Friends and family remember Frankie Velasquez at an altar on First and Gless streets . / Photo by Jessica Perez
Friends and family remember Frankie Velasquez at an altar on First and Gless streets. / Photo by Jessica Perez

Boyle Heights residents still remember well the days when their neighborhood suffered from widespread gang activity and high homicide rates.

“It was bad, there were shootings all the time,” said Lupe Lorea, a 44-year resident of the Pico Gardens Public Housing Complex, one of several gang hot spots in the 90s.

Lately, memories of what used to be are too vivid for Lorea. She recently joined about 100 community members in a peace walk and outdoor prayer ceremony at Pecan Park in remembrance of 20-year-old Frankie Velasquez. Velasquez died a day after he was shot on First and Gless streets on May 5 in what police say was a targeted murder but have not concluded any gang relation.

But Velasquez isn’t the only one the community mourns. Just days before, Eddie Banks, 42, was killed after he and his girlfriend were shot on the popular First Street corridor locals frequent for bars, restaurants and a farmers market. His death, police say, was clearly gang-related and investigators hope strong leads follow a forthcoming arrest.

Four weeks before that, in Pico Gardens, two suspects were involved in a shooting that left 27-year-old Ricardo Orozco dead. Although those involved were associated with gangs, police say the motive is still unknown.

When the neighborhood experiences three homicides within blocks of each other in less than six weeks, many worry that a period of heavy violence could return to plague a community that has enjoyed peace and calm, and its lowest violent crime rate anyone can remember. “It’s not like it used to be,” added Lorea. “I’m just praying to God it doesn’t start again.”

Detective Carey Ricard, a 35-year veteran with the Los Angeles Police Department, says although residents may see a trend, he doesn’t believe the neighborhood needs to worry about a resurgence of the violent crime the area once experienced.

“The community gets accustomed to only having these fewer number of homicides,” said Ricard. These homicides, he adds, are “not a reflection of things going back to the way they were.”

Statistics show Ricard’s optimism isn’t far off. In 1992, Boyle Heights experienced over 60 homicides. Last year, only 12 murders were investigated in the community”” two of those were committed elsewhere and their bodies dumped in the vicinity. And according to the latest LAPD data, homicides in Boyle Heights are down by 40 percent year-to-date.

Community members gather for a peace walk and prayer ceremony at Pecan Park in Boyle Heights. / Photo by Jessica Perez

Ricard credits the historic rates in part to a dramatic change in the Hollenbeck Division, which covers Boyle Heights, El Sereno and Lincoln Heights. Since the 1970s, the department has grown from about 130 officers to over 300, with more than 90% of them Latino, and many who speak Spanish. Development in the area has also contributed, he says, as well as intervention and prevention programs.

Although Ricard understands homicide is inevitable”” especially in densely populated areas such as Boyle Heights”” he says improved police-community relations play a major role in their efforts to keep down crime.

Long-time Boyle Heights resident Ana Sarceno says with help of local organizations and churches, parents and active residents helped transformed the community after they were tired of seeing their children and neighbors killed.

Although she has witnessed the positive changes in the neighborhood, she says it’s the community’s responsibility to continue advocating for youth services and programs, participate in peace walks, and demand safe streets.

“We have to unite and keep working together to make changes in our community,” said Sarceno. “We need this. We deserve it.”

Get help, get involved:
Proyecto Pastoral
Hollenbeck Community Police Advisory Board
Dolores Mission Church
Homeboy Industries

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