Gang Mayhem Grips LA

Guardian (Manchester), March 18, 2007

Father Greg Boyle keeps a grim count of the young gang members he has buried. Number 151 was Jonathan Hurtado, 18—fresh out of jail. Now the kindly, bearded Jesuit mourns him. ‘The day he got out I found him a job. He never missed a day. He was doing really well,’ Boyle says.

But Hurtado made a mistake: he went back to his old neighbourhood in east Los Angeles. While sitting in a park, Hurtado was approached by a man on a bike who said to him: ‘Hey, homie, what’s up?’ He then shot Hurtado four times. ‘You can’t come back. Not even for a visit,’ says Boyle, who has worked for two decades against LA’s gang culture.

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Boyle’s Los Angeles is where an estimated 120,000 gang members across five counties battle over turf, pride and drugs. It is a city of violence as a new race war escalates between new Hispanic gangs and older black groups, each trying to ethnically cleanse the other. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has referred to his city as ‘the gang capital of America’, has launched a crackdown on the new threat.

The latest front is the tiny strip of turf known as Harbor Gateway, a nest of streets between malls and office blocks. It was here, just before Christmas, that Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old fond of junk food and television, died. At school she had just written a poem beginning: ‘I am black and beautiful. I wonder how I shall live in the future.’ She never found out. As she stood on a corner talking with friends, two Hispanic members of the neighbourhood’s notorious 204th Street gang walked up and opened fire, killing Green and wounding three others. They were targeted because they were black. Traditionally the outside view of LA gangs has been of black youths like the Bloods and the Crips and their countless subsets. It focused on the streets of Compton and South-Central and the culture of gangsta rap. But Hispanic gangs are in the ascendant, spreading across America.

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Last year there were 269 gang-related killings in LA. Gang-related crime leaped 15.7 per cent last year, as most other types of crime fell. Hate crimes against black people have surged. With a rapidly growing Hispanic population, LA’s gang culture is shifting. It means that being black in the wrong neighbourhood can get you killed.

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Green’s death sparked Villaraigosa’s crackdown. The police took the unprecedented step of publishing a list of the 11 worst gangs, including 204th Street. They vowed to go after them with police, FBI agents and injunctions to prevent members meeting. An extra 50 police were assigned to anti-gang duties in San Fernando Valley. In south LA, a team of 120 detectives and 10 FBI agents has been set up. An extra 18 officers have been put into Harbor Gateway. But Angelenos have seen it all before. The city’s history is littered with anti-gang initiatives, and what the new effort shows is just how widespread the gangs have become. They have spread into the San Fernando Valley, an area previously famed for suburban prosperity. Last year one area of the north Valley saw a 160 per cent rise in gang crime.

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Boyle and others have mixed feelings about the crackdown. The road to LA’s problems is littered with failed plans and policing, and incompetence. Over the past decade the main anti-gang scheme, LA Bridges, has spent more than $100m yet keeps no record of whether those it helps leave gang life or return to it.

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LA is a city of two worlds—Hollywood and gangs. On a two-lane highway that roars through the middle of Harbor Gateway, a few hundred yards from where Cheryl Green was gunned down, there is a billboard for a new TV show called Sons of Hollywood. It shows three rich young men against a backdrop of palm trees. It claims to be a ‘reality’ show, but for most of the impoverished, racially torn citizens it is nothing more than a fantasy.

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