Fear lingers in L.A. community

Latino gang members are no longer visible in Harbor Gateway. But they’re still in the wings, residents and police say.
By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
December 30, 2007
Two blocks from where 14-year-old Cheryl Green was shot to death a year ago stands a symbol of the Harbor Gateway neighborhood where she died.

The fourplex on 204th Street is one of many apartment buildings erected in this small and crowded neighborhood during the last 20 years. The building has a new coat of yellow paint, yet faintly visible beneath its surface is the graffiti that a year ago covered the building.

It was the work of 204th Street, a Latino gang that terrorized the neighborhood and was known to attack blacks. An upstairs unit in the complex was its unofficial headquarters, police say.

On Dec. 15, 2006, two members allegedly gunned down Cheryl as she stood talking with friends. Police say the youth accused of shooting the black teen had used a gun acquired at the fourplex.

A year later, building and neighborhood improvements are evident. Members of 204th Street no longer hang out at the apartment complex. Many are in prison or jail. Two await trial on murder and hate-crime charges in Cheryl’s death.

Following her killing, intense police pressure on the gang “drove them underground,” said Dan Robbins, the Los Angeles Police Department officer who investigated 204th Street. “We’d go for days without seeing a gang member.”

But police and residents say the gang lurks like the graffiti beneath the yellow paint, ready to reemerge when public resources are directed elsewhere.

“It’s like a weed,” said Charlene Lovett, Green’s mother, who has since moved. “If you don’t get it from the ground and uproot it, it’s going to regrow.”

Uprooting it will be difficult. During the last 20 years, private developers and Los Angeles’ declining industrial economy weakened this once-strong neighborhood, leaving it poorer, cramped, transient and more fertile turf for gang activity. The lesson from the Cheryl Green case is that “we need to think long and hard about our land-use decisions” and how they help gangs flourish, L.A. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said. “What that geography looks like is important.”

Few local gang crimes in recent years have generated as much media attention as Cheryl’s killing.

Within weeks of the fatal shooting, FBI Director Robert Mueller, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LAPD Chief William Bratton, L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and other officials stood at the Del Amo Market that the 204th Street gang had declared off-limits to blacks. They vowed to crack down on gang violence.

“We are coming with everything we have,” Villaraigosa said.

The 204th Street gang was tiny by L.A. standards, with about 100 members. But its activities reflected a reality that has emerged in L.A. County in the last 15 years.

Latino street gangs, while feuding with each other, are now also the chief perpetrators of hate crime, especially against blacks, according to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

Black residents of Harbor Gateway told reporters that the 204th Street gang terrified them. Gang members shot at them, yelled racist insults and sprayed racist graffiti on walls, they said. Since 1997, roughly one black person a year has been killed in what appears to be a race-related crime, police say.

Members of 204th Street said they were feuding with a black gang known as the 208th Street Crips. But police and black residents said that the black gang had long faded away.

Black residents said they feared walking outside. They closely watched passing cars of Latino youths and they didn’t use the Del Amo Market, the neighborhood’s only store.

Cheryl’s killing brought the neighborhood’s problems to light.

The Los Angeles Police Department formed a list of the city’s 11 most dangerous gangs that included 204th Street, along with powerhouses such as 18th Street, Grape Street Crips and MS13.

City Councilwoman Janice Hahn promised more resources for the Harbor Gateway neighborhood.

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