The clock is ticking. Every minute represents another young man who doesn't die. Every hour is another family that doesn't grieve.
Almost nine months have passed since Latino gangs in the San Fernando Valley agreed to a fragile truce and, as of early this week, the same amount of time had passed without a single Latino gang-related homicide.
No one is claiming an end to the violence. But police report that a noticeable peace has settled over the streets, with rivals fraternizing at parties and freely crossing boundaries. And one of the groups that helped forge the treaty--a Christian organization called Victory Outreach--will hold a celebration this weekend.
The group will stage an anti-gang play, "Duke of Earl II," Saturday and Sunday evenings at San Fernando High School. Organizers William (Blinky) Rodriguez and Javier Nunez hope to fill the school's football stadium with crowds that could include hundreds of rival gang members.
"The climate is right for something like this," said Rodriguez, a Van Nuys businessman whose son was killed in 1990 by gang members. "Tensions have been down. People haven't been looking over their shoulders every second."
The man who wrote "Duke of Earl II" knows a little something about looking over his shoulder. Pastor Ed Morales, who heads the Victory Outreach program in San Jose, based the drama on his experiences as the teen-age leader of a Fullerton barrio clique called Tokers Town.
The play--which has been performed throughout California since 1979--features other former gang members playing the parts of "Duke" and "Indio," rival drug dealers who struggle over turf.
"We show the drugs and violence, but we don't amplify it," Morales said in an interview with The Times last year. "This has a positive message."
It also has a religious message, with one of the main characters turning to Christianity. But church members say they don't "Bible-thump" the gang members. In addition to offering religious doctrine, they try to help with schoolwork and jobs.
"A lot of us know what it's like to use drugs and run around on the streets because we have been a part of that," said Nunez, an admitted former drug dealer who now works in the construction business. "Once we get these young guys to come in and they see a portrait of their life on stage, something hits home. Then we offer a solution. We say, 'We're here to help you.' "
The trick will be attracting thousands of young men and women, along with others in the community, to fill the bleachers at San Fernando High. Dozens of volunteers have been recruited to distribute flyers in East Valley neighborhoods. Police say they are watching over the effort.
"Any time you have a large group of people, it's a potential problem," said Lt. Fred Tuller, coordinator of the LAPD's gang unit in the Valley. "If you take a large group of people who have been involved in more violence than average citizens, sure it raises an eyebrow."
But a relationship of trust has grown, if slowly, between authorities and the people responsible for the treaty, which reportedly began when a prison gang known as the Mexican Mafia ordered a halt to drive-by shootings. Last April, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon publicly commended both gangsters and Victory Outreach leaders. Police are more cautious with their praise.
"I think Blinky has played a role," Tuller said. "I'd also give credit to my guys on the street and to the youth programs at the various councilmen's offices. But we could have one homicide and it could start all over again."
Summer can be a volatile time on the streets, with teen-agers out of school and temperatures soaring. That is why Victory Outreach picked summer to stage its anti-gang drama.
In addition to the school performances, the play will be presented at the group's North Hollywood church with tickets given only to the gang members who have regularly attended Sunday truce meetings there. In this way, Rodriguez hopes to build on a sense of optimism that he suggests has resulted from the pact.
"A lot of these guys have been enjoying it," Rodriguez said. "They like being able to walk down the street with their girlfriends. They like going to the store with their family and not having to worry about a stray bullet killing their mom.
"Now," he said, "this play could confirm all the things we've been telling them about the treaty."
WHERE AND WHEN
What: "Duke of Earl II."
Location: San Fernando High School, 11133 O'Melveny Ave., Pacoima.
Hours: 6 p.m. Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Parking is free.
Call: (818) 909-3581.