Ground Zero

With arrests and civil pressures, police have reduced the terror inflicted by Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas. But conditions that gave rise to the gang in the first place still fester.

FOR TWO YEARS, FELIX MEDINA AND HIS BAND OF THUGS FROM THE EASTSIDE LOS CUATRO MILPAS GANG HAD A STRANGLEHOLD ON THE NEIGHBORHOOD SOUTHEAST OF DOWNTOWN PHOENIX.

RESIDENTS LITERALLY HAD TO SEEK MEDINA'S PERMISSION TO WALK DOWN THE STREET.

"IT WAS PATHETIC," SAYS EVELYN SANCHEZ, PRINCIPAL OF THE NEARBY HERRERA ELEMENTARY AND MIDDLE SCHOOL.

ARMED ROBBERIES AND BEATINGS WERE A REGULAR OCCURRENCE. MEDINA, 24, ALLEGEDLY STOPPED MOTORISTS AT GUNPOINT, SOMETIMES BEATING AND ROBBING DRIVERS OF MONEY AND JEWELRY.

ANY RESIDENT SUSPECTED OF TALKING TO THE POLICE RAN THE RISK OF A BRUTAL ATTACK. ONE MAN WAS HOSPITALIZED AFTER BEING STRUCK IN THE HEAD WITH A BOTTLE AND BEATEN BY EASTSIDE LCM GANG MEMBERS WHO BELIEVED HE WAS AN INFORMANT.

WORKERS CASHING THEIR PAYCHECKS AT AUSTIN'S MARKET ON THE CORNER OF 13TH PLACE AND PIMA STREET WERE SOMETIMES ROBBED BY EASTSIDE LCM GANGBANGERS DESPERATE FOR CASH TO FEED THEIR DRUG HABITS, RESIDENTS SAY.

GANG GRAFFITI DEFACED MURALS IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD; THE FRONT OF AUSTIN'S MARKET LOOKED LIKE A NEW YORK SUBWAY CAR.

THE AREA AROUND THE GANG'S PARTY HOUSE AT 1422 SOUTH 13TH PLACE WAS JAMMED DAY AND night with addicts seeking drugs and gangbangers waiting to rip them off.

Crack whores wandered the streets, seeking customers in front of Herrera school while classes were in session.

The residue spilled over into neighborhood parks, where residents say drug addicts sometimes left syringes in sandboxes where children played.

Residents frequently ran for cover, sometimes climbing under their beds, terrified as Eastside LCM bangers fired off automatic weapons.

The elderly were frequent victims of the random violence.

"We need your money or we are going to kill you," was the greeting 55-year-old Frank "Panchito" Jones heard one evening two years ago when he returned to his home near 13th Place and Pima Street.

Two punks grabbed him from behind, threw him to the ground and stomped on his leg, breaking his ankle.

Police were guaranteed a lively reception when they drove through the 'hood.

"We did a street jump out there one night and we had guys jumping up on the roofs of houses and jumping from roof to roof as the helicopter hovered overhead," says gang squad detective Derek Stephenson.

Efforts by the community to form a Block Watch fizzled after gang spies went to the meetings to monitor who was talking about gang and drug activity.

"People would stop giving us information," says Richard Aregzaga, vice principal of Ann Ott Elementary School, which used to sponsor the Block Watch. "A lot of people in the neighborhood are afraid. That's the reality of it."

The volume of the mayhem subsided last March. After a three-month investigation, police arrested Medina and three of his top associates. A fourth ringleader was found dead -- apparently executed in a drug deal gone sour a few miles away.

"Since the gang roundup, it's been quiet," says Betty Mathis, executive director of the Wesley Community Center. Located at 1300 South 10th Street, the center provides a wide range of social services to the community.

But police know the neighborhood won't stay quiet for long. Unless neighborhood activists and police find ways to prevent the next wave of gangbangers from ascending into leadership positions, violence and intimidation will return to the barrio known as Los Cuatro Milpas.

Immediately after the March arrests of Medina and three of his gang lieutenants, police offered known gang members a series of intervention programs designed to divert them from gang activity and into the workplace. There were no takers.

Last week, police stepped up the pressure on Eastside LCM by seeking a court order (unprecedented in Arizona) that would prevent gang members from publicly associating with each other within the boundaries of a "target area" located between Seventh and 16th streets and Buckeye Road and the Maricopa Freeway. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge was to rule on the injunction on October 20.

"We want to encourage youth to get out of the gang, this is your chance," says Central City Precinct Commander Joe Klima.

Fighting fire with fire -- employing strong-arm tactics -- is perhaps the easiest approach to addressing gang violence. But it's an approach that's likely to fail unless the community is successful in addressing a host of other fundamental problems that plague residents.

The greatest challenge is to convince residents and their children there is hope for the future. This is especially difficult when everybody knows the neighborhood is dying -- it's just a matter of when.

Gang terror might be the most acute problem facing the neighborhood, which city officials officially call Barrios Unidos. The 1,000 or so families who reside in the "target area" face a miasma of municipal grief that transcends thuggery.

Paralyzed by poverty, pounded by pollution, rattled by noise, redlined by lenders and abandoned by politicians, Barrios Unidos is an economic, political and social vacuum that has long been devoid of strong leadership.

The neighborhood is fertile ground for a criminal street gang such as Eastside LCM to flourish.

"Barrios Unidos is an example of a community with critical social justice issues where the kids have run amok," says Jaimie Leopold, director of Neighborhood Partners Incorporated, a nonprofit social service agency that works with troubled neighborhoods.

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