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The End of Gangs? Uh, No. WLA Discusses This Particular New Contention on KCRW’s Which Way LA?


A story called “The End of Gangs” by veteran So Cal journalist Sam Quinones appeared late last month in Pacific Standard Magazine, and the thesis it contains—that the damaging affect and visible presence of Southern California gangs has all but vanished, or at least been drastically reduced—has produced a large stir among many experts on violence and safety in California communities.

Here’s a clip from Quinones’ story:

In the past few years, street gangs have been retreating from public view all over Southern California. Several years ago, I spent a couple of days in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, in an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, interviewing some Florencia 13 gang members. One nearby garage was never free of graffiti for more than a few minutes a week. (This was the amount of time it took after the graffiti clean-up truck left for the 76th Street clique of Florencia 13 to re-deface the thing.) That garage wall has now been without graffiti for more than four years. I go by it every time I’m in the neighborhood.

Fifteen miles southeast of Florence-Firestone, much of the tiny city of Hawaiian Gardens used to be scarred with the graffiti of HG-13, a local gang that absorbed several generations of the town’s young men. The last three times I’ve been to Hawaiian Gardens, I’ve seen nothing on the walls, and young black men freely visit taco restaurants on the main drag, something that would have been inconceivable a few years ago. In Oxnard’s Colonia Chiques neighborhood in Ventura County, the decades-old neighborhood gang is not outside, and their graffiti is gone.

Some of this is a state and national story, as violent crime declined by about 16 percent in both California and the nation from 2008 through 2012. But the decline has been steeper in many gang-plagued cities: 26 percent in Oxnard, 28 percent in Riverside, 30 percent in Compton, 30 percent in Pasadena, 30 percent in Montebello, 50 percent in Bell Gardens, 50 percent in El Monte.

Santa Ana once counted 70-plus homicides a year, many of them gang-related. That’s down to 15 so far in 2014, even as Santa Ana remains one of the densest, youngest, and poorest big cities in California. “Before, they were into turf,” says Detective Jeff Launi, a longtime Santa Ana Police gang investigator. “They’re still doing it, but now they’re more interested in making money.”

No place feels so changed as the city of Los Angeles. In 2014, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that gang crime had dropped by nearly half since 2008. In 2012, L.A. had fewer total homicides (299) citywide than it had gang homicides alone in 2002 (350) and in 1992 (430). For the most part, Latino gang members no longer attack blacks in ways reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. Nor are gangs carjacking, assaulting, robbing, or in a dozen other ways blighting their own neighborhoods. Between 2003 and 2013, gang-related robberies in the city fell from 3,274 to 1,021; gang assaults from 3,063 to 1,611; and carjackings, a classic L.A. gang crime born during the heyday of crack, from 211 to 33.

“Being the member of a gang doesn’t have the panache it did,” says George Tita, a criminology. “Things have changed radically in the last five years.”

So what’s the deal? We know violent crime is down all over the nation. Does this also mean that Los Angeles law enforcement has “tamed” its gang problem as Quinones’ story suggests?

I was on KCRW’s Which Way LA? with Warren Olney discussing the issue Monday night. Sam Quinones was on too.

Here are some of the topics we talked about—plus a bit more:


So, does the fact that most gangsters now rarely wield spray cans to mark territory mean that gangs are no longer wreaking havoc in LA’s communities?

No, experts I spoke with told me. But gangs have changed a great deal. During the height of the gang conflicts in the late 1980’s and early to mid 1990’s, gangs primarily fought about turf and drug sales and identity.

Now gangs are all about business.

Moreover, according to UCLA gang anthropologist Dr. Jorja Leap, gangs are less visible because they have gone underground.

“They are extremely sophisticated about social media, and expert in many markets,” Leap said when we talked Monday morning.

Gentrification and the drop in violent crime all over the U.S. does not translate into the end of gangs, she said. “They relocate,”—to places like Riverside and San Bernardino and the Inland Empire, where you do see gangsters on the street. “And then commute back in to commit crimes.”

Leap said she has been called in to consult on several criminal cases having to do with an active gang pipeline running from LA to Las Vegas that involves drug dealing, guns—“and now they have expanded their operations to human trafficking.”

Much of the organization needed to facilitate this commuter gang action, Leap said, “is achieved using social media.

“And I don’t mean guys throwing gang signs on Facebook,” she said, adding that she was talking about sophisticated websites, the purpose of which is well disguised, “sometimes using shadow businesses.”

Leap’s points are depressingly easy to support. For instance, a look at the 110-page RICO indictment filed against 38 members of the Mexican Mafia-associated Big Hazard gang filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in mid-December 2014, details the long-time gang’s elaborate actions to conceal its very healthy drug distribution business.

The place that gangs still thrive with perhaps the most strength and influence, Leap and others I spoke with Monday reminded me, is in California’s prisons and also in many of the state’s county jails, most particularly in LA County’s jail system and jails in the inland empire.

Elie Miller, a former alternate public defender now well known for her nonprofit legal work for places like Homeboy Industries and the Union Rescue Mission, told me this week about a young client who is afraid to go to jail in San Bernardino County, where he has a warrant, because of the heavy gang presence. He was fearful, said the attorney, “he have to comply with requests [from the gangs] to do things if in jail.”

From LA County jails I hear repeatedly about how those from gang-affected neighborhoods cannot receive money from family members “on their books,” without paying a percentage tax to the gang shot callers, whether they themselves are gang-involved or not.

“One other thing,” added Leap, “Quinones writes mostly about Latino gangs. And some of the mothers I know in South LA, would be really surprised to learn that gang crime is gone from their neighborhoods.”


As I mentioned earlier, we know that violent crime is down all over the nation, Los Angeles County included.

There is much argument about the exact reasons for the crime drop, but most agree that it is due to a complex stew of causes that include smarter strategies in policing, along with the work of nonprofits like (in California) Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries, the Toberman Foundationin San Pedro, Youth Uprising in Oakland, and a long list of like agencies that are on the front lines when it comes to addressing community health and safety,

Gang homicides are down too, but as for gang crime in general? Those in law enforcement I spoke with about the issue said that those stats are far less solid.

Moreover, while gangs are less visible, the collateral damage done to families and communities—along with the former gang members themselves—is still all too present and visible.

Violence reduction experts now talk less about gangs and more about the pressing issues of prison reentry and about addressing the now multi-generational trauma that the worst old days of gang violence left in its wake.

And then there are the still discomforting stats like the fact that gun violence is now the leading cause of death for black children and teenagers.

“I’d love to have the gang problem solved. Trust me,” said Leap. “But to say so is not just incorrect, it risks abandoning the programs we need to address the damage that’s already been done.”

And the damage that is still being done.

For more read Quinones’ story and then listen to the Which Way LA? podcast, starting at around minute 12:20.

And, by the way, in the end, Quinones and I agreed on far more than we disagreed on this important and complicated topic.


  • Celeste –

    Thanks for spending so much time addressing the issues involved in my piece in Pacific Standard Mag.

    A few thoughts: I think it’s important to note a crucial difference between how neighborhoods see the gang issue and how police see it.

    To neighborhood residents, street gangs’ gravest threat was their constant presence, the way they dominated public spaces, such as parks, or a corner, or an apt complex. It was the blight they created. It was the smashed car window, a graffitied garage, screeching tires, the police helicopters overhead, bullets whizzing through an apartment wall, the threat to one’s own children, the inability to breathe easy.

    Gang homicides got the headlines, but it was gang presence that drove people nuts, stressed and depressed a neighborhood, and led, in turn, to virtually all the crimes they became notorious for: beatings, street dealing, strong-arm robberies, murders.

    This public omnipresence was the essence of every LA street gang. Their public presence was key to their reputation. It inspired respect and awe. It was how they recruited and intimidated. They took names from those streets.

    There is no doubt that virtually across Southern California that public presence has, in fact, ended.

    From Pacoima to Hawaiian Gardens, Azusa to Harbor Gateway, Long Beach to Cudahy, Pasadena, NELA and most of South Central to Riverside, this change is palpable and clear.

    The benefits are everywhere, but mostly they are to working-class neighborhoods.

    You see in these neighborhoods almost no one hanging out on the streets that gave gangs their identities. Parks, including some that were most notorious (MacArthur Park), are free for families. Homeowners and market owners in many areas are improving properties because they can – or selling their homes at a healthy profit – because they can now, due entirely to this retreat.

    It seems on this site that that point has been glossed over, as if it means little. As if, we’ll they’re just morphing.

    I believe it is, on the contrary, monumental, a revolutionary change, stunning in scope and benefit.

    It allows working-class homeowners in places like Drew Street/NELA to actually take part in the housing run-up in a way that was impossible during the housing bubble of the mid-2000s.

    My story does not argue that gangs have vanished. But they don’t have to actually vanish for their retreat to be, I believe, a true revolution for working-class neighborhoods. Gangs have fundamentally changed their stripes and this has profound import.

    That there may be significant effects still to bee dealt with regarding this problem I have no doubt.

    But that there are gang exceptions to this is all the more impressive, for those exceptions were once the rule.

    That police may see it differently at times does not surprise me. Police have to deal with what gangs have become, which is a lot harder to investigate than when gangs were doing all their stuff out in the open.

    Gangs have gone indoors, become more discreet, more low profile. That’s in part to protect their drug business, or perhaps other crimes. A lot of it is to avoid gang injunctions and RICO cases and the like.

    Some gangs are involved in credit-card fraud, identity theft, pimping. And gangs still intimidate witnesses. Latino gangs still tax for the Mexican Mafia.

    But today, if gang members are on a computer using social media to great effect, they’re not on the streets where their damage was always so much greater.

    If they’re quietly selling drugs indoors, they’re not doing it on street corners, attracting shooters and committing strong-arm robberies and carjackings.

    (I’m not sure who you’re speaking to in law enforcement, but gang crime is absolutely way down. Irrefutably so. I’d be very interested to hear the case that gang murders or gang-related strong-arm robberies are up over, say, 2004, let alone 1994.)

    Carjacking, for example, is a gang crime if ever there was one, invented by gangs and growing from their classic public omnipresence. It’s now basically an extinct crime (for the moment, it seems, anyway) – 33 in 2013 for all of Los Angeles. That is an amazing event, in my opinion.

    Latino gang racist attacks on black people, very brazen and public for years beginning in the mid-1990s, made those gangs the leading perpetrators of hate crime in LA County. Those attacks are clearly falling, due largely to this retreat indoors, though some still take place.

    And stats don’t even count a lot of what matters. There’s no stat for, say, “Screeching Tires Late at Night” or “Gang members with their pitbulls taking over my park’s picnic tables” or “Gang members running through my backyard” – all of which I’d bet are way down across the region.

    All this also raises the important question of how well gangs will be able to recruit in the future. Time will answer that question, I suppose.

    But the space they’re abdicating is being filled, often, by folks who don’t have any connection to gangs or prison. Check out Lomas Rosemead, Los Nietos, Canta Ranas, South San Gabriel. Look for similar changes in El Monte now that 41 members of El Monte Flores are down.

    Sometimes this is called gentrification. I think that term misconstrues the truth. In NELA, many new buyers are not what anyone would call “gentry.” They’re working-class folks, just without any gang affiliation.

    As I say in the piece, gangs have generally stopped behaving in the way they have historically behaved and in the way that made them into the infamous problem they became in this region. If they’d always behaved this quietly, with so little contribution to public blight, few people would have paid them any attention.

    But they did, and now (by and large) they don’t – so maybe that is the way gangs end.

  • Hi, Sam,

    Thanks for taking the time to post all this informative stuff.

    Of course, gang crime has dropped hugely since the 1990s, during the so-called decade of death, when eastside and southside communities were nightly war zones. It’s a dramatically different world between then and now. There was a brief spike in violent crime in 2002 or so, but gang-related violence has mostly steadily declined since then, with occasional hiccups.

    And, as you said, the neighborhoods once most affected are able to generally breathe far easier due to the changes in how gangs are now operating.

    Yet there still are deaths, still lives are ruined, still community members and their kids are traumatized at far too high a rate. And there is still plenty of gang crime—albeit no where near the number of gang shootings.

    My informants on these issues are primarily people who work with and around gang members and former gang members daily, along with former gang members themselves, and their families. Plus law enforcement folks who work in or around the gang milieu.

    I can see that you have a host of great informants too.

    By the way, I noticed today that the latest brief from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), a brief that was released last month, reports that gang homicides have gone up nationally from 2011 to 2012, and that the number of gangs and gang members has also increased in 2012 over the previous 5 year period. Gang activity in smaller municipalities has, in general, gone down during that same period, meaning the rise is primarily in the larger cities. (2012 is the most recent year for which the national data is available.) Yet the OJJDP admits that—other than homicides—getting hard and fast numbers on gang crime is a tricky business because the classification of what is and is not a gang crime varies so widely, depending upon who’s doing the classifying.

    In any case, Sam, I think—as Warren said on the radio—we agree far more than we disagree. I suspect more than anything we’re just holding handfuls of slightly different puzzle pieces, but they are all pieces that are part of the same larger picture.

    Rather than continue this discussion online, however, I’d welcome a private chat. I think we could sort things out easily and it’d be fun to compare notes.

    Thanks again for your smart reporting and analysis.


  • Mr. Quinones, thank you for taking academic stock of gang culture in Southern California. It’s obvious you did a lot of reasarch and put a lot of thought into your article and comment. However, you missed the mark a bit and need to broaden your view in order to get the entire picture. The areas you described have one major commonality, they are predominately Hispanic street gang areas. The gangs you referenced cover large areas and their rivals are also Hispanic gangs. In recent years the Mexican Mafia and Cartels have changed the face of Hispanic street gang dominated territory. It is in fact a business based in the drug trade. The every day gang banging has been shelved in the interest of making money on orders from EME and The Cartels.

    I hope you can take the time to focus on areas with Black and Hispanic street gangs in close proximity to each other. I recommend the following LAPD Divisions: Newton; 77th; Southeast; and Southwest and the following LASD Stations: Century; Compton; and South Los Angeles.

    I agree crime is down especially in comparison to the 80’s and 90’s but gangs are far from out of sight and out of mind. I want to reiterate, I appreciate your hard work I just want to make sure you are getting an accurate picture of gang culture in Los Angeles

  • @ 1& 3….Great work and very informative.

    PH1 definitely raised a point about other gangs other than Latino gangs in the indicated areas that he mentioned.

  • Many a police chief and sheriff will pound their chest, claiming they are responsible for the drastic drop in violent crime across the country. There is only one problem with that theory: it fails to point out what law enforcement did differently before and after the drop in crime, and particularly a cause and effect relationship.

    On the other hand, the evolution of information technology, which strangely enough occurred during the same time span, has facilitated the unprecedented IT crime spree. We need to stop measuring crime in traditional ways because they fail to capture the big picture. Case in point, today with a key stroke or two you can steal with little risk what would have taken a lifetime of bank robberies to achieve.

    When you have gang members in hotel rooms, cranking out fake income tax returns, I’d say the target has shifted. But if it makes you feel any better, keep patting yourself on the back.

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