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Children Increasingly Fall Victim to Gang Violence : Shootings: Three youngsters were wounded and a toddler was scalded in Rampart Division this month.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For some time now, a gritty pocket of Los Angeles just west of the financial district’s sleek skyscrapers has been the crime capital of the city. The working poor who live there must dodge one danger after another, posed by the crazy gang-bangers and crack heads who share their streets.

But over the last few weeks, the mayhem has taken a turn so troubling that even battle-weary police and hospital workers have been left in a state of disbelief. Since the beginning of October, four children--including a 15-month-old boy--have been maimed in gang-related violence.

“We feel like something really, really bad is going on out there,” said emergency room chief Nancy Schonfeld of Childrens Hospital, where three of the youngsters were taken. “What more has to happen before there is intervention? It really feels like we’re not protecting our young, that something very bad is happening to them here in Los Angeles.”

* On Oct. 1, an 8-year-old boy visiting from Mexico was struck between the eyes by an errant bullet which crashed through the windshield of a parked van that he and his family were going to drive to Santa Monica beach for the afternoon. The shooting, police say, was the result of a soured drug deal between gang members. The child is in a coma. A 19-year-old woman has been arrested.

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* On Oct. 11, a 15-month-old boy, whose mother had complained to police about drug dealers outside her apartment building, was scalded by one of five intruders who burst into her home. She said the assailant grabbed a cup of steaming soup on her kitchen counter and heaved it, hitting her son, who received third-degree burns on his chest and left arm. Authorities have arrested two gang members in connection with the assault--one of them a 14-year-old pregnant girl.

* On Oct. 21, a 12-year-old honor student on his way home from Berendo Junior High School was shot in the heart as gunfire exploded between rival gang members fighting for control of a vacant lot. Some of the gang members were on foot, while others raced down the street spraying bullets from their cars. Two 16-year-old boys, each from rival gangs, were arrested and charged with attempted murder. The boy remains in serious condition.

* On Oct. 22, an 8-year-old girl was struck by a bullet in the lower back as she played with friends on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. Authorities said the girl was not the target, but they have yet to determine a motive for the shooting. The girl is recuperating at home, with the bullet still lodged in her back. She is expected to fully recover.

“It used to be that gangs didn’t bother people that weren’t members,” said Detective Terry Wessel of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division, which patrols the area. Now, he said, gang-bangers display a “total wanton disregard for any sanctioned family, or home, or property. Or a 1-year-old baby.”

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Throughout the region, children increasingly are being felled in gang warfare that, by most accounts, is raging out of control.

On Friday night in Altadena, for example, a 2-year-old boy was shot in the head during a drive-by attack as he was sitting in a car next to his mother. The toddler was reported in critical condition on Saturday. Police said the assailants fired five or six rounds from a passing car. After a high-speed chase, Pasadena police arrested three gang members in connection with the shooting, but later released them pending further investigation.

Officers said it was not clear whether the child’s mother was the intended target.

In the mean turf patrolled by the Rampart Division, police say it is shocking but not surprising that more violence is befalling children. According to Detective Wessel, shootings there have soared 300% in the last two years.

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“It’s like bullets are flying everywhere,” Wessel said. “And where they land, heaven only knows.”

In the eight square miles covered by the Rampart Division, there are more murders, robberies and burglaries than anywhere in the city, he said. The area is home to at least 250,000 residents, many of them recent immigrants from Central America.

All four of the incidents in which youngsters were harmed this month occurred less than a mile from MacArthur Park--once an idyllic getaway that, in recent times, has fallen victim to thugs and addicts. Last year, the park had become so overrun by criminals that Los Angeles police built a substation there, driving many of the drug dealers into neighboring streets, where they openly sell narcotics.

One of the worst stretches is Westlake Avenue, near 6th Street, where drug dealers brazenly flock to approaching cars and ask: “How much? Whatcha need? Whatcha need?”

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Carol Yolando Mendoza, whose son Mike was scalded with soup, has lived on Westlake about a year. Each day, she endures the taunts of an assortment of unsavory characters loitering near the entrance to the brick apartment building she and her husband manage.

“It’s not right that they are going around and doing all these things and my son is left burned,” said a tearful Mendoza, 27, as she spoke in her cramped apartment, one of 48 in the building.

Her toddler, sleeping on a sofa nearby, was roused by his mother’s crying. As she cradled him, he too began to cry. She said she can still remember him wailing, “Mama, Mama” as the five gang members forced open the door of her apartment at 8 p.m. two weeks ago.

Once inside, she said, they started shouting and saw the cup of steaming soup on the counter. “Throw it at her! Throw it at her!” she quoted one of them as saying. The soup missed her, but struck Mike.

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“All of this has happened to us,” she said, “because we told them not to sell drugs. I’ve told the police many times that they should get rid of all those people that sell drugs.”

Just last Sunday, Mendoza said, gang members demanded to know why she was calling the police on them. They yelled their gang name, she said, and then warned: “This is our barrio. Don’t complain.”

At night, she said, the sounds of popping gunfire are sometimes so intense that her family is unable to sleep. “They just do it for fun,” she said of the shooters. “And all of us are sitting here afraid.”

Almost directly across the street from the Mendozas is where 8-year-old Rodrigo Trujillo was wounded in the forehead as he sat in a van with six adults and five other children. He and his family had arrived here from Mexico in September on their second trip to the United States. They had parked on Westlake Avenue to pick up relatives for a beach outing when a single bullet ripped through the windshield, leaving Rodrigo in a coma.

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Rodrigo’s mother, who gave birth 10 days later, said she had heard stories about the gangs of Los Angeles but added: “I didn’t think it could happen there, where my sister lived.”

The other day on a street where one of the shootings occurred, two mothers, with their children gathered around them, spoke of the life they have encountered in Los Angeles since arriving from Guatemala a decade ago. Living together, they consider themselves among the lucky.

Three weeks ago, they said, a bullet crashed through a window, whizzed over two sleeping youngsters, piercing their bedroom wall. At least that night, they said, no innocent children would be shot or wounded. And for that, they said, they feel fortunate.

A Dangerous District

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In the last month, at least four youths under 12 have been seriously injured in gang-related incidents in the Rampart division of the Los Angeles Police Department. The area has become one of the deadliest divisions in the city in the last year. Here is a summary:

Homicides in Rampart Division:

1986: 84

1987: 68

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1988: 68

1989: 114

1990: 121

1991: 116*

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* Year-to-date

1. Oct. 1: A boy was shot in the forehead by a stray bullet from a gang shooting. He remains in the hospital, critically injured.

2. Oct. 11: A one-year-old baby was scalded with hot soup during gang members’ intimidation of his mother. The baby suffered third-degree burns.

3. Oct. 21: A 12-year-old boy walking home from school was hit by a stray bullet from a gang fight. The boy, whose heart was pierced by the bullet, survived and is in serious condition.

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4. Oct. 22: A 9-year-old girl playing near her home was shot in the back. She is recovering.


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