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Barrio "Fight Back" leaders turn sights on police, New Times

We do not have gangs here," a Latino leader said on October 20 during a contentious meeting of about 100 people at a south Phoenix community center.

The speaker, Art Luera, chairs the Barrio Unidos Fight Back Committee. Ironically, the City of Phoenix organized the group a few years ago in its war against gangs.

"We have community clubs," Luera continued. "This is our community. If you do drugs, this is our community. If we drink, it's our community. If you go to church every day, it's our community. . . . It's our culture. It's us."

An unidentified woman speaks during the neighborhood meeting.
Paolo Vescia
An unidentified woman speaks during the neighborhood meeting.
Central City Precinct Commander Joe Klima makes a point.
Paolo Vescia
Central City Precinct Commander Joe Klima makes a point.

Luera was referring to a neighborhood located southeast of Bank One Ballpark and north of Interstate 17.

Earlier that day, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge David Talamante had started taking testimony in a controversial case brought by the City of Phoenix. Its attorneys have asked Talamante to okay a "civil injunction" against 14 members of the Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas gang, which Phoenix police call one of the city's most violent and powerful.

In part, the injunction would bar the 14 alleged gang members from associating publicly in a so-called "Target Area" that borders Seventh and 16th streets, I-17 and Buckeye Road.

It's the first time an Arizona law enforcement agency has sought this kind of injunction, which police in Southern California use regularly.

Injunctions raise constitutional questions of what carries more weight -- the right of residents to associate or the right to feel safe in a neighborhood. (The nation's courts generally have sided with the police, as long as the injunction is narrowly drawn to a limited Target Area.)

Anyone violating the Phoenix injunction would face up to a $2,000 fine and six months in jail.

To hear many of those who spoke at the often-raucous Wesley Community Center meeting, the police (and New Times, which printed stories on the gang and the injunction: "Marked Man" and "Injunction Junction," October 14; "Ground Zero," October 21) have unjustly targeted LCM. Some LCM members attended, but said nothing.

"Half of the people that were mentioned [in the New Times stories], they weren't even bad," one woman complained. "I knew because I grew up with all of them. Just because they look like a gangbanger, just because they may dress like one, you know what? They got jobs, they got lives, they got families, and all you guys did, you just messed their families that were doing well. You're just trying to get the whole barrio to become a parking lot."

Said another woman: "You need to focus on some of the good things these kids have to offer. No one has looked into that. They only looked at the bad things, and that's what they went on. You really don't have anything on these boys."

One New Times story of October 14 told of four LCM leaders who were arrested in March. In addition to other charges, three pleaded guilty to participating in a criminal street gang -- one is in prison serving a five-year sentence; one is in jail awaiting sentencing to prison; one is on probation. The alleged LCM kingpin, Felix Medina, is awaiting trial on charges of nine counts of aggravated assault, armed robbery, kidnaping and participating in a criminal street gang. He faces up to 22 years in prison.

Phoenix gang detective Jeff Nolder described gang activities in a 63-page affidavit that accompanied the police request for the injunction:

"One of the beat officers in the area considers (LCM) the most dangerous gang he has encountered. The gang preys on members of the public by committing crimes ranging from homicides, aggravated assaults, drive-by shootings, home invasions, armed robberies, extortion, auto theft, burglaries, illegal drug trafficking, weapons' violations, threats, and any other crimes that will promote the status of the gang. . . ."

Nolder also noted that the barrio's law-abiding residents ultimately will determine whether the injunction makes a positive impact. That, he conceded, will be an uphill struggle.

"Many of the residents feel that they are captives in their own neighborhood," the officer wrote. "They grew up in the neighborhood, and it is all they know. . . . Most residents will not report crimes. They fear that their safety, and that of their family, will be jeopardized if they were to report gang activity. . . . Once we empower them and take away their fear, they may feel safe enough to come forward in a public forum."

The lone citizen who did come forward at the October 20 meeting was Alex Munguia, a burly, streetwise man who lives in the area and works for the city at the Barrios Unidos park.

"There is crime being done in the neighborhood," Munguia said. "You guys know it. I ain't lying. I've seen it. They are claiming LCM when they do a crime. They mark it, they put it out there so everybody can see. I will talk. I will stand alone if I have to. Now, we need to start opening our eyes and say, 'Enough is enough.'"

Central City Precinct Commander Joe Klima told the crowd that there is a "silent majority" of residents who have concerns about LCM.

"Alex [Munguia] is right," Klima said. "We have to take our kids back."

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