Gang Influence Runs Deep in Phoenix's Roots

Gangs have been documented in the Valley as far back as the 1930s, but for decades they served more as a neighborhood's protector than its predator.

"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.