Marked Man

Felix Medina and his gang compatriots ruthlessly ruled a south central neighborhood. Now the party's over.

Los Cuatro Milpas didn't always terrorize residents. It was formed to protect its members from rival gangs, including Golden Gate to the east, Barrio Ann Ott to the south and Varrio Campito Locos to the north. Its name was derived from a popular song -- "Los Cuatro Milpas" -- played at neighborhood dances in the 1930s.

Over the years, the rival gangs have waned, allowing LCM to expand. In the mid-1980s, LCM set up satellite operations in far-flung areas of Phoenix. The smaller factions of LCM began identifying themselves by their geographic location.

Eastside LCM is the original and largest, with about 160 members. Southside LCM, Northside LCM and Westside LCM are generally loyal to each other, although Medina's activities created rifts between the various factions, gang members say.

About two years ago, the number of shootings and armed robberies in the Eastside LCM neighborhood spiked. It became obvious that the gang was going through an active cycle, which is typical following the release of a gang member from prison -- in this case, Medina.

"Every time we drove through there, we would see tons of foot traffic, guys hanging around, gangsters hanging out on the side of the streets," Detective Stephenson says. "We would drive through and they would move to the side of the street or they would just take off running."

Police stepped up surveillance and started pulling over gang members for traffic violations, making arrests for warrants and drug possession. Before long, a pattern of criminal activity emerged.

"Some of the heavy dope users were getting jacked," Stephenson says. "As soon as they buy it, a group of guys would jump them, beat them up, take their money and take the dope back.

"The sad part is most of these folks, even after getting jacked, they still went back to the [Milpas] neighborhood to buy their dope because they couldn't find it anywhere else."

Stephenson says police suspected LCM members were responsible for the thefts and assaults.

"If you have a gang neighborhood, and you got an area that is in the heart of the neighborhood, and there are dope sales going on in that area, I can guarantee you that either they [the gang] is involved in it or they are controlling it," Stephenson says.

"We knew it had to be, but how do we find out who the people are?"

Many residents are afraid of the gang members -- or have family ties to the gang. Few people are willing to talk to police.

"This is a neighborhood where they instill a lot of fear in people," Stephenson says.

Relying on interviews of crime victims, tips from rival gang members and even some inside information from LCM members, police confirmed that Medina and his LCM pals were involved.

"We learned that a couple of Mexican nationals were connected to the drug trade and bringing dope into the neighborhood. LCM was allowing them to sell the dope," Stephenson says.

The investigation picked up steam late last year as evidence mounted of a major drug operation generating significant cash flow.

"The primary concern is that people are going to start dying if this goes unchecked," he says.

By March, police had enough evidence to obtain an arrest warrant for Medina on charges of armed robbery, aggravated assault, kidnaping and weapons possession. More important, there was enough evidence also to charge Medina and his associates under state laws targeting Racketeering Influenced Criminal Organizations -- known as RICO.

RICO statutes require police to show that crimes were committed to benefit a syndicate. Police must prove suspects participated in a gang over a period of time. One way police document gang activity is to photograph gang members displaying tattoos, wearing gang clothing and throwing down gang signs.

This information becomes crucial when police make arrests. Instead of a simple charge of armed robbery, documented gangbangers may also stand accused of participating in a criminal syndicate.

"If the [crimes] are all being done to bring stuff back to the gang . . . then we know we have a criminal syndicate," Stephenson explains.

While it takes much more legwork, time and money to build a RICO case, police say RICO convictions are getting gang members' attention.

Police have used the state RICO statute to arrest leaders of at least a dozen other Phoenix gangs in the past two years, and have made more than 180 arrests in all, says Central City Precinct Commander Joe Klima. The targeted gangs included East Ninth Street, Mexican Brown Pride, Varrios Hollywood and Southside Posse Bloods.

The Eastside LCM case was one of the most difficult investigations conducted so far, Klima says. Although the number of arrests was relatively small compared to other cases, the LCM bust broke up the leadership of a deeply entrenched, multigenerational gang operating in a small geographic area, he says.

"The crimes were focused on individuals in the community . . . neighbors and people who came in to buy drugs," Klima says.

Police Sergeant P.J. Ferraro says the RICO statutes have been an important factor in reducing overall gang violence by one-third since the early 1990s. The RICO statutes allow police to take a more aggressive stance against criminal street gangs rather than reacting to violent crimes.

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