Monday afternoon, the black and silver late-model Buick drove slowly up Avenue 50 north of Figueroa Street in Highland Park. Groups of schoolchildren were walking home, and neighborhood residents were gathered on sidewalks.
The car, occupied by four young Latinos, cruised by twice and then stopped at Lynn Street. On the passenger side, a hand reached out and began firing a gun.
No one was hurt, but residents said such incidents have increased in the last few months as a gang war is fought in Highland Park. Since January, four young men, all alleged gang members, have been killed, police say, whereas there were no killings in the Police Department's Northeast Division in the first two months of 1985.
Killed in drive-by shootings were David Anchondo, 22, on Feb. 18 and Louie Lamborena, 18, on Feb. 23. Killed in other kinds of gang encounters were Pete Herrera, 22, on Jan. 4 and Salvador Duenas, 18, on Jan. 26. All lived in Northeast Los Angeles, police said.
2 Arrests in Slayings
Angelo Chavez, 32, of Los Angeles, awaits trial in the Herrera killing, and a juvenile is in custody in connection with the Duenas killing.
The Herrera killing may have triggered this latest wave of gang shootings and retaliations, said Lt. Ken Welty of Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, the Los Angeles police anti-gang unit.
In recent weeks, police say, they have stepped up patrols and arrested as many as 50 other alleged gang members for infractions ranging from drinking in public to possession of concealed weapons.
Welty said things appear to be cooling down but that the violence will end only when "we start solving the murders and put the shooters in jail."
The police tactic, he said, is to "arrest every little gang-banger we can.
"It removes a potential victim from the street corner, plus he's not going to shoot anybody else."
Some locals say the killings have rekindled a tense atmosphere in the community, which has had some gang activity since the 1940s. In particular, there are two gangs, one from the area around Avenue 50 and the other from Glassell Park, parts of Highland Park and around Mount Washington.
Standing on Avenue 50, a 26-year-old neighborhood man who wears his gang affiliation tattooed on his neck said members of the other gang only recently "started coming down here and shooting at us. They want to call themselves tough or something. So we have to protect ourselves."
Meanwhile, at the Glassell Park and Recreation Center on the 3700 block of Verdugo Road, members of the rival gang voiced essentially the same complaints.
'They Started It'
"They're trying to prove something," said a 19-year-old. "They started it. They got one of our home boys."
The increased police surveillance has brought praise from some neighbors, who said their streets at night have become "like Vietnam." Others, however, say police indiscriminately harass male residents, whether they are gang members or not.
"I can't go out of my house without a cop pulling me over," said a 27-year-old former gang member.
A clergyman who works with gang members in Highland Park said the police tactic of jailing gang members for minor offenses provides some immediate relief for troubled neighborhoods. But it also provides the young men with an advanced education from fellow inmates in "street warfare," he said.
A Highland Park man who has traded his gang activities for computer classes at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College said youths get involved with gangs because they have nothing better to do.
"These guys don't know what a good time is," he said. "They've never been to a Ram game or a Dodger game, or gone to a disco. . . . To them, the good life is holding up a 7-Eleven and bragging to their friends. It's getting the image of a tough guy."
Mike O'Brien, minister of the Highland Park Foursquare Church, said the gang situation now "is as bad as I've seen it in the six years I've been in ministry here."
"What I have been saying for a long time is that the problem is the family," O'Brien said. "We are dealing with second- and third-generation gang members in some of these places. A lot of younger gang members are trying to make a name for themselves. If they draw blood or make a hit on a rival gang, even if they go to jail, it's a status thing in the neighborhood."
Gang members say they are just trying to enjoy life, protect their neighborhood and party with their friends. Both sides say that the violence has gotten out of hand but that they will refuse to back down.
"We thought everything had settled down; nobody had been killed in about a year," said a 23-year-old gang member, drinking beer with his friends at Glassell Park. "But, if one guy gets it, we all go."
Guns, which police say are traded like business cards, are easy to acquire, say gang members. For $50 to $80, a handgun or shotgun can be purchased within an hour, one man said.
Each side speculated that in recent months gang veterans have been released from prison and have urged younger members to prove themselves by "doing something for the neighborhood."
"I would die for the neighborhood," said one gang member, 18, who described his gang as his family.
"A lot of guys say that," said a 19-year-old former gang member who now works at a fast-food restaurant. "But look around, there's nothing here to die for. I don't know what they want. I guess they just want to die."