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Gang-Truce Backers Hope It Is Key to Peace in City : Mediation: Despite 22 gang slayings in Santa Ana in 1992, police say that violence leveled off last year. Proponents say the year-old treaty is a factor.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Proponents of a year-old truce designed to stop gang warfare hold out hope that the street treaty will lead to peace in spite of 22 gang-related killings and numerous brawls and assaults during the truce.

Gang violence in the city has leveled off over the past year, police said. They said the drop may not have anything to do with the truce, which was designed to stop drive-by shootings.

One of the truce’s proponents, Santa Ana lawyer Al Amezcua, insists that the agreement has been “a very strong contributing factor” to the decrease in overall violence.

“Not everybody stopped shooting,” said Joe Benavides, 15, who identified himself as a member of a Santa Ana gang. He declined to name the gang.

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Deadly drive-by shootings continue in spite of the truce.

The latest was last month near Saddleback High School in which a gunman killed a 17-year-old Santa Ana motorist and wounded a 22-year-old man who was riding in the car.

The violence continues in part because “somebody wants to make a name for themselves and starts shooting somebody,” said Louie Castro, 29, who said he is a former member of Santa Ana’s F-Troop gang.

Such killings send the message that “not everybody cares,” Benavides said. “Maybe they didn’t know about (the truce) in the first place.”

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But one of the truce organizers, Gilbert Gonzalez, believes that in light of the truce, gang members “know it’s not OK to open fire just because you feel like it.”

Other leaders in the United Gangs Council, including president Pete Ojeda, could not be reached for comment last week. The council helped begin the truce in January, 1992.

Truce organizers estimate as many as 20 of the city’s approximately 40 gangs agreed with the truce.

“With a truce scenario, you’ve got some fundamental hurdles to overcome,” said Colleene Hodges, a county probation officer who specializes in gangs. “Whenever you have a truce, there is a question of power” between gangs that comply and those that do not, she said.

“Gangs will set their own agenda on what they will become involved in,” Hodges said. For one gang to go along with what another gang does, “you have a real functional problem there just because of how they are structured.”

It is important that veteran gang members get involved in the truce for it to spread, Castro said. Young gang members “look up to the (truce) leaders and veteranos (veterans) with respect, as someone who had been there before.” That peer pressure is influential, Castro said.

Expanding the truce has been difficult, organizers and gang members said.

Bad weather forced gang members to stop their regular meetings in city parks more than a month ago, said Bobby Flores, a member of the United Gangs Council. And one of the main treaty leaders, Art Romo, 30, of Santa Ana, sits in a jail cell in Los Angeles awaiting trial on federal drug and money-laundering charges.

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Gang investigators have noted for the past few months in Santa Ana “things have pretty much leveled out as far as gang activity,” said Lt. Robert Helton. Investigators “could tell it was not as busy as it has been,” Helton said. The reduction, he stressed, “could be just one of those cyclical things that we’re experiencing.”

Helton said overall gang violence has ebbed even though police reported 22 gang-related killings last year in Santa Ana alone, compared with 13 in 1991, when there was no declared truce. The increase may be due in part to a change in the way the police report gang-related slayings, Helton said.

Gang violence is also a worry to Santa Ana businesses, said Michael Metzler, president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

“Some people might say gang problems in a neighborhood don’t impact businesses. It does because it impacts the city’s financial needs,” Metzler said. “As the cost of policing goes up, business will have to help pay, and that will make doing business more expensive.”

Santa Ana City Councilman Miguel A. Pulido Jr. said he thinks the truce has decreased the level of violence, even though “it’s difficult to quantify.”

“I’m not saying all the problems have gone away, but there has been a general reduction in violence,” said Pulido, who helped prepare a broad anti-gang program approved by the City Council in June.

With the help of Amezcua, Pulido’s program came in response to a public outcry for a renewed fight against gang crime after the fatal shooting of Mauro V. Meza, a Santa Ana father of three, which shocked and angered many in the city.

Since the program’s passage, the city has doubled funding for the city’s after-school recreation program and increased membership on the city’s Human Relations Commission to deal with youth concerns.

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Also, a city-managed job training program placed about 900 youths, half of whom are gang members, into summer jobs last year, said Patricia Nunn, the director of the program.

Other programs are not moving forward. For example, a plan to establish a gymnasium for boxing, weightlifting and other recreational activities aimed at gang members “is still in the discussion stage,” Pulido said.

Another program recommendation, a gang hot line, has not been established yet because the city is still researching how to set it up, said Mike Salgado, a member of the Human Relations Commission.

The anti-gang “program does not cover everybody, but it’s covering more than it would before the program,” Pulido said. “Part of what we’re working on is . . . we’re trying to lay the groundwork for the next decade or so.”

Another test for the truce’s influence will come this summer, said police and Amezcua.

“We now need to start planning for the summer,” traditionally a time of increased violence on the street because more people stay outside longer, which sometimes leads to fights, Amezcua said.

Police agreed. “All it takes is one group confronting another and then (violence) starts all over again,” said Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters.

Times staff writer David A. Avila contributed to this story.


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