In L.A., line blurs between street gangs and organized crime

LOS ANGELES, which has been called ``the street-gang capital of the United States,'' is seeking a tough new law to deal with the growing violence and sophistication of such gangs in the city. In the first move of its kind in the nation, city and county officials are pushing legislation at the state level that would treat gangs as a new form of organized crime.

The move reflects the depth of the concern about gang-related problems in southern California as well as the changing nature of the organizations and their activities.

Indeed, officials assert that some Los Angeles street gangs now resemble organized crime more than they do fraternal groups. They have become involved in major criminal activities, particularly the selling of rock cocaine and other drugs.

``There is little difference anymore between street gangs and traditional forms of organized crime,'' says Los Angeles City Attorney James Hahn, who, along with Los Angeles County District Attorney Ira Reiner, has thrown his support behind the proposed legislation. ``We are seeing alarming signs of alliances between street gangs and organized drug smuggling rings....''

Behind the call for stiffer laws are two trends: the growing incidence of gang-related violence and the emergence of Los Angeles as a major distribution center for cocaine in the United States.

There were 187 gang-related killings in Los Angeles last year - a 25 percent increase over the year before and just shy of the record 191 set in 1980. Through April of this year, 67 murders were tallied. Countywide, there were more than 100 murders in the first four months, putting the area on track to go over 300 for the third time in four years.

One reason for the growing crime rate is the type of weapons the 40,000 to 50,000 members of the area's 450 gangs are using. No longer content with tire irons and bicycle chains, they are taking on the look of small militias.

``The weapons of choice for Los Angeles street gangs are Uzi and MAC 10 machine guns, semiautomatic rifles, and sawed-off shotguns,'' says District Attorney Reiner. ``Put directly, gangs now represent a sizable army.''

At the same time, there is growing concern about the mobility of gangs. They are increasingly operating outside their neighborhood turf in Los Angeles and showing signs of moving into other parts of the US West.

Although no organized network has emerged, police in at least six Western cities - including Portland, Ore.; Denver; Las Vegas, Nev.; and Phoenix - have reported periodic visits by Los Angeles gang members. They usually come seeking new outlets for crack cocaine and often leave violence in their wake.

The movement outside local fiefdoms mirrors what has been occurring with some other big-city gangs, notably those from Chicago's South Side, members of which have been reported in cities in Tennessee and Mississippi.

``They are not coming over to recruit new members or establish new chapters,'' says Sgt. Brad Thiss of the Phoenix Police Department. ``They are coming over to establish distribution networks for the narcotics.''

Much of the big-money drug dealing and Mafia-style networking that have emerged here is attributed to black gangs.

Police say Hispanic groups are less entrepreneurial and fit more into the traditional pattern of gangs as protectorates of local turf and social anchor in a turbulent world.

To thwart the growing sophistication and organized nature of the groups, authorities are pinning hopes on the passage of the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act.

Though no other state is believed to have passed such a law, the proposal is modeled after the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which has been used to prosecute organized crime.

The law would stiffen penalties for certain gang activities. It calls for the prosecution of those who participate in a gang with the knowledge that members engage in a pattern of criminal activity.

Authorities say that as matters stand now, if four gang members are involved in a ``drive by'' shoot, police can go after the one who pulled the trigger but have difficulty prosecuting the others. The law would make it easier to collar all participants, as well as those who may have supplied the weapons.

At the same time, more power would be granted to seize property derived from gang crimes. The proceeds from sale of such property would go for gang prevention and education programs.

The proposal, which faces an uncertain fate in the Legislature, is backed by some community workers who deal with gangs. They see it as a way to go after adult gang members and parents who enlist minors to do criminal activity for them.

``We're talking about parents who drive their kids on drive-by shoots,'' says Leon Watkins of Community Youth Gang Services.

Not everyone is behind the proposal, though. Some civil libertarians and state lawmakers worry that it is overreaching - and will lead to people being penalized for just being associated with gangs. They believe existing laws can be used to accomplish the same goal.

``It is the old idea that if you consort with a radical, you are a radical,'' says Daphne Macklin of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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