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."
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."
Assistant Phoenix police chief Silverio Ontiveros spoke in defense of the injunctions -- and of the New Times coverage.
"As the Phoenix Police Department, we don't want to see any of these kids going to prison," the chief said. "That's why we are trying to work on this like a parent, like a family. We know what we have done in the past hasn't worked. . . . That's why we decided we needed to come up with the injunctions, to get them to wake up. I don't want to see another kid, I don't care what color the kid is, I don't want to see anybody else dead."
But earlier in the meeting, Fight Back's Art Luera made it clear that he's fighting back against the cops, not the gangs. He drew applause when he compared the injunction against LCM to "what happened in the 1920s during Nazi Germany, and that's the taking of civil rights."
Added Fight Back committee co-chairman Rick Cortez, "Most of the [injunction requirements] are basically just morals, things that we tell our kids, [such as] 'Come in at a certain time.' . . . We also tell them, 'Don't carry guns.' We also tell them, 'Don't be shooting guns up in the air.' A lot of these injunctions are just basically the same thing we as parents tell our kids."
Several people who attended also sat in Judge Talamante's courtroom on the morning of October 21, as the injunction hearing continued. Some snickered as City of Phoenix neighborhood preservation inspector Londa Martin-Fuduloff spoke of the trepidation that residents have expressed over LCM's sway.
"What I have heard from people in that neighborhood is they're very fearful," Martin-Fuduloff testified. "They feel there are spies that come to the meetings."
City attorneys projected photographic images of the 14 LCM members listed in the injunction. Martin-Fuduloff said she recognized about half of the 14, and also recalled several of their nicknames, which she'd seen in graffiti.
"I thought they [the names] were cute," she testified, referring to monikers such as "Scooby," "Slammer" and "Baby Joe."
City attorney Phil Haggerty asked Martin-Fuduloff if she'd replicate the gang hand signs that she said young men have flashed at her in the neighborhood.
"No," she said. "I'm not that talented."
One of the 14 served with the injunction -- Tomas "Quati" Padilla -- asked Martin-Fuduloff, "What was I doing there?" He was referring to her testimony about seeing several LCM members, including Padilla, standing on a street corner.
"Just hanging out," she answered.
"Was I doing anything wrong?"
(Police records indicate that Padilla has told them five times that he's a member of LCM. A detective asked him in an encounter last March how he'd joined the gang. "I was born and raised," they quoted him as saying.)
Judge Talamante temporarily halted testimony on October 21 at the request of a lawyer just hired by two of the 14 injunction subjects. The attorney, Stephen Montoya, said he needed more time to prepare a defense.
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Montoya told the judge "the Phoenix Police Department is alive and well, as we all know," and should be able to "continue to protect our neighborhoods" until Talamante rules.
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Read more stories in the Hard Core series.