In a macabre year-end ritual that grows increasingly ominous, the tally of gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County broke another record in 1992, reaching 800 for the first time, according to a preliminary count by law enforcement officials.
Despite a truce among several black gangs that brought hope to some neighborhoods, violence among Latino gangs escalated to unprecedented levels in many others. It marked the fifth consecutive year of record killing in the county, which had seen the annual gang-related death toll rise from 452 to 559 to 690 to 771.
"If we're ever going to change this, it's going to take an intensive national effort like we had with the space program," said Jim Galipeau, a veteran probation officer in the county's specialized gang unit. "If we don't do that, our cities are going to burn."
Behind Los Angeles' violence is a complex web of social and economic factors, exacerbated by the proliferation of firearms, the spread of the drug trade, immigration patterns, racial friction and a youthful population that has grown more alienated and angry, say gang workers, community activists and police.
With gang imagery increasingly reflected in fashion, music, slang, movies and television, experts fear that street violence is becoming the basis of a new antisocial subculture--just as the peace movement, free love and hallucinogenic drugs helped form the subculture of the 1960s.
"In everything that affects youth, there is this promotion of violence, this 'up yours' kind of stuff . . . and the toughest guy wins," said Steve Valdivia, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services, a gang-intervention and prevention agency. "It's all based on anger and hatred, of self and of others."
The total of gang-related killings, which stood at 800 as of Monday, will probably grow as several smaller police agencies complete their final tallies, said sheriff's Sgt. Wes McBride, who gathers gang numbers from all cities in the county.
The Los Angeles Police Department reported a record 429 gang-related slayings, up from the previous record of 375 the year before. The Sheriff's Department logged 187 killings within its jurisdiction, down from 207 in 1991. The remainder were tallied in cities such as Long Beach, Compton, Inglewood and Pomona.
The escalation of gang killings in recent years has accounted for an ever larger proportion of all homicides, making them responsible for virtually all growth since 1984, according to the district attorney's office.
The 212 gang-related slayings that year accounted for about 15% of the county's homicides. The 771 homicides in 1991 accounted for nearly 38% of all killings that year.
It had seemed for a short while that 1992 would be remembered as the year that produced one of the most hopeful developments in the last two decades of urban warfare.
The truce between Bloods and Crips that inspired teary embraces and beery celebrations did dramatically reduce the number of slayings in certain neighborhoods, especially Watts. During the first eight months of 1992, detectives in South Bureau Homicide counted 50 gang-related killings involving Bloods or Crips. That was down from 71 during the same time the year before.
For the entire year, gang killings in the LAPD's notorious 77th Street Division dropped from 49 to 34. In the Southwest Division, home to one of the most contentious conflicts between rival Crips factions, the number was down from 35 to 20.
But even before the truce--which has gradually begun to erode in many neighborhoods--the fierce bloodshed that surrounded black gangs in the mid-1980s already had started to subside. In part because many youths had grown weary of the violence, and because their families were leaving the city for calmer suburbs, blacks now account for just one-fourth of all gang homicide victims--down from about one-half in 1989.
During the same time, however, violence among Latino gangs has exploded at a frightening pace, with their victims accounting for more than two-thirds of all gang-related fatalities.
The most troublesome battles stem from the emergence of immigrant gangs from Mexico and Central America, which have begun to challenge the dominance of traditional, multigenerational Chicano gangs. Sometimes arriving from war-torn countries, these newcomers generally have little appreciation or use for the rules of conduct forged by their rivals decades ago.
In the LAPD's Rampart Division, two largely immigrant gangs are believed responsible for 44 of 64 gang killings last year. On the Eastside, gang-related slayings in the Hollenbeck Division jumped from 26 to 51.
"With the traditional gangs, there seemed to be a nobility in what they did--that you didn't shoot into grandma's house, or onto school grounds, or at a hospital," said Sgt. Joe Guzman of the sheriff's East Los Angeles station. "Now, they've literally taken the rules away."
Making the scenario even more disconcerting, graffiti taggers have begun to behave more like gang members--if only to protect themselves from attacks by established gangs, police say. Party crews, who take their "techno music" to roving dance parties around the city, have also begun to arm themselves against the incursions of gang members, who have interrupted several gatherings with gunfire, according to authorities.
With growing problems across the full spectrum of other gangs--including Samoan, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Anglo, Armenian and Filipino--officials are now predicting that an annual total of 1,000 gang killings could be reached as soon as this year.
"You want to know how many times I've thought, how can it get any worse?" said the gang service agency's Valdivia. "It's just shock after shock."
A Terrible Toll
Since 1985, the number of gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County has soared dramatically. The preliminary 1992 tally, which will grow slightly as final data from several smaller police agencies is received, has reached 800 for the first time. Year: Number of Gang-Related Homicides 1992: 800 plus 1991: 771 1990: 690 1989: 559 1988: 452 1987: 387 1986: 328 1985: 271 Source: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office