Operation Fly Trap: L. A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Lawby Susan A. Phillips
In 2003, an FBI-led task force known as Operation Fly Trap attempted to dismantle a significant drug network in two Bloods-controlled, African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The operation would soon be considered an enormous success, noted for the precision with which the task force targeted and removed gang members otherwise entrenched in larger
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In 2003, an FBI-led task force known as Operation Fly Trap attempted to dismantle a significant drug network in two Bloods-controlled, African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The operation would soon be considered an enormous success, noted for the precision with which the task force targeted and removed gang members otherwise entrenched in larger communities. In Operation Fly Trap, Susan A. Phillips questions both the success of this operation and the methods used to conduct it. Based on in-depth ethnographic research with Fly Trap participants, Phillips’s work brings together police narratives, crime statistics, gang cultural histories, and extensive public policy analysis to examine the relationship between state persecution and the genesis of violent social systems.
Crucial to Phillips’s contribution is the presentation of the voices and perspectives of both the people living in impoverished communities and the agents that police them. Phillips positions law enforcement surveillance and suppression as a critical point of contact between citizen and state. She tracks the bureaucratic workings of police and FBI agencies and the language, ideologies, and methods that prevail within them, and shows how gangs have adapted, seeking out new locations, learning to operate without hierarchies, and moving their activities more deeply underground. Additionally, she shows how the targeted efforts of task forces such as Fly Trap wreak sweeping, sustained damage on family members and the community at large. Balancing her roles as even-handed reporter and public scholar, Phillips presents multiple flaws within the US criminal justice system and builds a powerful argument that many law enforcement policies in fact nurture, rather than prevent, violence in American society.
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Operation Fly Trap
L.A. Gangs, Drugs, and the Law
By Susan A. Phillips
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Juan Emanuel Lococo, also known as Bigman, hadn't been raised limited, as the rest of his eight siblings in Los Angeles had. If anything, he had been spoiled by his grandparents, who doted on his sister and him. When John was sixteen, things began to change. His grandfather lost the use of his arms and legs in a car accident, and someone clapped a mysterious $500 lien on their Pomona home. No one knew what it was for. John's grandmother kept it a secret from the family. By the time John's grandfather died two years later, the bank had foreclosed on the house, and John's grandmother died within months of moving out.
John dreamed of somehow buying back the house for his family. One day he approached the people who now lived there and asked if they would sell his boyhood home to him. They refused. Somehow, he promised his mother, he would reclaim it as a surprise for her. He made the decision to deal drugs in sheer ignorance, he says now. He didn't know about community college or legitimate work opportunities. He only knew that he was tired of people saying no to his family. John swore they would never have to endure his grandparents' shame and hardship. "I'm gonna make sure of it," he told his family. Any time they needed help, he would be there for them.
John was not drawn to the drug trade because of the violence, he said, but because of the practicality of it. He wanted the money. He was watching a television news show about a drug cartel in Mexico when the idea clicked. After he arrived in Sonora, the city profiled as a hub of the Mexican drug trade, a man in what later would become the Sinaloa cartel befriended him. Quick trust was based on the fact that John reminded the cartel man of someone who had taken care of him long ago, when he was a young farm worker in the United States. This uncanny similarity opened thecartel to Lococo. Half Italian and half Mexican, John became known as El Gionni, El Italiano, or sometimes, El Loko de L.A. He developed a reputation for being trustworthy and dependable, someone who gave and got respect. The words of his grandparents rang in his ears: "My grandfather would tell me, 'Always make sure people respect you; make them respect you.' When he was out of earshot, my grandmother would quietly tell me, 'Mijo, never confuse respect with fear. May people respect you, and if they do, you'll see that they will have cariño for you as well. Never make people fear you.'" During John's days among the cartels, there was cariño for the narcos. They were like Robin Hood figures: for the people, and against the government where it fell short. The narcos' revolutionary edge carried over from their Sinaloese heritage, which combined valor with violence. "You see, people in Culiacán, or even Sinaloa in general, like to say working against the government is being Sinaloense. It's your inheritance." It was unusual for an outsider to be accepted into the tight-knit drug families of Mexico, but the capos soon realized that John, eager to prove himself, would take on work no one else was willing to do.
In the early 1990s, many cartels remained friendly, with kin ties and compadre connections. Lethal violence in Mexico was limited to a fracture between the northern Tijuana cartel and the southern Sinaloa cartel. Little of the dismemberment, humiliation, rape, or kidnapping of today marked intercartel warfare back then. "I mean, we killed, but when we did, where they fell was where it ended. Before, we never extorted; we never kidnapped." No dumping bodies in front of churches or schools. "Today," John says, "there is no cariño for the narcos."
In the early 1990s, the Sinaloa bosses gave John increasing responsibility. Eventually they offered him a plaza to control, an offer that carried with it the subtext "kill or be killed." John declined. He was growing into two people, he says. First was the one his grandmother had raised and nurtured, the one who would buy all the kids in town leather shoes, just so they would have something to put on their feet. That first one wanted to be a father, a grandfather, a son, an uncle, a brother. Second was the one who never slept well, who was "worried" constantly—about cops, business, enemies, past actions, possible futures. Juan Emanuel Lococo had developed a distaste for violence.
Lococo wound up serving time in a Mexican prison, where he occupied himself by planning a return to California. Back home, Lococo became a major distributor of powder cocaine to the gangs of South Central L.A. "Sales and distribution was something I could do without so much guilt," he says. "Rule number one about sales and distribution: violence and killings equal no sales or low sales. A whole new set of rules." He and his family still lived in modest, working-class houses, in the heart of a South Central gang neighborhood. But at least they had houses.
By the time the cartel offered him a wider piece of business stateside, Lococo knew eyes were on him. He didn't know it was King and the FBI, but he knew someone was there. He stalled the cartel in Mexico, who now wanted him to peddle China White heroin, a drug so pure you could snort it like cocaine. He left the bosses with a promise that he would return to Mexico in three months to follow a new path. At just two and a half months in, Operation Fly Trap interrupted his plans.
The FBI had cut Lococo loose from the 38th Street task force. Everyone knew about him, but no one could quite finger him. Lococo, however, soon resurfaced during Operation Fly Trap. The task force had supposedly connected him to their case by accident, but questions arose later about whether Fly Trap had been a fishing expedition to net him as a specific target. Lococo was a standout supplier in a sea of otherwise indistinguishable dealers and curb servers. The others, especially Tina, were pawns. He was the big cheese, and he was convinced he had been screwed. They all were convinced of it. In their eyes, they in no way merited the punishment they got, just for peddling drugs.
The Villain Big Head was the connection to Lococo through his brother-in-law, Ricky. Ricky was Lococo's right-hand man who supplied drugs to the Pueblos and Villains. In the beginning, Big Head hooked John Edwards up with Ricky, who introduced Ricky to Tina, then Tina to Lococo. Tina was the only one aside from the FBI who ever called Lococo "Bigman." Through Bigman, Tina would arrange packages for Junior, K-Rok, and herself, and all three would distribute them to members of the Pueblos, Villains, and in some cases the Black P. Stones—another Bloods gang—to deal on the streets. This arrangement was mutually beneficial, and those higher up the ladder imposed "taxes" on those lower down so that, as Tina says, "everybody could make their little profit."
On U.S. streets, the colloquial term for the drug trade is "the game." People in the game sometimes respond to queries regarding their profession by stating that they cook "chickens" or "birds." Chefs for the post-Fordist era, they cook up a grand recipe of two parts powder, one part baking soda. They add a little water and heat gently until off-white paste becomes the rock called a "dub" or "dove." They locate a spot to wait for customers who often look jacked-up and pathetic. The chefs' jockeying to serve these customers can look equally jacked up and pathetic.
The game gets much of its energy from the play of surveillance: the chase, cat-and-mouse, and moves on the chessboard. The players are somewhat more diversified in this game: growers, manufacturers, transporters, suppliers, dealers, servers, addicts, cops, agents, snitches, wires, GPS units, computers, and confidential sources. All kinds of new possibilities for social integration and disintegration emerge from the combination of these parts.
Within the game, higher-level businesspersons like Juan Lococo or John Edwards generally manufacture a buffer between themselves and the streets through other key individuals. In the case of United States v. Edwards, the key individual was Tina Fly. When Junior and K-Rok wanted packages, they trusted only Tina. They would call her, and she would get the money to take to Bigman. She called herself the middleman, trusted in part, she said, because she was a woman. Junior trusted her, Rok trusted her, and Bigman trusted her. They did not necessarily know or trust each other. Tina was the linchpin, the only one to connect each and every individual in the case. She was the safeguard between the two Johns and the streets.
Regular street-level drug peddlers seldom have a Tina. They have no luxury to sit it out behind the scenes while others do their bidding. For them, the streets themselves serve as the most powerful asset against law enforcement scrutiny.
The Villains' neighborhood, for example, is typical of South Central L.A. with its rows of old Victorian houses or bungalows with dead lawns or rose gardens, stucco covering original wood, and iron fences to keep dogs and kids in, and intruders out. While dealing is frequently done outside, hiding is best done inside, hence the trope of the crack house where the streets transform domestic space into a partially secluded drug zone. On the streets, close scrutiny of cars and strangers, intimate knowledge of neighborhood networks, and encoded systems of communication enable secrecy and illegality to persist despite repeated law-enforcement intrusions.
The Pueblo del Rio housing development, just north and east of the Villains' neighborhood, combines local knowledge with an insular built environment. Federally subsidized and originally built as World War II housing, the development enjoys secluded play areas, mature eucalyptus trees, and afternoon breezes. The development was codesigned by Richard Neutra, who worked with a team of modern architects, including Paul Williams, a prominent African American architect. The Pueblos are low slung with many inward-facing units. Neutra's idea had been that building beautiful, well-designed spaces would make for contented, healthy communities. Life in L.A.'s projects would disprove much of this thesis; after just two generations, the developments became hotbeds of gangs and crime. But Neutra wasn't entirely wrong. Most project communities are village-like. Young children can safely pal around on the common playgrounds under the collective eye of many mothers, whereas in the Villains' or other non-project neighborhoods, individual caregivers must keep a closer watch.
The seclusion that provides the children of the projects with safety during play also shelters more nefarious activities. The trick here is to locate a place out of the punitive public eye, to take advantage of the natural contours of the units and the semiprivate streets used to reach them. Outsiders' attempts to intrude upon this space are a much trickier business.
In the Pueblos, four sets of rail lines separate the big and little sides of the projects. When it was first built, a lavender metal-and-concrete overpass protecting the kids from having to cross the tracks was host to a flasher. At first kids didn't use the overpass for fear they would be stuck, unable to escape his open coat. They hid from him by continuing to cross the tracks that had already claimed one of their number. Pueblo Bishops also felt the gaze of someone upon them. Like the children, they paid attention to new elements in the neighborhood, to strangers, unusual cars, and changes in the behavior of those they knew. They began strategically shooting out streetlights and blocking specific drug-dealing streets with the gigantic black trashcans of the projects. On the night police killed a homie named Wolf Loc, the Pueblos moved a few of the massive receptacles onto the Blue Line tracks in protest. And daily the cans served another purpose: to cordon off the drug mainlines of the projects. The Pueblos knew people were watching. They fought back with darkness and dead ends.
In this manner, gangs like the Pueblo Bishops and Blood Stone Villains perform their own forms of surveillance and control of neighborhood territories. By exploiting the structural idiosyncrasies of built environments and by appropriating space for their own use, gangs contest the state's authority through criminal enterprise. They make neighborhoods into their own sovereign zones, with rules of law, regimes of discipline, and an economy that sits in place. Although they may not be overtly de-facto political, these processes highlight the state's and gangs' incomplete control over these territories. The entities of gang and state are thus uncomfortable partners in a game they must be content to win only partially.
As if mirroring the projects in which they grew, the Five Duse Pueblo BishopsBloods were a gang cops always considered difficult to penetrate. Law enforcement tried to have undercover officers jumped into the gang—a tactic that had been successful elsewhere. They tried to get people to deal to undercover officers both there and in the Blood Stone Villains neighborhood. According to Officer Brooks, "You know the Villains were violent, but the Pueblos were way more violent as far as putting work in. They got more structure down there. Pueblos is different. I mean those guys are born to the projects. Most of the guys on the Villains side, those dudes own their homes. The project people is, would you say a more poor class of people, and they got more problems." As a result of the nurtured self-protection, hands-on police tactics lost to thirty years of Pueblo history and paranoia.
The FBI created a litany of failures on the surveillance front to justify the wiretap warrants that would become keys to breaking open the full reach of the conspiracies. When the FBI or LAPD would drive through the neighborhood, for example, people would ID their cars. The Pueblos had a contact at the DMV; officers suspected this person might be giving up the feds' vehicle information. When marks saw a conspicuous car, they would frequently make obscene gestures, curse, or otherwise indicate that the officers' cover had been blown, again.
Much to the chagrin of authorities, John Edwards's apartment faced the back of the complex, not the street. Edwards's sister waved at the surveillance team one day as she drove by in a white Cadillac. On a different day, a group of Pueblos flashed gang signs at Special Agent Moreno and LAPD detective Murphy, and one of the gang members patted his front to signify that he was armed. On another occasion, after a conveniently timed arrest, a girl came up to the surveillance vehicle in the Villains' neighborhood and knocked on its tinted windows. Agents tried placing "surreptitious tracking devices" on KRok's and Tina Fly's cars. K-Rok discovered his immediately, and Tina removed hers within two weeks. The devices fell short of the more clandestine operations the teams had hoped for: aside from the constant risk of premature discovery, the device had a battery that required regular changing, which was hard to do on the down low. Agents also had to drive in close proximity to the cars for the devices to work. After scrapping the units, the team thought about looking through people's trash. Separating personal from communal trash in shared dumpsters proved a logistical nightmare, and this tactic yielded almost no results. Narcotics trafficking seemed to leave little in the way of a paper trail, and in at least one later instance a wiretap picked up Tina telling Black to put incriminating trash into a store's receptacle instead of her own.
Within such constrained surveillance contexts, the agents were always on the look out for potential informers by sampling the waters here, prodding a bit there. They decided they needed to place someone inside the projects—preferably someone who was already a known element. Authorities found it impossible to do surveillance properly on a gang so impenetrable, in a complex designed to be so insular. They took what they could get.
A crack addict and prostitute named Crystal became Confidential Source 1 and Operation Fly Trap's golden girl. The FBI planted CS-1 in a unit of the Pueblo del Rio projects. She wore a wire and recorded drug transactions with several major individuals, including Tina Fly. She arranged a key purchase of powder cocaine for $14,500 and also gave information about the structure of the Pueblo Bishops gang. Crystal was, for a time, the lone finger pointing in the direction of John Edwards as high command of the local drug trade.
In a neighborhood of poor people, Crystal was even poorer. She used to clean people's houses. She babysat, and had done so for several of the Fly Trap targets when they were kids. Tina used to donate her clothes and shoes to Crystal and would sometimes give her money. Tina and Crystal had done drugs together in the mid-to late 1990s, at the height of Tina's addictions. They had run the streets together, prostituting on Central Avenue. They had lived together as lovers for a time. Crystal had also exchanged sex for drugs with most of the targets in the case. According to Tina, Crystal had once been on the ten most-wanted list. Indeed, when the U.S. attorneys presented CS-1's criminal record in court, the counts against her ranged from vandalism to felony murder.
Excerpted from Operation Fly Trap by Susan A. Phillips. Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Susan A. Phillips is assistant professor of environmental analysis at Pitzer College. She is the author of Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in L.A., also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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