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Curb Gang Trouble Now

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Gang violence in San Diego pales in comparison to the rampant wars in Los Angeles, where about 40,000 men and boys belong to gangs, and hundreds of people--mostly innocent bystanders--have been killed in gang battles.

But four recent deaths and a spurt in drive-by shootings here serve as a grim reminder that gang- and drug-related violence is increasingly a fact of life for many San Diegans. There are about 2,000 gang members in San Diego County, and so far this year, there have been 68 drive-by shootings and 37 killings related to either gangs or drug dealing.

Deaths of bystanders have been fairly rare in San Diego thus far, police say. But four apparently innocent victims--Barbara Pargo, Oliver Harrison, Eugenina Astorga and Worku Solomon--have been killed since May.

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Pargo, a pregnant Southeast San Diego 21-year-old, was on a street corner last weekend talking with friends when she was shot by someone in a passing car. Harrison, a 37-year-old retarded man, was simply running an errand on his bicycle for his grandmother when he was caught in the cross fire of a gun battle. Astorga, the mother of six, was hit by a bullet from a passing car as she sat in her living room watching television. Solomon, an Ethiopian refugee, was beaten to death by three gang members.

Police are quick to point out that San Diego does not have gang warfare; that gang rivalry alone is not the principal cause of the violence. Rather, most of the violence stems from drug dealers--many of whom are gang members--fighting among themselves over who has the “right” to sell drugs where.

The distinction between gang violence and drug violence may be an important one for law enforcement efforts to clean up the streets. But it’s little comfort to residents of Southeast San Diego, Barrio Logan and Logan Heights who must live daily in growing fear for their lives.

The violence must be stopped before it gets out of control, as it has in Los Angeles.

San Diego police say they are trying to learn from Los Angeles. This summer, after 13 shootings in six days, they stepped up their presence in Southeast San Diego, stopping suspected gang members and confiscating drugs and weapons. The strategy has proved effective elsewhere and seems to have helped here. Police want to continue the program, and the city should see to it that they have the necessary funds to do so. The time to fight the problem is before it becomes an epidemic.

Police alone cannot cure the ailment, though. Community courage is also needed. Right now, many drug dealers and gang members go free because witnesses are too frightened to contact authorities.

The fear is justifiable. But even anonymous tips telephoned to Crime Stoppers are helpful, police say. Community leaders need to redouble their efforts to encourage such citizen cooperation. And perhaps the current witness protection program needs to be expanded to make it safer for those courageous few who are willing to testify.

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Courage is also needed by parents, because drug dealing and gangs can attract children as young as 11. More efforts, especially job programs, are needed to discourage children from joining gangs in the first place. The lure of drug dealing is hard to resist when it can pay $1,000 a week.

The solutions require concerted action and will demand money and bravery. But one has only to look at the pain and death 130 miles to the north to see the potential consequences of Band-Aid cures for a condition that requires emergency-room treatment.

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