Los Angeles has hundreds of street gangs that lure inner-city youngsters into lives of crime. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, the problem goes back many decades, but local officials say they are finally making progress in their battle against gangs.
Gangs mark their turf with graffiti, warning rivals to stay out. The groups thrive in parts of Los Angeles that are mired in poverty, mostly African-American and immigrant neighborhoods.
There are community programs to help kids get out of gangs. In the seaside neighborhood of Venice, one intervention program is called Venice 2000.
Claudia Bracho works with youngsters who are on probation after breaking the law.
"It is generations and generations of gangs and their uncles and their fathers," she said. "It is generational, and that is just what they know. That is all they know. They just know this little block, this little area."
The problems often start with petty theft and drug use. Then the criminal acts can escalate. The Venice neighborhood was the scene of a gang war in the 1990s, with dozens of shootings.
Melvyn Hayward Jr., program director for Venice 2000, was a gang member. He says youngsters can easily cross the line from mischief into crime.
"Oftentimes, kids do not understand that they have crossed that line," he said. "I did not understand it. And, you really have to have, I would say, individuals in your peer group, who understand that line, and are willing to deter you from jumping over that line. And, in my case, I did not have that."
Jorja Leap teaches social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, and studies gangs. She says gangs offer protection in tough neighborhoods, and a sense of belonging.
"You know, there are a few liabilities," he said. "You may not live to see the age of 21. You may wind up incarcerated at some point. But, a lot of kids are willing to trade this off for that sense of security, as strange as that sounds, that the gang provides."
A project called Homeboy Industries provides job skills for gang members, who call themselves homeboys.
A Catholic priest, Father Gregory Boyle, founded the project, and he recently welcomed U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to one of his sites. The mayor says, with help, these kids can turn their lives around.
"Young people, when they feel there are no options, when there are no job opportunities, when they do not have the skills to make it, they lose hope," he said. "And, when you lose hope, what else do you have? What else do you have?"
Seventeen-year-old Jose Vasquez' father, uncle and mother belonged to gangs. He was also attracted to life as a gang member, which he calls "gang-banging."
"My family all gang-banged, [also] my friends [did]," he said. "So, since I was eight years old, we just started doing our thing, and got into the 'hood [inner-city neighborhood], and just started gang-banging ourselves."
At Homeboy Industries, Vazquez is trying to distance himself from his gang in South-Central Los Angeles.
Former gang member Gabriel Hinojos has worked for Homeboy Industries for three years, and says it has changed his life.
"I got an apartment, a car," he said. "They helped me get my driver's license. I have even been to the White House and met Laura Bush. I am finally making real money, you know, right money, clean money. And it feels great."
Los Angeles gangs have spread through immigrant communities to Central America. U.S. and Central American officials met in Los Angeles recently to discuss the international problem.
Police have counted 23,000 violent gang crimes in Los Angeles in the past five years, but they say heightened law enforcement is just one of the answers. Those who work with gangs call for more good community programs, like Homeboy Industries and Venice 2000, and efforts to help students stay in school.
They say a comprehensive approach to the persistent gang problem may finally bring peace to the city's neighborhoods, and hope to its youngsters.