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.
Against overwhelming odds, a handful of residents is struggling to establish a community Fight Back program. These residents know that the sweeping economic, political and social changes needed to stanch gang intimidation will take years to achieve.
The City of Phoenix is pitching in with an $80,000 grant to fund the Fight Back program.
Yet over the years, the city has consistently -- one would hope unwittingly -- undercut the neighborhood's attempt to end the siege.
The FedEx cargo jet that roars above is so close that its wheel lug nuts are visible to the hundreds of residents gathered on the Barrios Unidos Park soccer field.
Deafening waves of sound reverberate across the field, punishing the throng gathered to rally for one of the oldest neighborhoods in the Valley. The aircraft approaches from the west, directly into the bow waves of a powerful September thunderstorm sweeping in from the east.
Lightning bolts crash near the park as the jet passes 16th Street on its final approach to Sky Harbor International Airport.
Suddenly, the cargo plane fires its engines, aborting its landing just seconds before touchdown. As the cargo jet ascends toward the monsoon tempest to the east, rain begins to pelt the park.
Within seconds, gusting winds whip a torrential downpour across the field, propelling children across the grass in drenched delight. The hot, humid afternoon has given way at last to relief.
Residents, volunteers and employees from the city police, fire and parks departments toil to secure tents set up for the occasion. They cover up the food as well as prizes and trophies that were to be given to area kids that evening.
Musicians hastily cover their equipment in the portable band shells set up on the field.
The rain is relentless, finally forcing a somber and disappointing decision. The Fiestas Patrias Community Fair must be canceled.
It is a disappointment to those who had worked for months to stage a celebration of the neighborhood.
The Fiestas Patrias was among the first tangible steps organized by Fight Back organizers.
Yet a single rainstorm can't wash away determination or hope. As the rain transforms the field into a shallow lake, an organizer falls to his knees on a tabletop, clasps his hands together and prays.
For nearly two decades, residents of Barrios Unidos have lived under a cloud of doom. Surrounded by loud and dirty transportation corridors -- the airport to the east, the Maricopa Freeway to the south and the Southern Pacific Railroad yard to the north -- the area is destined to become a commerce and industrial park.
But no one knows when that will happen.
In the meantime, the residential neighborhood is steadily decaying. Residents have split into two factions -- those who want the city to condemn the area and relocate residents and those who want the city to rehabilitate the neighborhood.
The city, which has invested more than $1 billion in downtown redevelopment projects a mile to the northwest, has no plans now to condemn and purchase the neighborhood, which is composed of mostly working-class Latino families.
Instead, the city is providing token financial assistance while quietly condoning the redlining of Barrios Unidos by lenders. This makes it all but impossible for new homes to be built.
The federal department of Housing and Urban Development will not issue mortgages or allow the expenditure of Community Block Development Grants in the area because it is subjected to severe airport noise, says Phoenix HUD director Terry Goddard.
A former Phoenix mayor, Goddard says the city could apply for a waiver of the lending restrictions, but hasn't.
"The City of Phoenix is not anxious to do much in this area," Goddard says.
Rick Naimark, acting director of the city's Neighborhood Services Department, confirmed that the city has not applied for a waiver of the HUD lending restrictions.
Naimark says the city is following guidelines of the general plan for Barrios Unidos.
"Basically, over time the area Seventh Street to the east will convert to commercial and industrial uses," Naimark says.
While denying federal redevelopment money to the neighborhood, the city is condemning and buying decrepit homes from slumlords. The city levels the structures, leaving behind a patchwork of glass-strewn vacant lots that further depress property values.
Property owners in Barrios Unidos have missed out on the escalating values most Valley homeowners have enjoyed in the '90s. With little or no equity for a down payment on a new home elsewhere, many residents remain trapped.
Still, not everyone has given up. Some residents create beauty amid squalor, planting rose gardens that bloom amid the junkyards, garbage and crackheads lurking in the shadows. But these pockets of pride are rare.
The result is classic urban decay, directly beneath the flight path of one of America's busiest airports.
Barrios Unidos' plight has caught the attention of activists from the Arizona Justice Institute who are scrutinizing data to determine whether to file a class-action civil rights suit against the city and airport. The plaintiffs would allege that city policies have destroyed the neighborhood and devalued property without compensating residents -- a concept known as inverse condemnation.
"We are investigating whether these policies have had a discriminatory effect on historically black and Hispanic neighborhoods," says Eddie Sissons, executive director for the Arizona Justice Institute.
Sky Harbor Airport has taken some steps to alleviate the noise impact on the community. With the assistance of a $72 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration, the airport is offering to soundproof 2,400 homes located beneath the flight path in Tempe and Phoenix.
Airport officials have identified 637 homes in the Barrios Unidos neighborhood that are eligible for soundproofing. The improvements generally include double-paned windows, steel doors and additional attic insulation. The upgrades typically cost around $25,000, which in Barrios Unidos is generally equal to half the value of the average home.
So far, 146 homeowners have accepted the airport's offer. In exchange for the free soundproofing, residents must agree to relinquish all future claims against the airport for noise-related damages.
Barrio Unidos' response rate to the soundproofing program is 23 percent; in Tempe, it's 75 percent. Many Barrios Unidos residents are leery about signing away future rights to seek damages, Sissons says.
So there is piecemeal upgrade of housing stock in a neighborhood that needs a complete overhaul.
What Americans view as decay, however, looks inviting to opportunist immigrants from Mexico, many of whom have risked their money and their lives to illegally cross the border.
Illegal Mexican immigrants are trading $5-a-day jobs in Mexico for $6 an hour and more for jobs as laborers in the Valley's restaurant, hotel, landscaping and construction firms.
Many are landing in Barrios Unidos, where a collapsing wood frame house with a roof and plumbing looks great compared to the cardboard and tarpaper huts they left in Mexico.
The presence of the illegal immigrants creates resentment among many Latinos who feel trapped in Barrios Unidos. They watch newly arrived immigrants take two jobs, stay out of trouble, teach their children English and soon disappear into middle-class neighborhoods.
Wendelyn Nichols-Julien, community development coordinator for Barrios Unidos, says immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are generally "a great asset" to the community.
"They are willing to do anything to make things better," she says.
Many of the immigrant families are "extremely concerned about their children's education" and willingly take jobs U.S. citizens won't, she says.
Their presence in the neighborhood, however, does create problems. Slumlords sometimes charge exorbitant rents -- $500 and more for shacks -- that illegal immigrants are happy to take. To meet expenses, they will jam families into cramped, substandard housing, she says.
Illegal immigrants also are less likely to get involved in community activities or with school programs because they fear they will be detected and deported.
The influx of illegal immigrants has fundamentally changed the composition and character of the community and weakened community involvement.
"It's not like it used to be," says Angelo Orozco, who grew up in the neighborhood and has served for 23 years as a maintenance worker at the Wesley Community Center.
For decades, the community was characterized by a strong network of families, he says. It wasn't unusual to find great-grandparents living around the corner from their great-grandchildren. Extended families, Orozco says, were the glue that kept the community together.
That's changed dramatically in the past 20 years.
"There aren't as many multigenerational families living here anymore," says Orozco. "The community is not as strong as it used to be."
What's left of Helen Brock's front yard resembles gasoline alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
A stone's throw away and 20 feet above her sturdy house, cars and trucks roar down the elevated Maricopa Freeway just east of the Seventh Street exit. Shredded tires, orphaned mufflers, crushed mirrors and other interstate debris lie on the steep bank that separates her property from the freeway.
It's a dangerous place to live. A piece of highway flotsam once cut the face of Brock's 3-year-old grandchild as she played outside.
Occasionally, a stray tire will bounce over the guardrail -- there is no wall to shield her house from detritus or sound -- and tumble menacingly down the hill, crashing into whatever happens to be in the way.
"There ain't no such thing as watering and relaxing in your yard," she says.
A grove of eucalyptus trees once helped shelter her home from the freeway crossfire, which sometimes includes gunfire exchanged by irate motorists.
But the state Department of Transportation chopped the trees down last winter. Brock suspects they were cut because they were blocking drivers' view of a billboard that looms above her property.
The assault on her peace and tranquillity doesn't stop with the freeway.
Jets thunder over her home, providing a turbine staccato to the whine of freeway traffic and groans from tractor trailers gunning their engines.
"The airplanes are shaking plaster from my ceiling," the seventysomething Brock says in a Texas drawl.
Nighttime brings another dangerous element. Street gangs wander the neighborhood, sometimes spraying her house and the auto repair business her son operates next door with gunfire, other times with paint. The violence tapered off with the arrests of the leaders of the Eastside Los Cuatro Milpas gang.
"Our buildings haven't been painted in three or four months," Brock says with optimism.
Every window and door in her house is protected with steel bars. A six-foot chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire marks her property perimeter. A pit bull patrols the yard.
"It didn't always used to be this way," she says.
"This was the country," she says flashing back to 1947, when she and her late husband -- 18-year-old newlyweds -- began building their home out of true two-by-six studs and solid 1-by-12s for sheathing.
"There was irrigated farmland behind us, and this was beautiful desert," she says, pointing toward the freeway.
"My kids used to ride horses all the way down to the Salt River. They used to play in the river and go fishing," Brock says. "This was a lovely neighborhood when I settled here."
But that was five decades ago, when neighbors used to award ribbons for the most beautiful streets lined with citrus and pecan trees, interspersed with vegetable and flower gardens. That was before residents somehow lost irrigation rights and the city filled in irrigation ditches -- transforming an urban oasis into hard-packed, lifeless lots.
And it was before the area was redlined by lenders such as HUD and the city. Private lenders have followed the governments' lead, Brock says.
Realtors, she says, have told her the only way she could sell her property is to carry the mortgage herself, because lenders won't issue a new loan. The most cash she could get out of her property from a down payment is about $10,000 -- hardly enough to make a move worthwhile, she says.
Furthermore, carrying a 30-year mortgage is futile.
"As old as I am, I'll be dead before they pay off the property," Brock says. "So, I'll just stay here."
But she's not going to stay idly.
Brock has joined the Fight Back program, which has earmarked $80,000 to purchase additional city services such as more streetlights and additional parks and recreation services such as the rained-out Fiestas Patrias.
More important, Fight Back has brought residents together on a regular basis to discuss issues facing the community. The Fight Back members have formed committees to deal with blight, youth activities and crime.
Brock is skeptical that Fight Back will have any lasting effect, but she's involved nonetheless, participating in neighborhood cleanups and fueling a feisty debate during committee meetings.
The bottom line, she says, is the city and airport destroyed the community through its policies.
"We didn't lower the value of the property," she says. "They did, the city and the airport."
The Fight Back Youth Committee members gather around a table inside a meeting room at the Barrios Unidos Park on September 22 and vent their frustrations. They are parents in a community controlled by kids.
"I live in the neighborhood and I'm having trouble with one of my teenage sons," says Sylvia.
People are shooting heroin in the alley behind her house on East Cocopah and "unfortunately, that's where my son is going," she says.
Sylvia says she's twice pulled her son out of a neighborhood crackhouse, earning her a reputation among the addicts as being "crazy."
"I want him to start thinking on his own," she says.
Unlike those who turn a blind eye to their children's activities, Sylvia is willing to crack the whip.
"You can put him in jail," she says.
Gloria Moreno says she's worried about the degradation of community parks. She says from her window she can see addicts taking drugs and having sex inside the jungle gym.
"Little ones play there when there are needles in the sand. That's very dangerous. My concern is for the children," she says.
Alex Munguia, one of the few males to attend the Fight Back meetings, has grown up in the neighborhood and works in the evenings at the Barrios Unidos Park. He has regular contact with youth, many of whom already are convicts who are earning community service hours by working at the park.
"We have to make them look to the future," Munguia says.
That's a tough sell when many of the adults in the community have descended into a vortex of drugs, alcohol and domestic violence.
Richard Martinez, a mental health specialist with Southwest Human Development, also works with Munguia at the park. While Munguia takes a streetwise approach to dealing with the kids, Martinez says he tries to provide youth with structure in their daily lives by being consistent and fair.
"We are sending a different message to these kids," Martinez says. "We give them what they want -- respect."
Ester Esquival, chairman of the Youth Committee, has watched the youth spin out of control for too long and is willing to take a stand.
"If we don't commit, nothing is going to happen," she says.
The adults want to do something tangible. But what?
Taking direct action against drug dealers and gangs is dangerous.
"You stand in front of a house with a sign saying 'crackhouse' and they will shoot you," says Munguia, whose family has felt the sting of gangs and violence.
Meanwhile, determining what kids expect isn't easy. Neighborhood teens give vague answers -- or none at all -- when asked what they wanted.
Most express a desire simply to have a safe place to "hang out" with their friends. Others would like easier access to movie theaters and amusement arcades. Many seem perplexed over adult worries of gangs, drugs and violence.
"It's the same everywhere," says the sister of one of the gang members arrested in March.
Asked what they would do if they had $1 million to spend to improve their community, a dozen teenage girls sit in dumfounded silence.
After repeated prodding by adults, one teenager finally suggests that the money could be used for scholarships.
When asked what they feared about their community, several of the girls cite violence.
"I was walking down the alley home from school and saw a woman who had been stabbed," one teen says.
Keeping violence reduction as a top priority, the Youth Committee focused on Crossroads, a program used by the Arizona Department of Juvenile Corrections that teaches youth and adults how to cope with violence.
For six months, the committee worked with Dr. Douglas Brown, a clinical psychiatrist with the Maricopa County Health Center who created the Crossroads program, to customize a program for Barrios Unidos youth.
The program had the support of the entire Fight Back committee, and only needed approval from the City of Phoenix, which has final say over all expenditures from Fight Back's $80,000 budget.
Esquival says the Fight Back committee was willing to spend $10,000 to hire Dr. Brown to implement Crossroads.
"We are talking at any one time placing 15 young people in a rotation of groups that usually last about two and a half months," Brown says.
The program would also train adults who could continue to teach future classes at a much lower cost, while Brown would be available as a consultant.
Despite the high hopes the youth committee has for implementing the Crossroads program, the city's Neighborhood Services Department shot down the proposal.
Esquival got the bad news before the September 29 Youth Committee meeting, hours before Brown met with a dozen teenage girls to discuss their goals, fears and hopes for the future.
Esquival was livid about the city's rejection of the program, saying she suspects it was nixed because the Fight Back money would be used to buy services offered by the county.
Tim Bolling, who oversees the Fight Back program for the city's Neighborhood Services Department, says the proposal was rejected because it was a mental-health issue.
"The Neighborhood Services Department is not in the business of providing services for mental health," Bolling says. "We are in the business of improving neighborhoods. So, it just doesn't really comply with the mission of the neighborhood Fight Back program."
Esquival says the city's rejection of a program with strong support in the community will not be the end of the issue.
"We cannot as a neighborhood let this program fall through our hands," she says.
Bullet holes riddle the lights mounted on the west wall of the Wesley Community Center.
A hole made by a large-caliber slug pierces the steel door leading to the center's pantry.
A worker at the center points to three of the closest houses to the complex -- all less than 100 yards away -- that have been the source of drug activity and gunfire in the last year.
Rolling steel blinders protect all the doors to the center, which has served the community for nearly 50 years.
"That roller shield in that door has six bullet holes in it right now," Wesley maintenance man Angelo Orozco says during a tour of the facility.
The nonprofit center, funded primarily by the United Methodist Church and the United Way, is remembered by many adults as a centerpiece in their lives.
There are cherished memories of picnics, organized athletic events, a safe after-dark hangout.
But those memories have turned to bitterness; many residents complain about the operation of the center in recent years.
Some accuse Wesley's director, Betty Mathis, of being insensitive to Latinos and unreasonably restricting access to the center's gymnasium -- which was constructed by the city.
On a recent Saturday, the gymnasium is being used for church services instead of pickup basketball games.
The mostly white congregation comes from across the Valley to share inspirational stories about faith and God. Outside, some Girl Scout volunteers play with young children, most of whom don't live in Barrios Unidos.
When the church service ends, the worshipers pile into their late-model vehicles and drive away. The gym remains closed.
"On Saturdays years ago, we got 30 or 40 kids playing in the gym," Orozco says.
During a recent Fight Back meeting, residents voice their complaints over Mathis' management of the center.
"There is a cultural division between Wesley and the community," one resident says.
"It is not servicing the needs of the community," says another.
"It's a total waste to have that beautiful building and have our kids sitting on the corner," says a third.
Mathis is fully aware of the snipings in the community and says she's willing to make whatever adjustments are necessary to allow Wesley to fully serve the community.
Much of the bitterness, she says, is a reflection of the evolution of community during the past 10 years.
"Wesley was the center of activity for the barrio with all of its roller-skating places, tree houses and barbecues," she says. "That was a different time, and almost a different place."
Eroding property values, cheap rentals and a massive influx of undocumented workers have impacted how Wesley operates, she says.
Many longtime residents have shunned the illegal immigrants, she says. Wesley, however, continues to provide services to the immigrants. As a result, many Latinos with deep roots in the community stopped using the center, she says.
"Wesley got caught in the early '90s as being seen as the only people we served were immigrants," she says.
The center's budget dried up and was within 30 days of closing when she arrived in 1994, she says.
Since then, Mathis says, the center has opened a licensed preschool and she has secured $150,000 in funds with the goal of opening a Boys and Girls Club on the site. She needs another $75,000 to pay for support staff and utilities before a contract with the Boys and Girls Club can be signed.
Opening a Boys and Girls Club center on the site would help address a major failure of the community center, she says.
"Our thrust, the main focus of where we should be now in this neighborhood, is with the children and the youth," Mathis says. "We are not."
Much of the work with neglected youth has fallen into the lap of Felicia "Kita" Mijares, a former Wesley employee who left the center on unpleasant terms.
Mijares says she has spent much of the past seven years working with children -- one kid at a time. Her approach is straightforward, simple and, she says, effective.
"You need to occupy their time. You need to give them something to do. They have too much free time," she says at the end of a recent Fight Back meeting.
"They don't just want to go home, because, what's at home?" she asks. "There's nothing at home. Parents are on drugs . . . if they have parents."
While Wesley refuses to let school dropouts and known gang members utilize the gym, Mijares takes a different approach.
"Say they are in gangs, at least if you got all the gang in one spot, you got more control over it," she says.
"They are in gangs because they need something to do," she says. "I can get a group of kids and say, 'Let's go do.' They don't care what they do. Let's go do. Let's go do, and feel good about it. Give them a tee shirt, give them food, they love to eat."
Wendelyn R. Nichols-Julien is in the hot seat as the Barrios Unidos community development coordinator. While her job is funded by the nonprofit Neighborhood Partners Incorporated, she is technically an employee of Wesley Community Center.
On the job less than six months, the 23-year-old mother of two walks a fine line between advocate and facilitator: She helps focus discussions, raises issues that have been overlooked, recommends certain actions and mediates disputes such as the one brewing between the community, which she serves, and Wesley, which cuts her check.
"I'm the person in the neighborhood many people try to get ahold of," she says.
The wife of Latino television journalist Rolando Nichols, Nichols-Julien is relying heavily on the Fight Back program to provide a vehicle for change. The weekly Fight Back meetings bring residents together for the first time to discuss neighborhood issues on a regular basis.
"The Fight Back program has been great," she says. "It has opened a new relationship with the city that has been a very positive one."
Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of the Fight Back meetings so far is increased communication between the community and police.
Officers regularly attend the Fight Back meetings and are encouraging residents to provide information about suspected drug houses and illegal gang activity.
Police tell residents they're in the best position to rid the neighborhood of criminal street gangs.
"The success of the [gang enforcement] program doesn't rest on the police department," says Sergeant Terry Donagan. "The success of the program rests on the community."
Fight Back vice chairman Rick Cortez has asked committee members to provide a list of suspected drug houses to him, which he will forward to police. Information from residents already has led to the bust of a major drug-dealing operation that netted 20 rocks of crack cocaine, two weapons and eight arrests.
"Give us addresses with specific problems, and we will check it out," Donagan promises. "Give me 30 days. There isn't a drug house we can't take out."
Police have also made a major stride in improving relations with the community by declining to accept $24,000 of the $80,000 Fight Back budget that was earmarked for police overtime related to the gang investigation and subsequent arrests.
Central City Precinct Commander Joe Klima says that money should remain with Fight Back to fund other community-supported initiatives.
"Most of those funds are still available for your use," Klima told the committee. He encouraged the committee to consider using some of the money to support Block Watch programs.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.