Friday, March 12, 2004

A reader recently emailed me wondering if I could provide a figure on the dollar cost that street gangs impose on society. Great question. And I wish I had the answer. In fact, I've been trying to pull together as much as I can on this topic and every time I think I have it, there's more.

In a future posting, I'll list some obvious costs like the budgets for the DA's office and how much of that resource is devoted to street gang prosecutions. Ditto for the public defender's office, the County jail system, the State prison system, and the welfare system that frankly pays to feed, house and take care of the wives and children of convicted and unconvicted street gangsters. In addition to that though, are the unseen costs that can never be calculated. One bears scrutiny.

In all the interviews I've done with victims, families of victims and regular citizens in communities savaged by street gangs, to a person, have all either moved to other parts of the county or state or plan to do so as soon as possible. Here's just one case.

This guy, I'll call him ROBERTO, moved from ECHO PARK all the way out to FONTANA. He's a family guy with three kids and a wife that works as well. He works in SANTA MONICA as a building custodian. He got out of ECHO PARK, which he liked a lot and was close to his family, because, according to him, the CHOLOS were trying to influence his kids to join gangs. He did what any person would do. He moved.

To save them, he took the family to the most affordable place he could find -- FONTANA. Now here's this guy who doesn't make a lot of money who has to leave his house in FONTANA at 5:30 in the morning to make it to SANTA MONICA by 7:30. Anybody who's been on the 10 WESTBOUND in the morning and EASTBOUND in the afternoon knows what clusterfuck the 10 is. He's burning up a lot more bucks in gas and wear and tear on the car than he would otherwise need to if he could still live in ECHO PARK. These are dollars he could be spending on improving his life and the lives of his kids. But to save his kids, he makes the sacrifice in time, money and resources. Scale this man's experience up by the thousands and tens of thousands and we're talking billions of dollars a year -- fuel, wasted man hours, pollution, time away from his family, money better spent on other things like books or whatever. The negative impact on society can never be adequately calculated.

Just something to think about the next time somebody tells you that smoking the occasional doobie or snorting a line is a victimless crime. The country of full of victims. They just don't have "activists" looking out for their interests.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Two readers have asked me to comment on the story that ran in the Times yesterday in which two gangsters accidentaly killed a woman in her house while in the course of returning fire against two other gangsters who were shooting at them.

If you remember the case from late last year, LAUDELINA SALAZAR was shot in the neck while hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree in her living room. The bullet came from a block away. Sometime later, ANTHONY SHELTON and DANIEL MAYO, two convicted felons, were arrested for her shooting.

Yesterday, the DA decided not to file murder charges against the two because they shot in self defense. Naturally, this is unwelcome news to the detectives or the family.

As unpleasant as it may be for law enforcement, the DA made the right call on this one. Granted, they were gangsters and they were carrying concealed weapons. But despite all that, the law concerning self-defense applies to them as well as to any law-abiding citizen. It can't make distinctions.

The DA could, of course, prosecute them as felons in possession of a firearm or for breaking CAL PC12050, the law banning carrying concealed without a license. But that would be small potatoes. And any defense attorney would make a prosecutor look silly pressing ahead with a charge. If history is a gauge of this, they'll probably be liable for a parole violation at most.

Yeah it sucks. And yeah, the incident itself may have been sparked by some unknown action on their part sometime prior to the shooting. In other words, they may have had that drive-by coming for something they did earlier. You almost never know for sure when you're dealing with street gangs. But there's no "they-had-it-coming" statute in the PENAL CODE.

In truth, this isn't the first time a known gangster walked on a shooting by claiming self-defense. One of the first I remember writing about happened in 1982 in, I believe, BALBOA PARK in the SF VALLEY. I don't remember the names of the players but I think the "victim" claimed SAN FER and the shooters were from over the hill. At any rate, it was a stand up gunfight, all being on foot when the rivals let go on him. He surprised them by pulling out a sawed off lever action MARLIN rifle (I remember the gun because it's such a weirdly archaic weapon to carry) and actually killed one of the attackers. The victim walked on that one and was never prosecuted for illegal carry or for being a felon with a firearm. So this latest case has precedents. What's different in this case, of course, is the fact that an innocent bystander was killed. But according to the law, an accidental death as the result of a righteous self-defense shooting does not carry any penalty.

This is small comfort to SALAZAR's family or to the detectives who I know for a fact, become emotionally invested in cases of this nature.

But the big wheel does keep on turning. MAYO and SHELTON may walk on this one, but don't be too surprised if they get theirs in some unexpected but thoroughly deserved way. One way or another, justice will be served. If they were smart, they'd break camp and head for safer parts. If they were smart.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Late last week I was chewing the rag with a retired gangster. In truth, he was forced into retirement by a felony conviction. The years in state prison have been, according to him, a blessing in disguise. Prison forced him to examine his life and eventually took him away from the gang life and do what he terms "a 90% rehab." He gets crazy ideas 10% of the time but, so far, has resisted acting on any of his darker impulses. He says he doesn't want to go back to jail but, get this, would gladly go back if it meant keeping him out of the life or off a morgue slab.

I was trying to get a sense from him of day to day life in the gang and the influence of the EME on street gangsters. He said the pressure is always there. The EME is ever present and relentlessly attempts to widen and strengthen its influence on the street. Some gangsters, and entire gangs, keep their distance. Others can't wait to pick up and wave the flag of the black hand.

Local EME associates on the street who are sanctioned to use a BROTHER'S name are in a constant state of war and conquest. And they need a lot of willing soldiers to do their bidding. Generally street soldiers are asked to back the ASSOCIATE'S play -- collect taxes, intimidate a rival faction or check somebody (with bullets or fists) who has broken a regla (rule).

My gangster claims that the favor can either be asked politely or in the form of a demand. The difference is one of being ASKED to do something or TOLD to do something. According to the protocol, if you can find a graceful way out when you're asked, the matter is generally dropped and the refusal isn't held against you. Of course, that also depends on whether or not the person being asked OWES the individual or the group something. If in the past the local soldier has accepted drugs, money or a big favor, then it's almost impossible to say no. Refusal in this case is looked upon as disrespectful and a breach of protocol. Also cowardly and a black mark on the reputation of the neighborhood as a whole. And you don't want your neighborhood to get a reputation of being bad soldiers. If you refuse what your whole gang would consider a LEGITIMATE demand from a BROTHER or SHOTCALLER, often the gang itself will retaliate against you just to uphold their honor. Depending on the severity of the affront, you could be thrown out, beaten or killed.

If, on the other hand, you're clean in terms of not owing the EME or an ASSOCIATE anything, you're on safe ground making a reasonable sounding excuse. Something on the order of, "I got to go do something for the neighborhood," or "I'm cool like this, me and my homie are going on another mission." That's generally enough to get you dispensation.

If a street soldier does decide to do the favor, say like watching somebody's back while the SHOTCALLER jacks a car or collect taxes or checks a miscreant, it's important for the soldier not to take any reward. Often, he'll be reward with money, drugs, a stolen car or stolen property. Unless you want to get deeper with the EME and SHOTCALLERS, it's best to refuse the reward. Having your favor go unrewarded leaves no further obligation hanging. You've done the favor, you've upheld the reputation of your neighborhood, shown some courage and refused payment. That earns you respect and a pass on future demands but not necessarily a stripe. Chances are, you won't be asked again. In the code of the street, for whatever the code is worth, you've demonstrated to the shot callers that you're a good soldier, but you don't aspire to be some kind of star. You're happy with your station in life and don't want to get sucked into the EME sphere of influence, which, according to my retired gangster, is riddled with political landmines. You don't want to go there because it makes IRAQI politics seem rational. You could unwittingly be crossing somebody somewhere for something that's happening way above your pay grade. And you don't want to get sucked into somebody else's war.

To sum it up, you can't take any account of a shooting, carjacking or other gang crime on its face value. No matter where you read about it. Even here.

Behind every carjacking, drug ripoff, gang assault or what have you, half understood dynamics, byzantine undercurrents, old beefs, new stripes, cowards and warriors are always in play. In the gang life, nothing is ever as simple as you read about. Bear that in mind the next time the LAT, LA WEEKLY or any other LA outlet runs a gang story that seems like something you saw on TV and hangs together a little too simply.