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Crime Rate Soars as People Return to New Orleans

Before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans a year ago, the city had one of the highest crime rates in the United States.

New Orleans has only about half the population it had before Katrina. But law enforcement officials say, among the people who have come back are some violent criminals, many of whom belong to drug-dealing gangs.

A woman who calls herself Miss Jones told VOA she and her children are terrified at night by gunfire in her neighborhood. She says local police have not done enough to deal with the problem.

"The police know what is going on in my neighborhood. I know they know, because they have been back there enough," she said. "They are visible, every other day or something, but they always come back at the wrong time."

Miss Jones, who returned to New Orleans to work shortly after Katrina caused the city to flood a year ago, says she now has regrets about coming back. She notes that local authorities are backed by National Guard troops and assistance from the federal government.

"The crime to me is ridiculous. It does not have to be like this, especially when they have the National Guard here," she said. "That is help from the state, help from the United States. I am saying, 'You all have the Army here, why are we still going through what we are going through?'"

On a visit to New Orleans last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales addressed the problem.

"We are concerned about the recent increase in crime and, specifically, violent crime," he said. "We have made great progress in this area, but we still have challenges we must confront."

Gonzales promised more federal help for local law enforcement efforts.

"The department will assign 10 special assistant U.S. attorneys to New Orleans to assist in prosecuting firearms, drugs and immigration cases, with a federal nexus," he said. "In addition, the department is providing funding to hire an additional nine assistant U.S. attorneys, who will assist with the fraud and violent crime caseload."

Local police officers say the perception of an increase in crime may be greater than the real problem. But in neighborhoods where citizens say gun-toting drug dealers are visible every day, residents are terrified.

In a VOA interview, a suburban police officer who used the name Officer David explained that drug gangs are trying to stake out territories.

"After Katrina, the majority of the bad people did leave, and they did go to other states, Houston, Atlanta, Alabama, Mississippi," he explained. "The ones we are getting back now are from other areas, other than New Orleans, and they are trying to get their territories lined up. It is not actually in New Orleans, they are on the outskirts of New Orleans. That is where most of the crime is happening. It is not happening in downtown New Orleans, per se."

Officer David says the gang members are often heavily armed and ruthless. He says citizens are right to be afraid of these criminals, who represent a serious challenge to law enforcement organizations.

DAVID: "The gangs trying to set up their territories, they want people to know 'We are here. You cannot overtake us, and we will fight you, and we will kill you, until this is well-known that this is our area to sell drugs. So stay away.'"

FLAKUS: "Is the threat to the general populace mostly from catching a stray bullet, or are these people aggressive towards other people, who are not involved in drugs?"

DAVID: "Their aggression is toward anyone who gets in their way. They do not care, if you are a civilian, if you are a child, if you are a mother or a father. They do not care. As long as they are making their money, and are able to sell their drugs on the street, without getting harassed, they will kill whomever gets in the way."

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco sent National Guard troops to New Orleans after five teenagers were killed by gunfire, while riding in a vehicle in the city in June. In the past year, the federal government has provided Louisiana with $61 million in justice assistance grants and Katrina relief law enforcement infrastructure funds. In addition, Washington is providing $20 million to Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, for rebuilding its criminal justice system.