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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Hip-hop put the city of Compton in the national spotlight. Now the Los Angeles suburb is on its way to gaining another claim to fame: America's murder capital. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, a recent increase in homicides is creating new fears and worries in the city.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

The city of Compton covers only 10 square miles, but living in that small space are 8,000 known gang members and scores of parolees recently released from state prison. It's a world glorified by gangsta rappers like The Game, Eazy-E and NWA, some of Compton's most notorious boosters.

(Soundbite of "Straight Outta Compton")

NWA: (Rapping) I'm comin' straight out of Compton, Compton, Compton.

DEL BARCO: This summer, Compton's reality is catching up to its thuggish image. With a recent surge in homicides, the city is on the verge of displacing New Orleans as the city with America's biggest per-capita murder rate.

JASMINE AGUILAR(ph): And my husband, he got killed. His name was Miguel, Miguel Angel Morales(ph). He was 19.

DEL BARCO: Jasmine Aguilar is just 15 years old, a high school student and seven months pregnant. She says she lost her husband on May 5th, Cinco de Mayo.

AGUILAR: His friends were fighting in the street and, like, he was trying to separate them. And one of his friends' enemies, he took out a shank and stabbed him in the neck and in the head.

DEL BARCO: Many people in Compton lost faith in the system a long time ago. A corruption scandal sent the last mayor to prison, the city's troubled police force was finally abolished and Compton hired county deputies to patrol its streets. Then came a new mayor and City Council, all of them born-again Christians who promised to clean up the town. Council member Isadore Hall says getting rid of the gangs is a priority.

Mr. ISADORE HALL (Compton City Council): These are vicious thugs that we're coming after. We know where they are and we're gonna come get 'em, period.

Deputy JOHN RODRIGUEZ: This is what they use in Iraq.

DEL BARCO: Fully armed in a bulletproof vest, Deputy John Rodriguez goes on patrol armed with a shotgun, a stun gun, a tear gas gun, a grenade launcher and a military-style automatic rifle.

Deputy RODRIGUEZ: There's some serious weaponry here. Maybe they have an AK-47, because there's a lot of AK-47s out here. You're entering a war zone today.

DEL BARCO: Rodriguez says besides the standard drive-by shootings, Compton also has plenty of walk-up shootings and even bike-bys by peewee gangsters who aren't yet old enough to have a car.

Deputy RODRIGUEZ: During the day, it looks like hometown USA. The lawns are manicured; the houses are painted. But it seems like once the sun goes down, it becomes a battleground.

(Soundbite of siren)

DEL BARCO: On patrol, Rodriguez stops a man on a street and asks him about a call of shots fired in the neighborhood.

Deputy RODRIGUEZ: Did you hear any gunshots, sir? Nobody saw or heard...

Unidentified Man #1: They're not laying on the ground anywhere.

Deputy RODRIGUEZ: Nobody saw or heard anything, huh?

Unidentified Man #1: No.

DEL BARCO: Rodriguez says Compton's crime rate has been on the decline; no one can explain why the murder rate has taken such a big jump. Some critics say it's because the city hasn't hired enough cops, but many believe law enforcement is only part of the solution.

Reverend STAN BOSCH (Leads Gang Intervention Program): We bury so many children, and there were eight just a week and a half ago in a one-week period.

DEL BARCO: Father Stan Bosch leads the only broad-reaching gang intervention program in Compton. One of the things fueling the violence, he says, is racism, mostly black vs. Latino--that and a sense that nobody really cares.

Rev. BOSCH: Chaos in the house, dads virtually not present, the young fellows go out into the street. The most insecure people in our streets are our gang members, and they're fellows that need to be loved. And yet that's not a popular point of view.

Unidentified Man #2: Bring deliverance to the city of Compton again.

DEL BARCO: All night last Friday, Compton's clergy gathered in a Baptist church and prayed for an end to the killing. Among them was Pastor Rayford Owens(ph).

Pastor RAYFORD OWENS: I'm a deputy right here in Compton, and we can't do it all. We can't do it all. We need the mobilization of the people. If we can get the people to stop being afraid to talk to just a young man--he's not a gang member; he's a young man--and hopefully, we can get him to understand what we're trying to do.

Unidentified Woman: Bring deliverance, Father God, to the city of Compton and its families. Hallelujah!

DEL BARCO: Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

NORRIS: You'll find photos of some of the people and places in Mandalit's story on our Web site, npr.org.

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