately, you’ve probably noticed that Oxnard and the Antelope Valley are experiencing a big spike in gang-related crimes, shootings and murders. Oxnard LE is alarmed enough by the spike that the DA wants to file a gang injunction against the COLONIA CHIQUES, an Oxnard gang. This is a homegrown neighborhood that’s been around for years.

Further inland in the Antelope Valley, there’s an interesting development taking place. A 19-year-old, AARON MATHEU, just pleaded no contest to an attempt murder charge. He was already serving 25 to life on a carjacking beef and the nine years will be served concurrently. One of his crimies, JUAN RODRIGUEZ, was just hit with an attempt murder filing for a drive-by shooting.

BYRON MATHEU, older brother to AARON, is currently at large but wanted for allegedly committing a murder in FEBRUARY.

These three suspects wouldn’t merit a mention except that they’re all members of VNE (VARRIO NEUVO ESTRADA), a really deep EAST LA GANG that goes back generations. Gang fans will probably remember that ERNIE "CHUCO" CASTRO came out of VNE. And VNE has been trying to live that down since 1995 when CASTRO became INFORMANT numero uno in the first of three big FEDERAL RICO cases. CASTRO is living under an assumed identity in parts unknown.

If you’re reading this from out of town, the geography means nothing to you. Locals, however, know that the ANTELOPE VALLEY is way out there in the high desert. It’s the home of the B2 bomber, Edwards Air Force Base and a lot of aerospace contractors. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier over the Valley in 1947. So what are homies who claim VNE doing way out there in the puckerbrush far from their ELA homeland? For that matter, you can also ask what are Crips, Bloods, El Sereno, Cuatro Flats, Avenues and other traditional big city gangs doing out there? The answer seems to be SECTION 8 housing.

For those who aren’t familiar with Section 8 housing, this is a government program where poor families pay a maximum of 30% of their household income for rent and the government covers the rest.

What’s happening with the gang spike in the Antelope Valley is a result of the end of the Cold War. During the height of defense spending, the Antelope Valley was the fastest growing community in the country. The influx of highly paid engineers and technicians working on Pentagon-financed galactic hot rods created a demand for upscale housing which the private sector was all too ready to provide. Two story tract housing with three car garages went up faster than you can say "Joint Strike Fighter."

Just when the housing market reached the saturation point, the Soviet Union took the air out of the bubble and decided to conveniently implode. Great news for the Free World. Bad news for the defense business and its employees.

Mass lay offs in the Valley were quickly followed by an exodus of engineers and space techs and that left a lot of really nice houses suddenly empty. Developers walked away from half finished communities, a lot of them still in the framing stage. What was left were brand new, centrally air-conditioned ghost towns.

In an effort to get out from under, developers went looking for buyers or renters. In steps the government with Section 8 vouchers. Anybody in the County who qualified for Section 8 was eligible to move to the recently vacated ghost towns. While they weren’t getting market value, developers were happy to have any kind of income.

If you’re a mother with six kids living in a two bedroom rat hole in Long Beach, East LA, South Central or Pacoima, the idea of 2000 square feet, brand new everything, front and back yards and a three car garage sounds like paradise. And it’s especially tempting if you can take your kids out of a risky, gang-oriented environment. The poor moved out by the hundreds and then the thousands.

But as history has shown, you can take the kid out of the neighborhood, but you often can’t take the neighborhood out of the kid. Unfortunately, along with the furniture and Nintendo games, the gang culture was also packed into the U-Hauls and car trunks. The tattoos and attitudes don’t fall away when you cross the LA City line. Mom wanted a fresh start someplace better, but the kids brought it all with them.

From a purely sociological point of view, an interesting dynamic is taking place amidst the cactus and Russian Thistle of the AV. Old rivalries haven’t been transplanted. At least not yet. You’ve got Bloods and Crips living in a state of détente on the same block. Same thing with the Hispanic gangs. Some LEOs I’ve spoken to think that the reason old rivalries aren’t resurrected is that gangs lack the critical mass of the old hoods. The individuals are too scattered to really form an active neighborhood. And a lot of the homies are still fairly young and inexperienced. For instance, the carjacking that sent AARON MATHEU to jail for 25 to life was a training mission conducted under the tutelage of MARIO GARCIA, a VNE veterano.

The other interesting phenomenon is that Valley drug dealers have yet to feel the sting of the EME’s tax collectors. One LEO told me the Valley is still a 100% tax-free zone and in terms of drug dealing, it’s a Wild West of entrepreneurs who work independently and outside the long reach of the Big Homies and shot callers from the old neighborhood. This may change in time, but for now, it’s every pusher for himself. A DA told me he recently filed on a single mother of six and an ELA transplant, for dealing meth out of her kitchen. She employed runners to go out and solicit and the customers would come to the house to buy. She didn’t pay taxes to anybody. An operation of this size anywhere in East LA would certainly draw the attention of the Homies and you can bet your last rock she would we kicking up or get put out of business.

Local LE is concerned that over time, the critical mass will be reached. Right now, LE is seeing active recruitment. The gangs are in the building stage. Veteranos are checking out the local talent, building a foundation out of the best from the farm team and probably in time, they’ll ramp up to start claiming neighborhoods. No one can tell, of course, if old allegiances hold or new neighborhoods develop their own identity. We’ll know first from the tags. If we start seeing things like VNE-AV (VARRIO NEUVO ESTRADA – ANTELOPE VALLEY) or VNE-PD (VARRIO NUEVO ESTRADA-PALMDALE) then we’ll have the start of a trans-county structure. If the new gangsters reject the old neighborhoods and their roots then there may be trouble in the colonies. In either case, the Antelope Valley will definitely experience some interesting times in the next decade.

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