Their faces are cherubic and inquisitive, but the looks mask the inner turmoil of fifth-graders at Compton's McKinley Elementary School.
"I'm 10, and I want to live to be 11," a dark-eyed boy chillingly confided during a weekly class entitled Alternatives to Gang Membership.
Asked why, he replied, "Because a lot of gang things are happening now."
His classmates spoke of relatives and neighbors shot or stabbed outside grocery stores, on the way to swap meets or down by the riverbed.
Despite their tender age, the youngsters have a firsthand view of the gang violence that continues to grow in Los Angeles County even as law enforcement agencies spend millions of dollars a year on gang suppression and social service agencies continue to offer such alternatives as summer jobs, help lines, sports programs and the opportunity to sign peace treaties.
Already this year, 70 gang-related homicides have been recorded in areas patrolled by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies, surpassing by 11 the total for all of 1986. In the city of Los Angeles, gang homicides increased 14.9% through September to 154. At that rate, the city's final figure could eclipse its previous bloodiest year, 1980, when 192 gang-related homicides occurred.
In spite of the depressing figures, anti-gang authorities contend that their efforts have prevented even more bloodshed. But they also concede that the success of many programs, particularly those aimed at influencing youngsters who may soon decide whether to join gangs, can only be measured over the next five or 10 years.
"We're doing as much as we can for the resources available," said Lt. Michael Sparks of the sheriff's Operation Safe Streets unit. "If our programs diminished, violence would skyrocket."
Meanwhile, officials are trying to find new weapons against the menace--such as the court action sought by City Atty. James K. Hahn last week that, in essence, would place under limited house arrest the 200-plus members of a street gang.
In that case, a Superior Court judge swiftly rejected as "too broad" Hahn's request for a temporary restraining order against the Playboy Gangster Crips, a Westside gang allegedly involved in drug trafficking and a string of murders.
But Judge Warren H. Deering said further evidence can be presented at a Nov. 18 hearing, where he will consider Hahn's proposal to ban gang members from associating with one another and to restrict them to their homes from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
On Controlled Turf
So far this year, much of the violence--including 57 of the first 67 killings in areas patrolled by sheriff's deputies--has taken place on South-Central Los Angeles turf dominated by black gangs whose members often arm themselves with Uzis and other automatic weapons to control their burgeoning drug trade.
But gang membership--particularly among newer Asian and Latin American immigrant groups--is on the rise across Los Angeles County. Officials estimate that there are now more than 500 street gangs and more than 50,000 members from Pomona to West Los Angeles, and from the San Fernando Valley to the Los Angeles Harbor Area.
"With no sense of pride, we're No. 1," Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner declared. "We are the gang capital of the United States in terms of numbers, in terms of violence, in terms of its overall impact on the entire criminal justice system.
"In a mood of frustration, you feel like the only effective way to deal with street gangs is with a flame thrower. But I suppose after you get that off your chest, you have to get back to reality and figure out how you can really deal with them."
The principal method of fighting back is still to lock up hard-core gang members as often as possible for as long as possible.
The Los Angeles Police Department, for its part, budgets about $10 million a year on salaries and support services for the 191 sworn officers employed in its gang activities section and Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums unit. The Sheriff's Department spends $4.6 million for its 64-officer Operation Safe Streets unit, one of several anti-gang efforts.
In addition, the county Probation Department budgets $2.3 million yearly for a 51-member specialized gang supervision program. And Reiner's own 25-member hard-core gang unit staff--currently prosecuting 470 defendants in 342 cases, a majority of them for murder--has a $1.8-million budget.
"Our (goal) is to protect the rest of the public so they don't become victims," said Michael A. Genelin, head of the district attorney's unit.
"People complain about hearing shooting every night in certain sections of the county. I think it's unconscionable that somebody has to live with that kind of threat of violence day in and day out. And we have an inordinate number of innocent people who are victims. . . . It's some kind of terribly tragic comedy where the innocents are the victimized."