Deeply Rooted in L.A. : Chicano Gangs: A History of Violence

Times Staff Writer

Elias Lopez never had a chance. He got sucked into something so much stronger than he was, something with a history so powerful, that there seemed no choice but to submit.

He was 17, a nice, quietly handsome young man with jet-black hair and a plan. He was going to be a cop, a narcotics investigator. Sure, there were street gangs in his neighborhood, but he did not want to join one. All Elias wanted to do was look like a gang member.

There was something about the way the gang guys carried themselves, the way they dressed, the simple white T-shirt, the khakis, the rebelliously, undeniably cool posture. “It got into me,” he said. He began dressing that way.

Soon, gang members who did not recognize Elias were challenging him, the way they have always confronted rivals: “Where you from?” What gang? “I’m not from nowhere,” Elias would answer. “Then why are you dressed like that?” they would demand. He had no good answer. He was miserable. “I couldn’t take it no more,” he said. He simply had to be from somewhere.

The gang in his neighborhood was called Clanton 14, a gang that had been around for decades. He told some of the guys he wanted in. Soon, he was.

Typical Gang Member

When people talk about gangs in Southern California these days, they usually talk about young black men, Bloods and Crips. But the typical gang member is not a Blood or a Crip. He is not confined to South-Central Los Angeles. He lives in places like Wilmington and Pomona and Santa Ana and Norwalk and Canoga Park and East Los Angeles. He is heir to a tradition of clannish violence that stretches back to the 1940s.

He is, like Elias Lopez, a Chicano.

Obscured by the nationwide public attention that has been paid to Los Angeles’ black gangs this year is the fact that the estimated 45,000 Chicano gang members throughout Los Angeles County vastly outnumber the estimated 25,000 black gang members.


Although their membership is not large--no more than 10% to 15% of Los Angeles County’s Chicano teen-agers belong to them--gangs are deeply rooted because they have existed for so long. In one East Los Angeles gang, for example, a social scientist documented 17 “cliques,” formal generational layers, each with a separate name and membership, that sprouted one after the other since 1935.

Fewer Deaths

In Pomona the other day, Leo Cortez, an East Los Angeles gang member of the 1950s who is now a county Probation Department gang worker, was driving to a junior high school, hoping to steer a 12-year-old away from gangs. Cortez figured he had an empathic edge. “I used to sell heroin with the boy’s great-grandfather,” he explained casually.

Despite this longevity, Chicano gangs have been easy to overlook in recent years.

For one thing, deaths from their disputes have plunged dramatically during the last decade, particularly in the nation’s best-known Latino community, East Los Angeles, as black gang fatalities have skyrocketed.

For another, their violence is diffused through many barrios, rather than being concentrated in a single area like South-Central Los Angeles.

For still another, cholos, as Chicano gang members are known, are harder to recognize than they used to be. The cholo uniform of oversized Pendleton shirt and khakis, long considered part of Los Angeles’ cultural landscape and popularlized in many movies, was abandoned by most gang members years ago in favor of more subtle and individualized garb.

Still, quietly and unspectacularly, the carnage continues.

In territory patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department, 39 gang members died in attacks or fights among rival Chicano gangs during the first 10 months of the year, 11 fewer than were killed in black gang violence. Disputes among rival Chicano gangs produced 963 acts of violence during those months, nearly the same number that were committed by black gangs.

Percolating Violence

Small bits of violence, not quite horrifying enough to make headlines, percolate everywhere.

The last few months have been typical:

In Boyle Heights, gang members seeking revenge surround a car at a stoplight in a rival gang’s neighborhood and fatally stab a 14-year-old boy whom they mistake for a gang member.

In Pomona, a gunman in a car packed with gang members shoots and wounds an innocent bystander. The bullet is intended for people in another car.

In Bell, six gang members beat a boy and his car with baseball bats, then run the car through the window of a pizza parlor.

In Santa Ana, gang members confront a car full of rivals and fire at them, killing one and wounding several others.

Near the Los Angeles Convention Center, two gang members, angered that several people are sitting at a bus bench in their territory, beat a woman to death with a baseball bat and pipe.

In Valinda, an unincorporated area near La Puente, a young man is fatally stabbed in a fight that breaks out when several local gang members crash a sweet-16 party.

Web of Rivalries

Like members of the Bloods and Crips, the young men who do these things are often acting under the influence of drugs, liquor or the heat of the moment. They are also caught up in something more profound, a web of rivalries so old that past sins assume a mythical quality.

“We know for a fact that Chicano neighborhoods will never love each other as far as the killings are concerned because somewhere along the line, somebody killed somebody’s brother, mother, somebody,” said Linda Castillo, a Community Youth Gang Services street intervention worker.

“What we try to reinforce is that we need to respect each other’s neighborhood, each other’s property, whether your wife, children, husband. Anything you want, you have it in your own neighborhood.”

This is a code born of remote, segregated barrios, forged in an era when most adults, let alone children, did not have cars, when the outside world was just that, when each neighborhood felt the need to huddle against unknown forces, when connections with Mexican culture were stronger.

The code included a distinct set of traditions, rules and taboos passed down for generations. Violence, it said, was not committed randomly, only to settle specific scores. You did not shoot into someone’s house. You did not attack bystanders. You did not jump a rival gang member if you saw him walking with his family.

Much of this code has fallen by the wayside. The world has changed.

‘Stoners’ to the Fore

Drive-by shootings that leave innocents wounded are commonplace in Chicano gang neighborhoods. In East Los Angeles, where Chicano gang styles begin, the traditional drugs of choice--marijuana, heroin, various depressant pills and PCP--are being replaced by rock cocaine.

The cholo gang member is being replaced on the Eastside by Chicano teen-agers who call themselves “stoners.” They disdain Spanish, wear their hair long, devote themselves to heavy-metal music and, according to some law enforcement gang specialists, show promise of becoming the first organized cocaine-marketing force in Latino neighborhoods.

The huge increase in immigrants to Los Angeles from Mexico and Central American countries in the last decade has weakened the traditional gang structure by filling many neighborhoods with thousands of immigrant boys desperate for acceptance. Some commit crazed acts to win respect from gang members. Others, fearful of attack, or already exposed to emerging gangs in large Mexican cities, band together to create their own gangs.

Code Still Cited

“In new gangs, where there are no older guys--guys in their 30s and 40s--nobody is teaching these kids la palabra , how to keep their word,” said gang worker Cortez, who has been assigned for the last year to Pomona, where traditional gang violence has been complicated by spasms of conflict between newer, less predictable gangs.

Despite all the changes, the code of honor and respect is still often cited proudly by Chicano gang members to make the point that they--unlike Bloods and Crips, who are viewed as wild-eyed, unprincipled newcomers to the gang world--are part of something special.

“In Chicano gangs,” said Victor Herrera, 23, a member of the Florencia 13 gang in Florence, an unincorporated, solidly Latino community near Huntington Park, “you gotta have a lot of heart.”

Take the issue of snitching.

As many law enforcement officers will testify, it is painfully difficult to persuade a Chicano gang member to implicate an associate.

“Black kids will do that,” said one veteran county probation officer, who is black. “We pick up some kids and say, ‘What happened over here?’ and they tell you all about their own homeboys. Chicano kids won’t roll over like that. In Juvenile Hall, you can have one Chicano kid who won’t give up (disavow loyalty to) his neighborhood even if he’s facing 20 guys of a rival gang. He’ll fight to the death.”

To Herrera, that badge of courage was earned when he spent a year in Juvenile Hall for a car theft he says one of his homeboys committed.

“I knew who did it, but I wasn’t gonna say who,” he said. “You never snitch on anybody.”

Not even on a rival gang member.

“I’ll tell you why,” Herrera said. “You shoot me, I tell the police, you do 20 years. I got homeboys in there doing life. So you go in there and say, ‘I shot your homeboy, your homeboy snitched on me, your neighborhood ain’t crap.’ That means I put my homeboys down in the penitentiary. Other people in the penitentiary are gonna say, ‘Florence ain’t crap; they’re snitches.’

‘Tell ‘Em You Don’t Know’

“When I grew up, my older homeboys, they told me: ‘Don’t snitch. All you gotta do is tell ‘em you don’t know.’ Sure enough, at 16 I was in there for first-degree murder. I saw who did it--one of my homeboys. I got arrested for being around the area. I told the cops I didn’t know nothing, because of the way my homeboys brought me up.”

Herrera, whose tattooed, muscular body is offset by light, penetrating eyes, has passed through gang life in a way that is regarded as inevitable among those with a rough-and-tumble view of the world.

He lived the vida loca --the crazy life--as a teen-ager, full of gun battles with rival gangs and the selling of PCP. When he was 17 his mother tricked him into leaving. She told him his brother in Texas had a job for him and a place to stay. He took his girlfriend, only to find that there was no job.

The trick worked, though. He stayed in Texas several years and matured. He and his girlfriend had one child, came back to live with Hererra’s parents and had another. Hererra got a job laying sidewalks for the city of Vernon.

He has mellowed, but his pride in being “from Florence” remains enormous. He says it the same way Tommy Lasorda says he is a Dodger. In the alleys of his neighborhood of huge palm trees and old faded stucco homes, where the wooden back fences are coated with generations of accumulated graffiti, he can show you every place he spray-painted his name when he was younger.

‘A Gang Member Still’

“I don’t go looking for trouble no more, saying ‘Florence this’ or ‘Florence that,’ ” he said, “but if they ask me where I’m from, I’m still from Florence. I’m not no ex-gang member. You can’t ever say you’re an ex-gang member. I’m a gang member still, but I don’t mess around no more.”

This sort of middle ground--hard-working family man and devoted-until-death gang member--is unique to Chicano gangs. With few exceptions, nothing like it has evolved in the street society of black gangs, where there is too much dread, too much betrayal, too little predictability to life.

In black gangs, by the time you’re Herrera’s age you’ve either wised up and moved to a neighborhood where you’re less known or you’ve fallen into the spiral of jail and unemployment and gunfire. Chicano gangs, more permanent, more part of the social fabric, have more flexibility.

“There’s a little of it in all of us,” said one Chicano professional who grew up around gangs but was not a member. “It’s why one of my bosses who’s also Chicano can send me a computer message that begins, ‘Hey, vato ' (homeboy).”

The best times of Herrera’s life were the months he was president of his clique. Traditionally, many older Chicano gangs have distinct subdivisions, segregated by either age or geography, that create a social network. In such gangs, when a group of youngsters wants to join, they ask permission from the gang’s veteranos to form a new clique. In Herrera’s case, the clique of Florence 13 he helped form was called the Tiny Locos .

‘The Craziest Clique’

“Five of us started the Tiny Locos,” Herrera said. “My brother; Snake, who used to live on the corner; Chico, who used to live right there, Frank and me. My brother got out, Chico got out to go into service, Snake got out to study, Frank got out ‘cause he just turned casual. So I’m the only one since we started in ’79 that’s still from the Tiny Locos who’s been in it since it started. Since the sixth dude on, I know every one, who he is, how he acts.

“What it is, you want to be the craziest clique from Florence, know what I mean? You want to be the one where they say, ‘Aw, the Tiny Locos did that ? Aw, man, the Tiny Locos did that ? The Tiny Locos threw a bad party? The Tiny Locos go to parties with the same sweat shirts on? The Tiny Locos dress baaad?

“Back when I was 16, if you wore khakis and dressy shoes and white socks, forget it, buddy, you get your ass beat or have homeboys talking crap to you. Certain things you had to go along with. You have to look like a gangster. I used to take a week to iron my county pants (that he’d kept from a stay in jail), six cans of starch. I walk to a party from here to Florence and State, and about three of my homeboys drive by: ‘Hey, get in.’ ‘No, I ain’t gonna mess up the crease in my pants.’ I stroll. I want to look, you know, righteous, down .”

These are moments that occurred five or six years ago, but Herrera recalls them with an immediacy that speaks volumes about the emotional bond Chicano gang members often feel with their gangs.

‘We . . . Got 2 of Them’

This bond can be as strong as family and far stronger than warnings of incarceration or death. How else do you explain a 14-year-old gang member’s response when an adult, wondering about the boy’s emotional reaction to tragedy, asked him how he dealt with the death of a homeboy shot by a rival gang.

“We went back and got two of them,” he said evenly.

Gang services worker Linda Castillo, 52, also a resident of Florence, has seen this passion for identity all her life, and it angers her that people cannot see the wounded humanity behind the violence.

Some of these boys commit crimes, but she said she thinks of many of them as victims, not as criminals, and it frustrates her enormously that every kid who hangs out with a gang is stereotyped.

There is a decades-old joke in Los Angeles, told sardonically, in which a kid with a Mexican accent says defensively to a cop: “It’s not a gang, it’s a club .” To Castillo, whose devotion to the good name of her neighborhood is as fiery as any gang member’s, it is not a joke.

Drive through my barrio, she says. There are kids all over the street, some gang, some not from the gang. How can you tell who is whom? How can you put a label on every gang kid? How can you say they are all the same?

“There’s humor out there. There’s experiences you wouldn’t believe. There’s laughter, there’s happiness, there are people who are artists, people who are so talented,” she said.

‘Never Recognized’

“We have people out there who are gifted, write songs, sing. But these children are never recognized. Where do they go? They label these kids ‘gangs.’ Everything is gangs. . . . Our kids--if they pull a trigger, something must be wrong. A normal person cannot just pick up a gun and shoot just anybody. Something happened to this kid along the line--family, spiritually. . . .”

There was never a doubt that Victor Herrera’s clique was a gang, not a club.

“Say something happened to one of the guys, he got shot by another gang. Oh! We got 42 members in the Tinies. Call all your homeboys. Boom boom boom. You got a prez, vice president, treasurer. ‘Hey, we got to throw a meeting. They shot so-and-so.’ You got your sergeant of arms that’s got the gun, you got your prez that will tell you what to do. When I used to be prez of my clique, it was: ‘You, you and you, get this shotgun, go down to 38’s neighborhood (a rival gang), shoot somebody, don’t come back until you do it. And I better hear something about it. And if you don’t do it, you better wind up in jail.

“I have to know the streets. If something happened to one of our guys in East L.A., this and this street--oh, they’re in Little Valley. Brooklyn and Hazard--oh, they were by Hazard. Tell me they were in South Gate--well, Elm Street shot ‘em. You gotta know your areas, man.

“It’s like they told me when I grew up, they told me, ‘If you see four guys, and they tell you 18th Street (the largest and reputedly the nastiest Chicano gang in Los Angeles), and you from Florence, you just better get your ass kicked. I’ve been places where we’ve been surrounded: ‘Where you from?’ ‘Florence.’ ‘The hell with Florence.’ ‘Hey, the hell with you --all of you!’ And I know I’m gonna get my ass kicked.

‘Shoot ‘Em Again’

“We got homeboys who get shot and they stay alive, and they say ‘Florence! Florence!’ And they shoot ‘em again till they’re dead. That happened to my homeboy at 55th and Main a couple years ago.” Herrera’s voice fell soft. “They passed by, shot him, he fell, they came up: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Florence!’ So they finished him off.

“To people it ain’t no sense. But to a gang member it’s having a lot of heart. That’s what you call having a lot of heart.”

The romanticism of these moments is belied by the desperation behind them. Julie Portillo is an expert.

Last July, Portillo’s 21-year-old son, Alex Avalos, who had not lived at home for six years, telephoned her to say he was getting out of prison.

Portillo did not celebrate.

“I was scared to death,” she said. “I didn’t know what had happened to him in there, so I got rid of all my big knives.”

Alex’s mother thought he was an addict, hooked on the local gang in the Winter Gardens section of East Los Angeles, where she lives in a one-bedroom apartment. Her son, who has tattooed “Winter Gardens” all over his body, was a hopeless follower, she said, compelled to show off in front of his homeboys. Alex had been in and out of juvenile detention centers for drug-related offenses and then served three years of a five-year sentence at Folsom State Prison for assault and robbery.

‘See Good Things’

Portillo, a high-school dropout who supplements her unemployment check by selling dried flower bouquets that she makes in her kitchen, reared Alex and three other children by herself. When Alex was young she worked as a nightclub waitress. For a number of years the family was so poor that they could not afford to pay an electric bill; at night they moved about by candlelight and stored food at Portillo’s mother’s apartment across the hallway.

“I would try to take them to as many places as I could afford so they could see good things,” Portillo said. “But as they got older, they started getting into trouble.”

All of them wound up spending time in Juvenile Hall. The first time Alex went there it was because his mother turned him in. He was 12.

“I was so sick of seeing him with the gang and getting high on drugs,” she said. Whenever her kids came home, she checked their breath for PCP. They began calling her “the warden.” Her efforts seemed to help. Her two youngest children stopped using drugs. But her eldest daughter did not, she said, and Alex never gave up his gang affiliation.

“I tried so hard to get him to stop hanging around with those boys because I hated cholos,” the mother said. “I yelled when I saw him with them and I never let them in my house, but he still grew up to be one of them.”

When Alex was paroled from state prison, he was told not to use drugs and was forbidden to associate with gang members. He seemed to follow the first rule. He quickly broke the second.

‘I Felt My Heart Drop’

One day in September, Portillo noticed him acting nervous. “Then he got a phone call,” she said. “I’m always eavesdropping, so I heard him say something about a shooting. I felt my heart drop to the floor. After he hung up, I asked him, ‘Alex, tell me the truth, did you do it?’ He told me, ‘No Mom. Don’t worry. I was at a party, and an argument started, but I didn’t shoot nobody.’ ”

According to sheriff’s deputies, however, he had. Officers and witnesses described it this way:

The night before, Alex and three other Winter Gardens gang members had ridden two bicycles into a neighborhood off Olympic Boulevard near the City of Commerce, an area claimed by a rival gang, East L.A. 13. The neighborhood is next to an area claimed by a third gang, Varrio Nuevo Estrada, an ally of Winter Gardens. Alex and his friends saw some young men sitting on a porch drinking beer. They assumed--incorrectly--that the young men were members of East L.A. 13.

“Winter Gardens!” Alex and his friends proclaimed as they rode past.

About 30 minutes later, Alex and his friends rode back. Alex had a shotgun obtained from a friend.

“We’re from Winter Gardens, and I hear you’ve been crossing us off,” witnesses quoted Alex as shouting, an allusion to one gang crossing out another’s wall graffiti, a gesture of the most profound disrespect.

Cool it, the guys on the porch said. Put the gun away.

“Hey,” Alex called back, “I just got out of the joint. I did five years for shooting somebody (an exaggeration; he had done time for assault and robbery). I can do five more.”

With that, he cocked the shotgun, walked toward one of the men on the porch and fired a shot into his stomach, wounding him. The Winter Gardens gang members fled. A couple days later, sheriff’s deputies arrested Alex on suspicion of attempted murder.

It took deputies longer to put out the fire Alex is accused of having started. East L.A. 13, seeing that the attack was meant for them, retaliated. Over the next two weeks there were half a dozen back-and-forth shootings, as well as an incident in which one gang rode into another’s neighborhood and held a gun to a 9-year-old boy’s head as a gesture of intimidation.

‘I Hope He’s Proud’

Portillo cried when the officers went to her small apartment to take Alex into custody.

“I’m starting to realize that he will never get that gang out of his system,” she said. “I hope he’s proud of himself, but I’m not going to fight for him anymore. Even if he does get out (of jail), I don’t think I’ll let him come home again. He had his chance to have a good life, but all he wants is that gang stuff. Well, that’s not my life. It’s not my way of living, and I won’t deal with it no more.”

More sons have been lost to gangs and more mothers have cried over losing them in East Los Angeles than anywhere else on Earth. This is where, a decade ago, young Chicanos were killing each other as rapidly as young blacks are killing each other today in the deadliest parts of South Los Angeles. This is where the nightmare was born.

It began after masses of Mexicans, displaced by development in Los Angeles’ Civic Center, began migrating across the Los Angeles River to East Los Angeles in the 1920s, melding with a larger number of immigrants from Mexico.

They settled in communities that retain their original names: Maravilla, City Terrace and others. They erected shacks on unpaved streets in isolated low bluffs and gullies bypassed by urban growth. Farther east, in rural sections of the county, other barrios were developing around migrant farm camps.

It was natural for the young men of each barrio to congregate, to boast of audacious acts, to share stories, to assemble as a palomilla, a bunch of guys hanging around together.

‘A Cohorting Tradition’

“In Mexico, it’s expected that the young bucks will hang around and do daring, aggressive things,” said James Diego Vigil, an anthropologist who was reared in Los Angeles and wrote a newly published book about Chicano street gangs. “It’s a cohorting tradition. In Mexico, this is common of all classes.”

One of the earliest gangs in East Los Angeles was formed by young men whose lives revolved around the neighborhood church. They formed a gang called White Fence in the mid-1940s to protect children who were being beaten up at the junior high school by boys from other neighborhoods. They named the gang after a white fence on a prominent street.

To the uninitiated, the gang was a powerful sight. Robert Garcia, then 13 or 14, still remembers watching teen members of the original White Fence gang stride to Hollenbeck Junior High to escort neighborhood children home.

“It was impressive as all hell to me,” said Garcia, who later joined the gang and went to prison for three years in his 20s for killing a man in a bar fight. “They were the same age as me, but street-wise. They looked mean and rough. I could hear everybody else around saying, ‘Those are the guys from White Fence.’ ”

The guys from White Fence were the first Chicano gang in East Los Angeles to use chains and, on occasion, guns, according to a 1978 study by Joan Moore, an East Los Angeles gang researcher who now works at the University of Wisconsin. Of 55 members of the original gang, three finished high school, said Moore, who was aided in her study by Garcia and several other veteranos.

A powerful, notorious style enveloped these early gang members.

Zoot Suit Riots

Beginning in the 1930s, some Mexican-American teen-agers had developed a fondness for dressing in baggy zoot suits and speaking an English-Spanish slang called calo, whose roots went as far as Spain.

These were pachucos, groups of street mischief-makers who became a model for what soon was called the cholo. Pachucos became influential beyond their numbers in 1943, during the famous Zoot Suit Riots, when gangs of American servicemen prowled the Eastside, beating up the zoot-suiters.

The riots underscored a building prejudice toward Los Angeles’ burgeoning Mexican community.

A year earlier, the highly publicized trial of several Chicano teen-agers for a murder near the Sleepy Lagoon swimming hole and other incidents widened the Anglo public’s suspicion of Mexican-American juvenile delinquency, made Mexican-American adults more suspicious of law enforcement and crystallized the alienation of generations of cholos , who placed themselves defiantly in a netherworld between Mexican and Anglo culture.

Fluent in neither Spanish nor English, the cholo found solace in rebellious gang life and the mystical persona of the vato loco, the crazy dude, steeped in arrogance, liable to explode violently at the slightest temptation. It was a posture, still visible today in less flamboyant ways, drawing both intense hatred and intense sympathy.

Many social researchers familiar with the young Chicano’s economic and cultural struggle have developed considerable sympathy for gangs, characterizing them as a secure, understandable outlet for young men confused and anxious about adapting to America.

‘The Model Works’

As late as 1979, a Chicano psychologist, Dr. Ruben Leon, was defending the gangs against a torrent of rising murder statistics by proclaiming, “The model works. It gives the person an idea of belonging somewhere.”

By that time, however, most of society found this reasoning unacceptable. Three things--drugs, cars and guns--had made it that way.

Heroin addiction among Chicano gang members was widespread, and a new, unpredictable drug called PCP that gave users feelings of superhuman strength was sweeping the barrios. Youngsters had cars and guns and began using them in drive-by shootings.

Most of the fighting was over turf incursions and subsequent recriminations.

Deaths stemming from fights among Chicano gangs in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s jurisdiction rose from 31 in 1975 to 49 in 1977 to 70 in 1979 (a year in which, by contrast, the Sheriff’s Department reported seven deaths resulting from fights among black gangs). In East Los Angeles alone there were 40 gang deaths in 1978, 24 of them in one seven-square-mile section.

Because the bloodshed was confined to the barrios--as opposed to the fatal shooting among two Crip gangs in Westwood last January that spurred unprecedented publicity about Los Angeles’ gangs--there was little media coverage beyond one-paragraph descriptions of each death.

Community Efforts

What was frightening about the violence of the late ‘70s was that it continued despite nearly a decade of community efforts to stop it. In one program, social workers, parents and some Catholic clergymen convened leaders from several Eastside gangs and persuaded them to meet regularly and talk before they resorted to violence.

This became a model for a similar program adopted by the California Youth Authority in 1976 that still employs former gang members as “consultants,” paying them to defuse tension in their neighborhoods. State, federal and local money was thrown into East Los Angeles to fund youth programs. Parents organized. Nothing seemed to work.

And then, around 1981, Chicano gang deaths began to drop dramatically. From 71 in 1980 to 43 in 1981 to 29 in 1983 in the Sheriff’s Department’s jurisdiction. (The Los Angeles Police Department did not begin keeping track of gang deaths according to race until 1986.) In 1986, there were four deaths in the Sheriff’s Department’s East Los Angeles territory and 10 in the Police Department’s adjacent Hollenbeck Division.

Many theories have been advanced and many groups have claimed credit for this “miracle,” which is often held up against the worsening and seemingly unsolvable spiral of black gang violence.

“No one so-called expert can ever claim credit,” said Mike Duran, the head of the county Probation Department’s gang section, who grew up East Los Angeles. “It was a combination. And it was the number of years involved. And the kids themselves. If they had not been willing to stop gang killings, nothing would have happened.”

‘Tired of . . . Funerals’

“People just got tired of going to funerals,” said one East Los Angeles woman who has been to more than 100.

Lurking behind this relative calm, however, was a disturbing change.

In the mid-1980s, law enforcement gang specialists in East Los Angeles began noticing that small knots of boys, many of them second- and third-generation Americans with fewer connections to Mexican culture, were beginning to cluster as different types of gangs. They listened to eardrum-puncturing heavy-metal music, took drugs, snatched purses and stole cars.

They called themselves “stoners,” slang used by Anglo kids who were doing much the same thing. They did not look or act like cholos.

They wore their hair long and prided themselves on hanging out not with the most macho guys on the block but with the outcasts and social rejects. They rarely tattooed themselves and, confronted by police, often denied that they were gang members. They were more likely to commit crimes for money than cholos.

A handful were devotees of Satanism and the occult, a tendency that alarmed and disgusted cholos , who maintained at least a lip-service relationship with Roman Catholicism. It was a 1984 desecration at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, where Stoners Locos 13 graffiti was found, that made gang specialists more fully appreciate how much the stoner phenomenon had infected Chicano youth.

‘We Couldn’t See It’

“They’d been around for years before that, but we couldn’t see it because we were used to the cholo stereotype,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Valedmar, a veteran gang expert.

The stoner gangs have their own names (some featuring profane epithets or tributes to getting high), their own style of graffiti (more artful than simple lettering), their own rivalries and their own turf, often shared grudgingly with cholo gangs.

They are worrisome enough that gang specialists in the East Los Angeles sheriff’s station use two reference maps, one with cholo boundaries, the other with stoner gang boundaries. The CYA hired a new consultant two months ago specifically to work stoner gangs.

“Take a neighborhood like Hoyo Maravilla (a small, old community northwest of where the Pomona and Long Beach freeways meet). It should have 280 gang members 15 to 17,” said Leo Cortez. “You’re lucky to find seven or nine of them. Instead, they went into the Hole Stoners,” a stoner gang that draws boys from the same neighborhood and translates hoyo --hole--into English.

In a hilly, twisting section of East Los Angeles between Brooklyn Avenue and the San Bernardino Freeway, there is a vacant slope of land that kids call “the lot,” and it’s from that ground that the Lot Stoners take their name.

The Lot, as the gang is known, is 17-year-old Damien Corona’s life. Damien fell in subtly. He’d lost his mom to cancer at 13 and his dad to a stroke at 14 and wound up living with the parents of a childhood friend who had become a Lot Stoner.

‘I Was Claiming Them’

There was no coercion, no requirement to be “courted in” by withstanding a beating from other gang members, the way the cholos do it. He just hung around. Then he started smoking pot. Then he started going along when the Lot Stoners stole car stereos. Then he started writing his name on walls.

“Before I knew it, I was claiming them,” he said.

Damien let his hair grow--he wears it proudly down to his waist--and began to insinuate himself into the go-to-hell world of heavy-metal music. He was kicked out of several schools because he was consistently drunk or stoned on marijuana, cocaine, crack, PCP or LSD. Stealing car stereos led to stealing cars, and it all led to several arrests and time in Juvenile Hall.

“It gets to the point where I don’t even know why I do things. Usually when I’m mad or buzzed out (stoned), my friends will say, ‘Let’s get a car,’ and I go along,” he said. “It’s bad, I know, but we need money so bad, and nobody wants to get a job.”

Damien (not his real name) said he uses his money to buy hard-rock cassettes, tickets to concerts and clothes. He laughed at the suggestion that stoners are active in street cocaine dealing. “Heck, if I bought enough drugs to sell, I’d probably use most of it instead of selling it.”

Damien was put off by the neighborhood cholo gang, Geraghty Loma.

“None of them were my age and I did not want to get into gang-banging and slamming (using heroin). We’ll fight, but we don’t want to use guns unless someone uses guns on us. . . . If a guy just wants to hang out with us and drink beer, that’s cool. He don’t have to fight or steal cars. We do things because we want to. Nobody forces us.”

‘Just Want to Fight’

The Lot Stoners stick to fists or pipes. “If another gang jumps one of us, one-on-one, we don’t go back for revenge. But if three of them jump one of us, we’ll go back with sticks and jump one of their guys to see how they like it,” Damien said.

“Sometimes I’ll walk up to another gang and yell, ‘The Lot Stoners.’ They yell, ‘The hell with the Lot,’ so we start fighting. I don’t know why, but I just want to fight sometimes. Sometimes we get so buzzed out that we fight each other.”

Although Damien admitted that he still steals cars, he said he is looking for a job and wants to save money so he can buy a motorcycle.

“Maybe someday I’ll get out of the gang, but right now they are there for me, so I’ll stay,” he said. “What else do I got?”

Twenty-five miles to the northwest, Rudolfo Acuna sits in his tiny Chicano studies office at Cal State Northridge and wrings his hands at the implications of this.

To Acuna, a noted Chicano historian and a man who has written passionately on the Chicano’s place in Los Angeles, gangs are an evil but understandable consequence of institutional racism and poverty, not to be vilified or romanticized. When you look at the evolution of stoners, he said, however, you are looking at a frightening change.

“The cholo, however distorted his life may be, is still trying to keep a sense of being Mexican,” Acuna said.

“What the stoner shows is that today, Chicanos have reached a point where they can completely reject their heritage. It is complete alienation.

‘A Total Rejection’

“I’ve met (non-gang) Chicano kids who shoot up with dye to lighten their skin or wear green contact lenses, who speak no Spanish. They’re ‘Hispanics.’ What the hell is a ‘Hispanic’? What does that have to do with being Mexican?” Acuna asked.

“The pachuco, the cholo, really wanted to be part of something; they didn’t want to be isolated. But this, the stoners, is a total rejection of everything. It’s really scary. The cholo, he almost reveled at being different than society. The stoner is society--this is simply American youth,” Acuna said.

Thirty miles to the south, in a worn-down section of Wilmington, an old barrio where dockworkers and other blue-collar laborers have lived for generations, the young men of the East Side Wilmas and West Side Wilmas cholo gangs have not changed. But they are trying.

One night in October, a couple dozen of them showed up at a building that, by day, is a church-run kitchen for the homeless. The head of the church, Father Luis Valbuena, and a young woman from the neighborhood, Elvia Vargas, had distributed 2,000 flyers begging gang members from the two sides of town to settle their differences.

Long ago, Wilmington was one gang. Then, 15 or 16 years ago, a guy from West Side got jumped by six brothers from the East Side. East and West have fought ever since.

The difference this year is that on several occasions people have died, often innocently, in a series of pay-back shootings between the two sides. The gunplay is shocking because, as one veterano said, “this isn’t like East L.A. For years here most of what goes on has been fistfighting.”

One of the most striking sights in Wilmington is a huge mural on a park wall near a housing project on the West Side, pleading bilingually for peace between gangs. It has been there since 1976.

It’s One Land

On this night, Valbuena and Vargas and older gang members and the mother of a murdered gang member talk to the teen-agers, mostly in Spanish. You have to think , they plead. The mother asks the boys to stand and hold hands. They do. You are brothers, she says. Wilmington is not two sides, it’s one land.

Another priest stands and tells what fearful gang members confess to him: Padre, somos homeboys pero soy solo-- we are homeboys, but I am all alone. An older gang member, out of prison, tells them, “You get to be a veterano, a lot of people don’t mess with you. But are you gonna make it to that age?”

They listen to all this in perfect silence. Too perfect. The head of a counseling center stands up and asks that two boys from each side come forward to form a peace committee. No one volunteers.

Nearly two hours have gone by. Finally a guy in his early 20s from the East Side, Guillermo, stands up. And another guy from the West Side, Peter, does the same. Will you shake hands? asks the man from the counseling center. For several moments nothing happens. Then, slowly, they do. Valbuena and the other adults break into applause. Guitars play. Songs are sung.

“They shot my homeboy, but I’m willing to forget it,” Peter said. “By my way of thinking, the only way you can settle problems is by going toe to toe, a fistfight, no guns or knives. That’s what my old homeboys taught me.”

The next day, at Peter’s invitation, Guillermo walks across the dividing line, Avalon Boulevard, to Peter’s neighborhood. Word spreads. Soon more than 100 members of both gangs, most of them teen-agers, are congregating at a park on the West Side. The next day, under the auspices of a couple of veteranos, the scene is repeated at a park on the East Side.

‘Both Sides Were Crazy’

“We’re tired of watching our backs in the street,” said one boy.

“Wilmas got so crazy, we started fighting against each other to prove which side is crazier. We found out both sides were crazy, so we all got together,” said another.

Enthusiasm is bubbling, except among a handful of East Side gang members who watch suspiciously from the side. They cannot forget that, three months earlier, a kid from the East Side named Pep took his girlfriend home to the housing project on the West Side. Somebody came out of a crowd, asked him where he was from and shot him to death.

“Forget about Pep; forget about everything they’ve done, right?” one of the East Side girls shouted at the East Side peacemakers. “Hypocrites! They’re gonna back-stab you guys.”

“If we had shot one of their homeboys, they wouldn’t have wanted to get along,” one of the East Side dissenters said.

“They’re being negative,” responded one of the East Side veteranos. “You gotta have a positive attitude. We gotta get together, man. Regardless of that other stuff. We can’t bring those guys back. They’re dead.”

Can’t Just Quit

Thirteen miles to the north, Elias Lopez, now a gang member, is tinkering with the same equation.

At Elias’ high school in South Los Angeles, members of the 18th Street gang have stopped ignoring him. Now, as a member of Clanton 14, he is an enemy. They “mad dog” him, giving him dirty looks. They challenge him to fights. His older homeboys console him: Tell us if anybody messes with you. Tell us if you want to do anything, if you need a gun.

Elias does not want a gun. He is starting to think he made a horrible mistake. Suppose he messes up and is arrested, how will he be able to become a narcotics agent?

‘Enemies . . . Know You’

The problem is, he is convinced he can’t just quit. He knows his gang would then court him out, a ritual intended to remind him that if he ever betrays them, there would be more punishment.

Elias winces as he remembers being courted into the gang. Three guys beat him for 30 seconds. He fought back hard enough to be accepted, but “my back got messed up. Somebody kicked me with some Imperials,” pointed black shoes.

Being courted out would hurt more, he thinks. “They practically kill you. And plus, your enemies already know you, and if you say you’re not in it no more, they say, ‘Aw, you’re a punk.’ ”

One day during this period of angst a car full of guys from 18th Street pulls up as Elias is walking. They ask him where he’s from and pull a gun. No shots, just a lot of sweat. That settles it.

Elias goes to his high school’s dean of students. Get me out of here, he says. The dean has heard pleas like this a thousand times, but he likes Elias, and he complies. Elias transfers to another high school, one that is calmer, one where he is not known, one where he will not be confronted if he puts away his gang persona and his khakis, gestures he vows to make.

Times staff writer Ginger Lynne Thompson contributed to this story.