A Notorious Swath of Drugs and Violence
Friday, August 14, 1998
Shooting: Area where LAPD officer was gunned down has long been known as hard-core gang territory. Crackdowns by police and the FBI have failed to suppress 18th Street clique.
By ROBERT J. LOPEZ, RICH CONNELL,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
Members of the 18th Street gang who claim the area where LAPD Officer Filbert H. Cuesta Jr. was killed as their turf have a reputation for hard-core drug dealing and violence, and have persevered despite intense law enforcement crackdowns.
One alleged member of the gang’s Smiley-Hauser clique, as it is known, is accused of shooting Cuesta, an anti-gang officer who was waiting for other officers outside a party. Police sources told The Times they have concluded that the suspected gunman, Catarino Gonzalez Jr., is a member of 18th Street.
Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, speaking to reporters Thursday, would say only that Gonzalez had “shown affiliation with gangs in the past.”
Sprawled across a swath of working-class Los Angeles east of Culver City, 18th Street’s Smiley-Hauser branch–named for the crossroads where the group took root–flourished amid the explosion of crack dealing in the 1980s.
For years, its bustling street-corner drug trade drew a steady stream of customers through the Latino and African American neighborhood south of the Santa Monica Freeway. Suppressing the clique has been a top priority for the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southwest Division anti-gang squad, of which Cuesta was a member.
With members ranging from middle-aged veteranos to teenage street toughs, the Smiley-Hauser group also is the focus of an investigation by an FBI-LAPD task force. Members of the 18th Street gang there and elsewhere are “known to be violent . . . known to take risks other groups would not take,” said Louis Reigel, the FBI assistant special agent in charge of Los Angeles-area gang investigations.
In the early 1990s, one of the first FBI-LAPD task forces created to fight Los Angeles gangs targeted the Smiley-Hauser clique, after local authorities identified it as one of the most troublesome gang affiliates in the city. The two-year undercover operation led to a series of convictions, including that of an individual whom federal authorities called “a main shot-caller” and accused of distributing a kilogram of rock cocaine a week.
With an estimated membership in Southern California of up to 20,000, and cliques scattered from Tijuana to Portland, Ore., 18th Street is one of the largest street gangs in the West. In Los Angeles, the nation’s gang capital, 18th Street cells have recruited across racial and ethnic lines, and posed unique challenges for law enforcement.
Those challenges have been especially evident in the Smiley-Hauser area. After the arrests stemming from the two-year federal task force effort, officials declared the neighborhood free of significant gang activity. But by last year, the city attorney’s office, claiming the area had once again become a hotbed of shootings, drug dealing and intimidation, was back with a new tool: a precedent-setting civil injunction.
The injunction, granted last summer by a Superior Court judge, barred alleged Smiley-Hauser gang members from associating publicly and from engaging in a wide range of normally legal activities, such as carrying pagers and standing on street corners. Gang members, responding to the injunction in their own court filings, accused members of Cuesta’s unit of harassment and having “unclean hands” by allegedly inciting violence among gang members.
One declaration by a witness alleged that officers had goaded 18th Street members to go after rivals and had said that gang members who shot each other were “doing us a favor.” Police denied the accusations. Records show that Cuesta, who was assigned last year to monitor the 18th Street gang in the Smiley-Hauser area, served injunction papers on one of the clique’s reputed leaders. Cuesta described in an affidavit how the gang member “was laughing as he drove away.”
An undercover federal agent who has investigated the Smiley-Hauser clique said Thursday that he was not surprised that an alleged 18th Street member is suspected of ambushing the young officer. “Moving into the area was always tense,” the agent said. “Passing by, you knew they were packing, either carrying guns on them or stashing them nearby. “So when you came to jam them, you knew these guys could go off at any time. . . . It was eerie.”
* * * Times staff writers Matt Lait and Abigail Goldman contributed to this story.