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.

While better relations with the police are vital to eradicating street gangs, Nichols-Julien is steering the Fight Back committee to take on other issues, including opposing a liquor license for Food City on 16th Street and attempting to shut down an adult book store that recently opened on Seventh Street.

The battle over the liquor license for Food City, which is owned by Bashas', nearly ripped the Fight Back committee apart during its September 15 meeting.

Committee member Helen Brock accused vice chairman Rick Cortez of giving false information to city council members before a council vote to approve the liquor license.

A jet soars over Food City, whose request for a liquor license has angered some residents.
A jet soars over Food City, whose request for a liquor license has angered some residents.
The neighborhood is not far from Bank One Ballpark.
Paolo Vescia
The neighborhood is not far from Bank One Ballpark.

Brock said Cortez lied to the city council when he stated that the Fight Back committee had voted on the proposed liquor license, and that the vote was evenly split.

Noting support by the community, Mayor Skip Rimsza broke a 3-3 council deadlock and voted to grant the license. In casting his yes vote, Rimsza ignored a city staff recommendation to deny the license in a store that operated for about 30 years without a liquor license prior to being sold to Bashas'.

"Was anybody here at that meeting when we voted?" Brock asked fellow Fight Back committee members.

There was no response from around the table.

"Helen, that's irrelevant," Cortez finally said.

"No, it isn't," she replied. "We were misrepresented. I couldn't believe you were up there promoting a liquor license for this store."

The controversy got the attention of Bashas' vice president of retail development Trey Basha, who accepted an invitation to attend the Fight Back meeting.

Basha agreed to delay implementing the liquor permit for four months and promised to keep hard liquor and wine under lock and key. He told the worried Fight Back committee members that Food City will act responsibly.

"If I sell to someone who is obviously drunk, I could lose my license and have liquor pulled out of my store," Basha said.

The debate over the liquor license was welcomed by Phoenix City Councilman Cody Williams and seen as a positive step in the community developing a political power base.

Barrios Unidos is in Williams' district, and he selected the neighborhood to be part of the Fight Back program. Williams knew most residents in the neighborhood were against another major liquor vendor in the community and voted against the liquor license for Food City.

"My goal was to try to give these folks a leg to stand on first before you introduced another liquor license to the community," he says.

Williams says the Fight Back program has given Barrios Unidos an opportunity to control its own destiny, present its plans to the city and participate in political debate.

"If we [city council] don't show you the respect and appreciation of who you are, then shame on us," Williams says.

Police sweeps. Gang arrests. Fight Back meetings.

These are all positive steps forward for the people living in Barrios Unidos.

But lasting change that will bring economic prosperity and personal safety to the residents of Barrios Unidos still lies in the distant future, says Neighborhood Services director Jaimie Leopold.

"It will take a dramatic shift in every sector for this to change. It will take 25 years," she says.

In the meantime, residents must face the reality that danger lurks everywhere.

Jesus Espinoza, a 71-year-old lay minister who has spent his life in the neighborhood, usually takes his snub-nosed revolver with him on his daily walks.

"Of course I carry a gun most of the time," Espinoza says. "I love guns. I'm a sportsman. I've always been a sportsman. And I carry my .38 special with hollow points."

One day a few months ago four drunken men started following him. He felt threatened.

"They came after me," he says.

Espinoza was ready. "I opened my bag," he says, referring to a brown sack that appears to be a lunch bag but acts as a holster.

Espinoza says he turned on the men and pulled out his revolver.

"I was pointing at their heads and [said] the first one that moves I would blow his head off," Espinoza told a Fight Back meeting, which included several police officers.

The drunks took off in the other direction, and Espinoza says he hasn't seen them since.

"That's the kind of confrontation that's going on in the neighborhood," says Espinoza, who's earned his nickname as the "pistol-packing preacher."

"It's a matter of life and death to me."

See previous stories in the Hard Core series here.

Contact John Dougherty at his online address:

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