Youth Boxing Program Helps Keep a Lid on Gang Violence : Recreation: The city-funded facility encourages kids to stay in school and off the streets, coach says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Linda Carillo, a petite former beauty queen from South El Monte, pounded the punching bag with a series of powerful left jabs that made the roomful of sweaty boys take notice.

But Carillo, wearing boxing gloves and red lipstick, is just one of the guys to the 50 or so teen-age boys, including some former gang members, who take to the ring every day after school. Except prettier.

Two and a half years after being canceled by the South El Monte City Council, the Youth Boxing Program is back in full swing thanks to the combined contributions of South El Monte Amateur Athletics Inc., local businesses and community volunteers.

Begun in 1978, the program was cut short in 1987 because the city could no longer afford the $67,000 annual cost.

Dave DeLeon, South El Monte recreation supervisor, said the program was rekindled after an intense fund-raising drive led by South El Monte Amateur Athletics and the city Parks and Recreation Department. After their joint efforts raised enough money for equipment, the city agreed to pay the coach's salary and provide the space at the South El Monte Recreation Center.

Besides teaching the youngsters how to jab and block a punch, boxing coach Ben Lira says the program instills discipline, encourages kids to stay in school and keeps them off the streets.

Nick Martinez, a 19-year-old former gang member who grew up in neighboring area of Bassett, said the program has kept him calm and out of trouble. "Boxing has kept me straight," he said. "If I wasn't doing this, I could be in jail or who knows where."

Martinez, who once spent time in juvenile hall for possession of a gun, is training to be an electronic engineer at ITT Technical Institute in West Covina, but also hopes to become a professional boxer. Martinez has won several amateur titles and this year won the Blue and Gold Tournament, a national amateur competition.

A number of the youngsters are former and current gang members, said Lira, who attributes their interest to the machismo involved with boxing.

"Boxing is something the gang will respect and approve of," Lira explained. "They think it's cool if their homeboy is training and won't bother him. And we'd rather see them fighting in the ring than in the street."

For Carillo, one of two women who participate in the program, boxing started out as a way to get in shape, but now, after six months of training, she wants to fight in a real match. "I'm much more confident," Carillo said. "At first I was afraid of my nose getting broken, but now I don't care."

In the past year, there have been about 75 amateur women's boxing matches, according to the USA Amateur Boxing Federation.

Carillo, who stands 5 feet 3 and weighs all of 106 pounds, said she has long been interested in self-defense training but has learned the most from boxing.

"I know if I was ever attacked on the street I would be on guard and defensive. I could give them a good fight," she said.

Lira said Carillo is completely accepted by the male boxers, who range in age from 8 to 21. "Most of them don't even know she's a former beauty queen," he said. "To them, she's just a pretty girl who likes to box. But she's actually stronger than a lot of them."

Carillo, 24, attends UC Irvine and wants to be an attorney. She also wants to compete with other women, but won't be able to until she has specially designed safety equipment for women.

DeLeon said they are in the process of ordering the equipment, but that female boxing is something new and the equipment has only recently become available.

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