Invisible Scourge

While society frets over the threat of school massacres, a more insidious and lethal rampage mounts on the streets, unacknowledged

All of these factors contribute to the invisibility of gang murders in Arizona.

There is not a single agency or police department within Arizona that tracks statewide gang crime, and policymaking groups charged with monitoring gangs in Arizona are in a state of disarray. Absent meaningful statewide gang crime data, Arizona's gang problem cannot be realistically assessed. The Arizona Department of Public Safety gathers crime statistics from all police agencies. But the type of reporting conforms to the FBI system and does not separate gang-related crimes from other crimes. A sub-unit of DPS, the Gang Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission, or GITEM, has never collected gang-related crime data. GITEM counts gang members, gathers intelligence on gangs and assists local police on occasion but cannot tell you whether gang-related homicides have increased.

Images from an anti-violence PSA created by the National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council.
Images from an anti-violence PSA created by the National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council.

The Arizona Drug and Gang Policy Council was legislatively mandated to monitor state programs dealing with substance abuse and gangs. (Gangs were added in 1996.) In 1998, the state spent $87 million for 824 substance abuse and gang prevention programs.

The council is charged with the very serious responsibility of determining whether taxpayer-funded gang programs are working.

But there's a problem: The council doesn't have a penny to spend on assessing gang programs.

Because the Legislature refused to fund the council, it has been forced to rely on federal grants that deal only with substance abuse programs. Such funds, according to an April 1999 audit by the Arizona auditor general, cannot be spent on anything to do with gangs. An impoverished subsidiary of the council, the Drug and Gang Prevention Resource Center, a clearinghouse for gang program information, hobbles along with a small share of Superior Court fees. In 1999, its total budget was $207,400.

The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission is legislatively mandated to assess "the status of street gangs and related crime" and has the statutory authority to demand gang crime statistics from all police agencies. But it has neither requested such numbers nor tracked gang crime. The commission languished without a director or key statistician for the past six months, and has been neglected by Governor Jane Hull, who has failed for months to fill five vacancies on the commission itself. Rex Holgerson, the commission's former executive director who "resigned" last summer, was not replaced until early December. Of Holgerson, Commission Chairwoman Barbara LaWall will only say: "We hadn't taken a look at what he was doing and given him guidance as a commission. . . . The commission did not oversee him; he had been doing things the way they had always been done."

Which was poorly.

The auditor general noted the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission representative attended only two Drug and Gang Council meetings since 1995.

The commission even failed to put out its annual report on street gangs this year.

Without the necessary oversight from state agencies, without responsible media coverage, without accurate police data, media-driven public officials engage in acts of denial, neglect or foolishness.

There is an astounding gang problem in Guadalupe, where, according to police records, 350 hard-core gang members intimidate the town's 5,000 residents, who are mostly Yaqui Indians and Latinos. Yet town leaders, who vigorously promote tourism, deny any gang problem exists. When New Times asked former Guadalupe mayor and current town council member Anna Hernandez to comment on the gang plague, she replied: "I hang out with my prayer group; does that mean we're a gang? . . . It is safer in Guadalupe than almost anyplace in Arizona" ("Loco Motive," Terry Greene Sterling, August 26).

In February, four people were executed in a crackhouse on East Chipman Street in south Phoenix ("Life and Death in a Crackhouse," Michael Lacey, March 18). Within 48 hours, a second crackhouse shooting just a few blocks away, on Pueblo Street, produced another corpse and wounded four others, including a toddler.

One survivor of the Pueblo blood bath, 26-year-old Larry Jack, told New Times the second round of shootings was meant to silence anyone who would talk to police about the first massacre, which stemmed from a simmering hatred between the Broadway Gangsters and the Park South Crips.

Reacting to the carnage in the 24th Street and Broadway neighborhood, Mayor Skip Rimsza sensed a photo op and vowed to tear down a market where crack dealers hung out. He announced to the press that he would raze "Key's Market," to take care of the problem of gangs.

But the mayor was misguided. Key's Market had been torn down 10 years before in an earlier vain attempt to eradicate gangs and drug dealing. Mayor Rimsza meant to say that the city would tear down Rainbow Market, as if the neighborhood's malaise -- the gangs, the drugs, the poverty -- was somehow linked to a grocery store. The mayor promised problems would vanish with the wrecking ball.

Rainbow Market was leveled.

But of course the gangs stayed. The drug dealers stayed. The people were still poor.

Last month, long after Rainbow Market was replaced by a dusty lot, two undercover Phoenix police officers were lured to an apartment on Pueblo Street. The officers were trying to buy crack cocaine, which is controlled by local gangs. When the cops blew their cover, they tried to escape but were blocked from leaving the apartment complex. They were assaulted by the drug dealers.

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