"It wasn't like you were in a gang; you were from a neighborhood," says Phoenix Police Sergeant Paul Ferrero, a member of the department's street gang enforcement unit and its unofficial historian. "There were certain neighborhoods you knew if you had no business going there, you wouldn't go."
The oldest gangs were Hispanic. Ferrero remembers the Bonjo Boys and the Willow Park gang getting together for "rumbles" in the 1960s.
In 1978, police documented what's now one of the oldest, still operating street gangs, the Wedgewood Chicanos. The gang formed in a housing project called Wedgewood Homes in the Maryvale area, still one of the city's toughest gang areas. Ferrero says the gang started when one family took in a relative from California who had been in a gang -- and in trouble -- and was sent to live with relatives in Phoenix. The young man got a small group started. "It came to be and still is one of the biggest gangs in Phoenix," according to Ferrero.
Those earlier gangs had "a real tight hold, a real tight brotherhood" in many neighborhoods, especially those Hispanic communities that were already bound together by family, cultural and racial ties, says Hellen Carter, a Maricopa County juvenile probation official who has worked the streets since 1974. Carter, who now heads the community services division for the county juvenile probation department, studied and wrote about gang behavior while obtaining her Ph.D. in clinical psychology.
"They existed to protect the neighborhood," she says. "Then they became kind of like a cancer in the neighborhoods."
In 1981, police documented 150 street gangs in Phoenix alone. About 85 percent were Hispanic, 10 percent black and 5 percent white. Now, nearly two decades later, police say there are more than 300 gangs on record in Phoenix, although only about three dozen pose any criminal threat.
The west and south sides of Phoenix, not coincidentally the poorest and most overlooked areas of town, have been the predominant turf of Valley gangs. Mesa, Chandler and Tempe also have pockets of primarily Hispanic gangs that have taken root.
The street gangs flourished as the old neighborhoods fell apart. Carter chalks it up to the inevitable decline that comes when a community falls on hard economic times.
Longtime residents move out; the new arrivals are poorer. "They had no real connection to the neighborhood and what it stood for," Carter says. "So instead of having pride in the neighborhood, it became what can we take from the neighborhood."
The transformation first became apparent to law enforcement in about the mid-1970s.
In the summer of 1977, Phoenix began experiencing "a type of violence never before seen in the history of the city," one detective recalls.
But it took police leaders almost 10 years -- until 1989 -- to finally acknowledge what the cops on the street had been saying for years. Police officialdom's blinders to gang violence paralleled that of the city's leaders, who were continuing to withhold money for after-school and youth programs on campuses.
"Back in the early '80s, we would get in trouble if we used the word 'gangs,'" says police Commander Mike McCort, who in the mid-'90s specialized in gang enforcement. "The position of the city and the position of the executive of the police department was, 'We don't have a gang problem. We have these juvenile youths out there but we don't have gangs,' despite the fact that we were bringing in evidence to show them."
So in 1979, Phoenix police formed the "juvenile crime reduction unit." It was run out of the community relations bureau. Street officers called it the gang squad.
Detectives Terry Morris and Tom Gabriel, longtime partners, signed on to the squad in 1980 and stayed for about four years. Morris is still a Phoenix detective; Gabriel retired from the department a few weeks ago.
They say much of the focus was on trying to get kids into rehabilitation programs or getting help for families.
"But we were finding three generations of gang members," Gabriel says. "We knew then if we were trying to change the family, it wasn't going to change."
In 1981, according to police reports, 885 gang members were arrested on charges ranging from minor crimes to murder. Police reported nine gang-related homicides that year and 692 other street-gang offenses.
Carter, who in those days was a probation officer working the Garfield and Ninth Street areas, says things calmed down for a while after a lot of gang members went to prison.
What police focus there had been on gangs tapered off, she says.
But the respite from violence was short-lived. Within a few years, some gang leaders had finished prison sentences and returned to their old neighborhoods smarter and tougher from what they'd learned in prison, she says.
"When they got out of prison, we had a real problem to deal with," Carter says. "They were more sophisticated, they had more connections. They'd learned how to run the gangs as a business."
At about the same time, 1987 and 1988, the black California gang influence was hitting the Valley. Police, mainly through traffic stops and asking for identification, began documenting California gang members primarily associated with factions of the notorious Crips gang. Ferrero and others say the gangs were intent on expanding their drug markets into Arizona.
Police say the black gang problem was exacerbated by California juvenile court officials who found their young-offender detention centers starting to overflow with gang members. Many California kids with less-serious offenses were given the option of leaving town rather than being incarcerated. Some ended up with relatives in Phoenix, and brought their gang ties with them.
In the '70s, Buckeye Road to Broadway and 24th Street to 24th Avenue was home to much of the city's black population. It also became the turf of two of Phoenix's most brazen street gangs, the West Side City Crips and the Broadway Gangsters, a "homebased" gang that police say refused to affiliate with the outsider Crips, a snub that set up an immediate rivalry.
By 1988, throughout the Valley violence was rapidly on the rise as the long-established Hispanic gangs fought to control territory and the black gangs fought to expand their territory and their drug markets, Carter and others say.
In 1989, the Phoenix Police Department created its "street gang enforcement unit." In the mid-'90s, when police officials were willing to fully acknowledge the city's gang problem, the unit tripled in size.
Still, the unit deals only with Hispanic and black gangs, the groups that gang experts say are truly "street gangs" -- organized around a loose-knit social structure and territorial identity. Asian gangs are considered an organized crime problem and handled by the department's organized crime bureau. Skinheads and white supremacist groups fall to the unit that handles hate crimes.
Ferrero, a charter member of the street gang squad, says police put most of their early enforcement effort into the black gangs and the California influence. The Hispanic gangs may have been fighting each other over issues such as territory and respect -- turf, girls, a slur -- but it was the black gangs who were taking their fights public with drive-bys and shootings directly related to the crack cocaine trade.
Ferrero says that the stepped-up police enforcement eliminated the California influence by 1991. Still, several black gangs were solidly in place.
In 1992, Hispanic gangs emerged as the source of most of Phoenix's gang violence and still hold that distinction today, he says.
Much of the Hispanic problem has to do with the rivalry between homebased Hispanic Chicano gangs and the gangs made up of Mexican nationals, young people who have immigrated to the Valley.
The Mexican national gangs are mostly offshoots of Wetback Power, a gang that police trace to 1986 and the neighborhood between Seventh and 20th streets, Van Buren to McDowell. It was already home to the Garfield and Ninth Street gangs.
Ferrero says the new gang, then called Mojado Power (mojado means wet), organized to protect its members from the homebased Chicanos who didn't like the way they spoke, the way they dressed, or the idea that immigrants might be taking jobs away from those Hispanics born in this country.
The gang was later called Doble -- short for the Spanish doble-u or letter W. But even the gang adopted the Americanized slang and by 1992, when it was solidly in place, was calling itself Wetback Power, Ferrero says.
By 1995, subsets of Wetback Power had spread all over the Valley. In 1997, according to a report on street gangs by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission, cities like Chandler and Mesa and even Cave Creek and Scottsdale were reporting Wetback Power offshoots to be their most troublesome gangs.
Some of the subsets also are formed around what part of Mexico its members are from. Earlier this summer in The Square, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood between Greenway and Bell roads and 32nd Street and Cave Creek Road, 16-year-old Hector Soto Jr. was killed in what is believed to be a gang fight between a Mexican national gang known as the Vatos Locos Sinaloenses ("crazy guys from Sinaloa") and the assimilated Chicano gang Mexican Brown Pride.
Still, police say gang violence peaked, at least in Phoenix, in about 1992. In that year, Phoenix police recorded 918 incidents of violence related to street gang activity (up from 692 in 1981).
In 1998, police reported only 331 violent incidents involving street gangs.
Gang membership is alternately reported as up by several thousand members (in Phoenix police reports) or down by several thousand (in recent state criminal justice commission reports). An increase in membership should result in an increase in gang crime. But that's not the case, and law enforcement authorities say any boost in the numbers is likely because of better reporting, particularly since police started keeping track of gang members in sophisticated computer databases, rather than new gang members.
"Gangs are not as popular as they were 10 years ago," says Ferrero. "It's not as socially acceptable. Ten years ago, girls would fall all over you if you were in a gang."
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Contact Patti Epler at her online address: [email protected]