Gang Influence Runs Deep in Phoenix's Roots

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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).

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler