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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
LA faces surge in gang killings
Mike Garcia with two of the young people he works with
Mike Garcia: Shot four times and stabbed three times
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By Maggie Shiels
BBC correspondent in Los Angeles

Boyle Heights in East Central Los Angeles looks like a typical working class district.

The streets are busy with people rushing about. Noisy children play on the streets. And the boarded-up apartment blocks are slowly being replaced by pristine buildings that look like they have just been taken out of their wrapping paper.

Mike Garcia shows spot where a gang member was gunned down in front of 300 school children
One shooting happened in front of 200 school children
But look more closely, and lurking in the stairwells are clusters of teenagers huddled together.

Drug deals go down. And every so often the same car with a crop of young males cruises by.

In this Hispanic part of Los Angeles, these youngsters see themselves as the soldiers of the Barrio protecting their turf. Few expect to live a long life.

Murder surge

The recent homicide figures bear that out. The Los Angeles Police Department reports that there were 63 gang-related homicides in the first two months of this year.

I think this summer's going to be pretty active

Community worker Mike Garcia
That is triple the figure for the same period in 2000. Drive-by shootings for February more than doubled from 41 to 98.

If the surge continues, the casualty count could be one of the highest in a decade.

Gang violence dipped sharply while the economy was booming. Recently the LAPD has taken a lot of heat over who or what is to blame for the rise.

Captain Terry Hara of the LAPD says: "We don't know if it's a blip on the screen. Some will argue it will bottom out. I think all efforts need to be taken where we work vigorously to identify gang members who are involved in gang activity. And one of the most important components is working with the community."

In Boyle Heights, Mike Garcia runs a gang intervention programme called Earn Respect.

Mike Garcia in the no-man's land between the territories of rival gangs
The neighbourhood murder tally is 20 in the last three months
He says the growth of gangs and related violence has everything to do with poverty and a lack of after-school programmes for teenagers.

"The LAPD estimates we have 37 to 38 gangs just in Boyle Heights and close to 10,000 gang members. Before, a gang would cover an area of five to 10 blocks - today its like two to three blocks.

"I think this summer's going to be pretty active. They are popping up like popcorn."

Poverty blight

The LAPD says Hispanic gangs far outnumber black gangs, with a membership of more than 34,000 versus nearly 19,000.

The murder tally in this neighbourhood over the last three months is around 20.

Death comes to everyone so you just got to take it

Former gang member "Boy"
One of the most recent incidents involved the gunning down of a gang member by a rival organisation in a school yard in front of 200 school children.

"Boy" is 23 and claims to have left the gang life behind.

"It's a natural everyday thing. It goes up and down, the violence here. Death comes to everyone so you just got to take it. Keep on doing what you're doing and hope for the best and wait until your time comes," he says.

For the youngsters in Boyle Heights, Mike is battling to ensure that that "time" never comes. He faces an uphill job in an area blighted by poverty and few employment opportunities. But Mike says life as a gangster is no life.

"I did everything a gang member had to do. Gang fights, shootings. I've been shot four times, stabbed three times, run over. I've been in riots in the prison system but when I was in there and my step son was in with me, I realised something was wrong."

Political will

Mike's role in communities like this is seen as vital by many organisations. But funding for Earn Respect runs out next year.

The Commission of Human Relations, which co-ordinates many intervention programmes that face the axe because of a city-wide $250m budget deficit, decries the lack of a long-term cohesive plan.

Captain Terry Hara of the LAPD
The LAPD is under fire for the rise in killings
The commission's executive director Robin Toma says: "A lot of our approaches have been very fragmented.

"There will be an ad hoc response to a serious gang attack but it will not be sustained. You have to create programmes over the long term. Not just next year, but the next generation."

With the 10th anniversary of the Rodney King riots approaching on 30 April, the spotlight has again been turned on the issue.

But the California Gang Investigators Association, an affiliation of police officers who study the problem, says the political will to do something longer lasting is lacking.

Association President Wes McBride, who recently retired after 30 years on gang detail, says: "At the moment this is a problem we are on top of just like a bull rider is on top of the bull.

"It's not that we are necessarily winning the war, but we are not losing either. The stumbling block is that the politicians don't have the political guts to do what needs to be done and the staying power," he said.

See also:

03 Jul 00 | Americas
Mean streets of Los Angeles
20 Jun 00 | Americas
Basketball hooligans mar LA glory
08 May 00 | Americas
US crime rate falls again
19 Jan 00 | Americas
Clinton plans assault on guns
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