Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Milwaukee police said they arrested 20 members of the Spanish Cobras gang Monday evening, as the department steps up its anti-gang efforts and moves to combat increased violence on the south side.

A half-dozen squad cars from two districts descended about 5 p.m. Monday on a house in the 1600 block of S. Cesar Chavez Drive after residents complained of a large group of people throwing eggs, driving recklessly and loitering, said Capt. James Galezewski, commander of District 6, which covers part of the city's south side.

The suspects were arrested for loitering or on warrants, Galezewski said. Many belong to the Spanish Cobras, considered to be the city's first street gang, which has been recruiting heavily in the past 18 months. The house is known to police as a hang-out of the gang, Galezewski said.

 The captain was pleased residents called for police to help. Some residents say they fear calling police because of retaliation from gangs.

"It is encouraging they are willing to work together with us to root out problems in their neighborhood," he said.

Galezewski said Monday's bust was possible because of the return of the department's gang unit, which reappeared May 1 after a six- year hiatus. Each district has designated anti-gang squads, which were used for these arrests.

Capt. Mike Young, head of the Intelligence Division, which includes the gang unit, said the arrests illustrate the department's new anti-gang effort: district officers bust street-level gang members while detectives in the gang unit downtown investigate the leaders.

The two groups work together closely, Young said. In this case, detectives questioned the gang members for information in future cases.

The near south side has been the scene of 11 homicides so far this year, compared with 12 in all of 2003. Several of this year's killings were gang-related, as were two shootings near S. 20th and W. Scott streets this month.

Young said Monday's arrests are, in part, a response to those shootings.

"We are letting gang members know we aren't going for loitering, congregating, the violence and intimidation," Young said. "We are starting to have an impact out there."

As officers combat gangs, they walk a fine line questioning people on the street, Young said. They can approach anyone congregating on the street and talk to them, without violating rights, but they need probable cause to search, Young said.

"When neighborhoods get ravaged by gunfire, people expect police to be in those neighborhoods interacting and finding out what is going on," Young said.

Police arrested 16 members of the Spanish Cobras in January, suspected in 26 armed robberies on the south side.

The gang, which moved here from Chicago in the mid-1970s, was the first real street gang in the city, said Gary Graika, executive director of Milwaukee Violence Free Zone, part of the Latino Community Center.

Graika called the Spanish Cobras a "re-emerging gang," with a big recruiting drive.

"Their numbers are definitely on the increase," he said.