Shortly before five o’clock one morning not long ago, a dozen people waited outside the locked glass door of a nondescript office building on West Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Sunrise was still an hour away. Teen-agers buried themselves against the chill in hooded cotton sweatshirts; an older woman wrapped herself tightly in an acrylic shawl. They hardly spoke; mostly they stared glumly at their feet. Inside, they knew, was the man they consider confessor, mentor, social worker, civic conscience, scold—Renán Almendárez Coello, better known to millions of Spanish-speaking radio listeners as El Cucuy de la Mañana (the Bogey-man of the Morning).
Brenda González, a round-faced teen-ager from East L.A., told me that eight days earlier her fifteen-year-old sister, Maria, had been struck in the head by a bullet while they were driving home from school. “When we opened the door, she was sideways, and her eyes were looking up at Heaven,” she said. González wanted to ask El Cucuy to announce that the family was going to hold a car wash to help pay for funeral expenses. When González finished speaking, a big, sad-looking man in a cap embroidered with the Virgin Mary stepped forward and introduced himself, in Spanish, as Arturo Santos, from Guatemala. He said that his younger brother, Jorge José, had been shot dead on the street two days earlier, and he showed me a photograph of a long-haired man in a black leather jacket and sunglasses.
At that moment, a sharp-looking young man in...