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Young Lives of Crime : Police Say Children Are Turning to Gang Membership

Times Staff Writer

Detective Hector Camacho keeps a Polaroid photograph that he pulls from a desk drawer when he wants to make a point.

The faded picture depicts a small, friendly looking 11-year-old boy. He is wearing a baggy, blue T-shirt that hangs on his thin shoulders, a pair of blue jeans stained at the knees, tennis shoes and an engaging smile. His hair is slightly tousled.

The youngster could have been thinking about Little League. Or he could have been thinking about where to find money for his next score of rock cocaine, said Camacho, a 13-year veteran of the Bell-Cudahy Police Department and head of its gang alternative program.

Accused of 35 burglaries, the boy allegedly has been supporting a $70-a-day coke habit by slipping through open windows and stealing cash, videocassette recorders, jewelry and silverware, Camacho said.

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More Than 500 Pictures

Police say the boy is an associate of a gang in Bell. His picture is one of more than 500 collected in recent weeks during random police sweeps. Conducted by a multicity gang task force, the sweeps are aimed at cataloguing suspected gang members by interviewing and photographing them.

The identification effort, according to Camacho and other law enforcement officials, seems to confirm that the average age of gang members in the largely Latino suburbs of Southeast Los Angeles County has been falling in the past few years.

Only a few years ago, Latino gang members ranged in age from 15 to 21, most police estimate. But now, it is not unusual to find 10-year-olds involved in gang activity, they add.

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That apparent trend poses new problems for those who have spent years fighting gang activity in the Latino community.

Police speculate that the younger gang members are contributing to the reported rise in overall crime because of the easy access to firearms and they are learning at at early age to claim territory, protect it and sometimes die for it.

“These are children getting involved in adult crime,” said Marcos S. Vega, director of the 13-year-old Juvenile Assistance Diversion Effort, based in South Gate.

About 47% of Latino gang members being counseled by the county-funded agency are younger than 13, said Vega, who grew up among gangs in East Los Angeles.

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That figure is up about 10% from the previous year. The youngsters are referred to the counseling center by local police after they are arrested for such crimes as burglary, assault and drug abuse, Vega said.

“They start very small because they are vulnerable,” said Vega, whose organization has counseled 947 children and teen-agers in the past six months. Young neighborhood children, fearing trouble from older gang members, form their own gangs to protect themselves, he said.

In the past, the counseling center targeted junior high and high school students as part of its gang prevention efforts. Now counselors routinely conduct talks in elementary schools, he said.

But another, more troubling trend has emerged from the identification efforts, police and social welfare experts say.

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A majority of the new gang members are not trying to ally themselves with the larger, more established gangs, such as La Florencia and the 18th Street Gang, which have long dominated the streets in Huntington Park, Maywood, South Gate, Bell and Bell Gardens.

Instead, they are forming small, independent groups, wearing their own colors and devising their own gang hand signals to establish themselves in the neighborhoods. In recent interviews, police officials estimated that 40 small gangs have formed in the past year, with membership ranging from a dozen to about 50.

“What’s been happening lately is that we’re getting a lot of smaller gangs organizing, and they’re anxious to establish their turf and reputation,” Maywood Police Chief Theodore Heide said.

And the increase of gangs raises the likelihood that violence between them will become more common, officials say.

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Steven Valdevia, a 15-year counselor for the Los Angeles Community Youth Gang Services, said that the use of guns is “a dynamic that I have just seen occurring. The use of guns was rare when I started counseling, but there are more heavy-caliber weapons out there.”

‘To Them It’s a Game’

Camacho agreed. “They hang around Florence Avenue (between Bell and Bell Gardens) like ducks in a shooting gallery,” he said. “To them it’s a game. It’s fun. That is, until it gets serious and somebody gets hurt or killed.”

The overall increase of gang-related violence in several Southeast cities is well documented.

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In one recent weekend, for example, three teen-agers were killed and six were wounded in a rash of drive-by shootings, police reported. No arrests were made because witnesses were not willing to come forward, officials said.

In Bell, a 15-year-old suspected gang member from Cudahy was arrested July 23 and is awaiting trial in connection with a fatal drive-by on Florence Avenue, Bell-Cudahy Police Chief Manuel Ortega said.

That youth, whose name was withheld by police because he is a minor, was arrested after officers matched the pickup truck he was driving to a description witnesses gave.

And in Huntington Park, a dozen drive-by shootings this year have resulted in two deaths. No one has been arrested in connection with those killings, Huntington Park Police Detective Frank Sullivan said.

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Shot in the Back

Two weeks ago, a 21-year-old South Gate gang member was seriously wounded when he was shot in the back during a drive-by attack. No one was arrested in that assault, South Gate Police Lt. George Troxcil said.

So far this year, South Gate police have arrested 14 suspected gang members for various felony assaults. That figure marks a 50% increase in gang-related assaults from the same period last year, Troxcil said.

Bell-Cudahy Police Capt. Bill East said the numbers only suggest the amount of gang-related violence that goes unreported. He said intelligence gathering by the department’s gang squad suggests that clashes between the small gangs are becoming more routine. “It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

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Officials also fear that the increased violence could spill into other Southeast areas that have escaped much of the gang trouble that has plagued the county. In the quiet bedroom community of Lakewood, for instance, the Sheriff’s Department has increased patrols of the Lakewood Center Mall after reports that members of two larger rival gangs began appearing at the sprawling retail complex.

Viewed as Virgin Territory

Deputy Dale DuBois, community relations officer for the Lakewood Sheriff’s Station, said that gang members see areas that have not been plagued by gang activity as “virgin territory. (Gang members) come here to get away from the troubles they find on their own streets.”

“Huera,” a 16-year-old former member of La Florencia in Huntington Park, who asked that her real name be withheld, said young children are enticed into gangs because they are convinced that membership offers a safety net in the neighborhood. “You won’t get beat up so often,” she said.

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They are also bored and have “nothing else to do,” said Huera, who joined the gang with neighborhood friends more than three years ago.

Huera, like other former gang members interviewed, said that some neighborhood youngsters also join gangs at an early age because they are seeking a sense of family. A high percentage of the children and young teen-agers entering gangs belong to single-parent families, according to social service spokesmen.

Huera lives with her mother. Her father, she said, is an alcoholic who has spent the last few years in and out of jail. "(Joining the gang) was a way to become part of something that’s happening.”

“I wanted to belong,” Huera said.

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Not Easy to Get Out

Now Huera is trying to break from the gang that she once considered her family. But, she said, “they don’t make it easy for you to get out.”

She recently moved from Huntington Park to another city with her mother. She fears that she will be in danger if her former gang partners find her.

“The common denominator,” said Danny Trigueros, a Juvenile Assistance Diversion Effort counselor, is that “most of these kids don’t care enough about themselves to think they deserve better. That’s the root of the problem.”

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Counselor Valdevia said the apparent growing popularity of gangs in the Southeast communities is “just an indication of a deeper malaise” in society.

“Kids all over use drugs, and young girls get pregnant,” Valdevia said. "(In the Southeast), they are in gangs” as well.

Although gang members seem to be getting younger, the overall numbers of gang members do not appear to be growing, officials say.

“We’re only talking about at the very, very highest, 10% of the population has any association with gangs,” Trigueros said.

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Coaxed Into Alternatives

Officials also say they are encouraged because the younger gang members can be coaxed into alternatives because they have not fully adopted a gang life style.

“These (younger) kids are not your tattooed-down, hard-core types,” Camacho said. “It’s a new breed. In that sense, they are not your standard gang-bangers.”

In Huntington Park, Detective Sullivan said the Police Department recently received a $150,000 grant for community gang prevention programs. And in Bell, the Police Department has started an in-school gang prevention program.

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Camacho said he hopes that the multi-city, anti-gang task force, which includes officers and detectives from Bell, Cudahy, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Downey, South Gate and Maywood, will reach the younger gang members before they are unreachable.


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