RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Officials in Los Angeles are launching yet another crackdown on gang violence. It's on the rise in some parts of the city. After decades of trying to get a handle on the issue, the city admits that Los Angeles is still the country's gang capital. This time L.A. is trying some new strategies for combating violent street gangs, with help from the federal government.
NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.
(Soundbite of helicopters and loudspeakers)
MANDALIT DEL BARCO: At daybreak, a dozen police officers surround a one-story home in the working-class neighborhood of Pacoima. They aim their guns and rifles and call out to a suspected gang member.
Unidentified Man #1 (Officer, Los Angeles Police Department): This is the Los Angeles Police Department. Come out through the front door with your hands up.
DEL BARCO: Eventually the suspect's mother comes out, holding back four pit bulls. Then comes his sister, pushing their grandmother in a wheelchair. Finally, police escort a 17-year-old boy, in handcuffs.
Unidentified Man #2 (Officer, Los Angeles Police Department): Okay, we got everybody out.
DEL BARCO: The police arrest him for threatening a classmate in their high school parking lot. Detective Dave Peteque says he's a member of the local Piru gang.
Mr. DAVE PETEQUE (Detective, Los Angeles Police Department): Our suspect pulls out a gun, points it at him, and basically says I should f-ing kill you right now, but there's too many witnesses around. But I'll catch up with you.
DEL BARCO: Police say such arrests are typical here in the San Fernando Valley, where gang-related crime shot up 44 percent last year. Lieutenant Thomas Zack says the biggest increase is among 12- to 15-year-olds.
Mr. THOMAS ZACK (Lieutenant, Los Angeles Police Department): The gang members are getting younger, they're more brazen, and they find it necessary to commit more violent acts to achieve notoriety and demand respect.
DEL BARCO: Chief Deputy Michael Moore says these kids are spray-painting their graffiti tags, and they're not afraid to shoot.
Mr. MICHAEL MOORE (Chief Deputy, Los Angeles Police Department): I cannot tell you the number of examples I have of victims telling me they've heard the suspect, one to the other, say you don't get to go in the gang unless you kill someone.
DEL BARCO: Further south in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood, gang violence divides along racial lines. Last month Latino gang members were arrested for shooting and killing a 14-year-old black girl. And witnesses say black gang members gunned down a 23-year-old Latino immigrant.
Derek Thomas, who is 21, says he and other African Americans don't dare cross into the Latino gang territory, not even to shop at the only market for miles.
Mr. DEREK THOMAS (Resident, Harbor Gateway neighborhood): I came down here when I was a young boy, and they told me not to come back. And from them, I ain't never came back.
DEL BARCO: Last week activists and neighbors, including Thomas, signed a peace treaty, a pledge to cool black and Latino tensions. But none of the gang-bangers who reputedly terrorize the area showed up. At the same spot a few hours later, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced, enough's enough.
Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Mayor, Los Angeles): No one should have to fear for their life because of the color of their skin. So we have a message for the gang leaders: we're coming with everything we have, and we're putting you out of business.
DEL BARCO: L.A.'s war on gangs has gone on for decades. In the 1990s the police department's special gang units got caught up in their own scandals, stealing evidence, shooting and framing innocent people. Since then, Chief William Bratton says, the police approach to combating street gangs has been piecemeal.
Mr. WILLIAM BRATTON (Chief, Los Angeles Police Department): We've been all over the place for many, many years. This city, this county, this region of the country needs to show leadership because we created the gang problem right here. It was born and raised and is thriving here.
DEL BARCO: Bratton now plans to target the city's top ten worst gangs. He testified to city council members now considering a new anti-gang blueprint that goes beyond law enforcement alone. After meeting with police, clergy and gang interventionists, civil rights attorney Connie Rice wrote up a massive roadmap for overhauling L.A.'s strategy.
Ms. CONNIE RICE (Attorney): The bottom line is we have locked up over 450,000 young people under the age of 18 in the last 10 years. We've spent billions and billions of dollars on everything that you can think of in suppression. We have targeted everything from the tattoos to the shootings, and after $80 billion we've got six times as many gangs and twice as many gang members. Suppression alone is not enough.
(Soundbite of applause)
DEL BARCO: Rice proposes schools stay open till nine p.m., and parks till midnight for after-school tutoring and nighttime sports. And she suggests a new gang czar could coordinate gang intervention and prevention programs.
Karen Carter and Vicky Lindsay, whose sons were killed by gang members, urged the city council to approve the recommendations.
Ms. KAREN CARTER (Parent): When we go home we're locked inside, but we're still in a war zone. We are afraid.
Ms. VICKY LINDSAY (Parent): We live with this every single second, and it hurts. So whatever plans that you guys have, just put it in motion, because we hurting.
DEL BARCO: The city park in Sylmar is covered with graffiti tags heralding some of the nearby gangs. Like most of L.A., the neighborhood doesn't look deadly, but just a few days before in the middle of the afternoon, a teenager was shot in front of the high school across the street. On this day a 17-year-old member of the San Fer gang agrees to meet here to give us the lowdown on how he and his homeboys gang bang.
Unidentified Man #3 (Gang member): Roaming the streets, getting high and going out and looking to start fights and shoot at rival gangs. And that's about it -and just partying, 24/7.
DEL BARCO: He's afraid for us to use his real name, saying he's been locked up five times for things like armed robbery and resisting arrest. He's just been kicked out of Sylmar High School for, as he puts it, causing drama. He says it doesn't matter how hard police come down.
Unidentified Man #3: There's never going to be peace between gang members and no one's ever going to stop gang banging. I mean, it might slow down, but it's never going to stop. There's too many gangs and...
DEL BARCO: And there's nothing anybody can do about that?
Unidentified Man #3: I mean, I can change personally, but that's not going to stop a thousand other gang members from changing. They're going to continue what they do, I mean, till they're either dead or in prison.
DEL BARCO: He says getting out of his gang won't be easy. To join, he had to suffer a beat-down by his homeboys. If he leaves, he says, they may kill him.
(Soundbite of funeral music)
DEL BARCO: Just last week L.A. lost a prominent gang interventionist. Lilly Rodriguez, a former kick-boxing champ, crusaded for years with her husband, Blinky, to help kids leave behind la vida loca - the crazy gang lifestyle. She died battling disease. At a crowded church auditorium in Van Nuys, thousands of relatives and friends gathered in her memory. Among them, Gilbert Alvarado.
Mr. GILBERT ALVARADO: I met her about 10 years ago when I was a little kid running around the streets. She changed my life, man. She really did.
DEL BARCO: Alvarado says Rodriguez inspired him to leave the Project Boys gang 10 years ago when he was 16.
Mr. ALVARADO: Man, she helped a lot of guys like me in gangs. She would teach them boxing instead of being out with the gangs. Come here, man, I'll show you how to fight. Come on, don't worry about it, you know? Till her last day, man, she was trying to help me out, you know? Gilbert, she was like, man, I believe in you, mi'jo. I never had nobody show me that affection, that love.
DEL BARCO: Alvarado suggests that unconditional love and patience by parents and police is what it really takes to counter gang life; something you may not find spelled out in any official anti-gang playbook.
Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.