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Crime & Justice

A conversation with LA’s outgoing anti-gang czar Guillermo Cespedes

Guillermo Cespedes is LA's outgoing anti-gang czar.
Guillermo Cespedes is LA's outgoing anti-gang czar.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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Guillermo Cespedes, director of Los Angeles' Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, will leave his job on Thursday for a new position with Creative Associates International, an organization that works to reduce violence and improve education programs in Central America.

Related: Guillermo Cespedes, LA anti-gang czar, takes strategy to Central America

For the past four years, Cespedes fought gang violence in L.A. with innovative programs that included using ex-cons to convince gangsters and wannabes to take another path. The strategy has contributed to an historic drop in crime.

Guest host Frank Stoltze talks with Cespedes about his tenure, and UCLA professor Jorja Leap about the future of the city’s anti-gang efforts post-Cespedes.

Interview highlights:

On why he is leaving his post as anti-gang czar:
"I think that for me this is a natural evolution of the work that we've done in LA. It's sort of interesting that people are framing it as me leaving LA, rather than the work is evolving. To me it's a logical next chapter. 

"Most of this started back in 2011, I was called into an officer involved shooting in Rampar/Pico-Union, a 17-year-old got killed, he happened to be gang-involved. I'm giving the mother the news and about 14 members of his family. She says to me, 'I need to call his father and give him the news'...It dawned on me that she was calling El Salvador. I went back to the office and said to the staff that our concept of a grid zone is much larger than what we think, and probably about three months later I made my first trip to El Salvador. The motivation for it was to connect the work that we're doing here with I think very important work that is being done there and those two elements need to connect. 

On his work to concentrate resources in specific gang-heavy grid zones:
These are very small areas that have a 40 percent higher level of gang crime than the rest of the area. The rest of the city about 35 percent of youth that are on probation, that attend LAUSD schools in those zones, about 55 percent of foster care youth that are LAUSD attend schools in those zones. Anywhere from 29 to 40 percent od the youth that live in those zones, their grandparents are financially responsible for them. 30 percent of families in those zones live below the LA poverty line, as compared to 19 percent for the rest of the city. These are communities at the highest level or risk

On seeing LA's communities as transnational in scope: 
Finally the academic literature has caught up with that, and there's a lot of literature on transnational families. That is the phenomenon that I believe we're dealing with in some of the neighborhoods in LA. In particular it related to Central America, because we're both geographically connected, there's been a lot of both legal and illegal immigration back and forth. But the central point for me is that when that kid got killed in Rampart, the reverberation of that in El Salvador through his family and his family's neighborhood was very much felt. I think that anytime you have a body bag in a neighborhood, the whole neighborhood gets contaminated with it.`What happened that night was I started to conceptualize the neighborhood as much larger than just a grid zone. 

On how a gang-related killing can reverberate across borders:
If I have a cousin who gets killed and I hear he got killed in the US or in the next neighborhood by a gang members from X group. I may not be gang involved at that point, but my anger about losing my cousin may in fact push me to say you know what I've got to get them back. Besides the emotional and understandable grieving that families go through, there's this issue of gang identity that travels back and forth every time a family member in El Salvador gets killed and their member's here and vice versa. I think we need to take a look at that, not just in El Salvador, but Guatemala and Honduras. 

On LA's MS-13 and 18th Street gangs:
The two main groups that are perpetrating a great deal of violence in Central America were born in Rampart/Pico-Union. I think there has been a lot of overdramatizing of those two groups. They're clearly perpetrators of violence, but I think we really need to understand the historical development and the families that are caught in the middle. This is a transnational family problem that requires, the same way that LA developed a comprehensive, community-based strategy, I believe that is our next develop a community based, comprehensive strategy that is transnational in nature. 

On images of gang members in Central America:
I think all those pictures with the tattoos...There was a time in LA when you said you were going to Watts, people assumed you were going to get killed. You've spent time in Watts you know that's not the case. There's a difference between the hype and what actually takes place. This work needs to be developed from inside neighborhoods. The work in LA was developed inside neighborhoods. Municipal government gave shape to it, but the leadership of it on the ground came from inside the neighborhoods. 

On the biggest accomplishments of his tenure: 

I think that since 2007 we've been able to cut gang crime in LA almost by 50 percent. The most successful piece of my work here was really making a conscious decision to go inside of municipal government to continue the work. I came to the Mayor's office in 2007...The most important thing was the programatic ideas and the programatic concepts were always clear to me. I think having the platform of the Mayor's office and the funding helped to shape and direct those programs. 

On the basis of his programs to reduce gang violence:
Number one, you have to engage the people who are perpetrating the violence if you want to reduce violence. You cannot put up a lightbulb and hope that lighting up the neighborhood is going to reduce violence. You have to physically engage in an ethical way with the people who are perpetrating the violence. Number two, I believe we have to focus on behavior, not identity. We learned that from LAPD that blanketing a neighborhood based on a person's identity backfired all through the '70s, the '80s and the '90s. You have to look at specific behavior, who i perpetrating that behavior, not the entire neighborhood. 

"Statistically, what we know from empirical data is little at 3 percent and as high as 15 percent of youth living in those marginalized communities that we talked about will likely become gang members. I'm by training a social worker, I've been a social worker for 38 years, my profession I don't think historically we distinguished. We used to think of dangerous neighborhoods, we used to think of youth violence, as if that came with the term, youth. I think if we look at data, this might not be the most violent generation of youth in decades, but yet youth violence seems to be like  a first and last name... In LA we really had to break apart some assumptions, including what we think a family is."


Guillermo Cespedes, the City of Los Angeles' outgoing anti-gang czar

Jorja Leap, Adjunct Professor of Social Welfare; Director, Health and Social Justice Partnership at UCLA

Joe Buscaino, Los Angeles City Councilman and Chair of Public Safety Committee