Casper, 19, who gave only his gang nickname, said he will be a gang member for the rest of his life. But he said his violent days are behind him now that he has a 3-month-old son and a construction job.
Things were different several years ago when Casper was younger and wilder, and before he served a year at a county probation camp in connection with a foiled drive-by shooting.
Casper said he was arrested by sheriff's deputies when he drove into another barrio with a .38-caliber handgun looking for several rival gang members. Casper said he would have emptied the gun into the gang members, whom he did not know personally, if he had not been stopped.
"The gang (had) just started up," Casper said. "I wanted to make a name for myself. That's what everyone wants."
None of the gang members older than 18 said they had earned a high school diploma. They told of being kicked out of one high school, and then another, before dropping out.
"I got kicked out of every school for fighting," said Rascal, 18, who said he is a couple of credits shy of a high school diploma.
Several children stood by, watching the gang members. One boy, who said he was 12 but looked younger, had gang lettering penned on his arm and on the back of his neck.
Varrio Carmelas Youths
Across town, in Varrio Carmelas, three young men sat at a table at the local park. They were a few feet away from a memorial plaque by a young tree that reads, "This tree planted in the memory of Steven Razo by his many friends." Razo was killed in a drive-by shooting in 1985.
Like other gang members, those from Varrio Carmelas said they are highly protective of their turf.
"It's like going into your house, someone breaking into your house," said a 20-year-old, who asked that his name not be used. "If they (rival gang members) hurt somebody, then we become our own judge."
But gang members have mixed feelings about their barrios, where some families have been rooted for generations.
The 20-year-old recounted how the house of a relative had been raked with gunfire. The youth said he now lives with his grandmother in a nearby city but returns to Varrio Carmelas to be with fellow gang members.
"If I had a family, I wouldn't bring them back over here," said the gang member, who drives a forklift for a living. "I don't want my little boy, if I have one, growing up with what I went through."
Eight Known Gangs
There are eight known gangs with about 2,000 members in Norwalk, a city of about 90,000, said Sgt. Grotefend, gang detail supervisor.
The gangs are loosely organized alliances of cliques within Norwalk's various barrios. They do not force youths to be members, although there is peer pressure to join, officials and gang members said. Most Norwalk gangs "jump in" their members--a prospective member must fight several gang members in order to join.
Law enforcement officials say Norwalk's gangs are not involved in the organized narcotics trade, which causes much of the violence in areas such as South-Central Los Angeles. But some of the Norwalk area gang members commit robberies to pay for drugs, gang investigator Richard Orosco said.
"It is nickel-and-dime stuff with some gang members robbing fast-food places or liquor stores to get money to support their drug habits," Orosco said.
Sheriff's deputies said the fatal drive-by shooting of Juan Enriquez on May 9 was the first gang-related murder in nearly three years in Norwalk. Enriquez, an honor student and football star, did not belong to a gang. But sheriff's deputies believe he was shot by a gang member. No one is in custody in connection with the shooting.
Norwalk's gangs usually fight among themselves and with members of gangs in surrounding cities. Strikes against non-gang members in Norwalk have been rare, but they seemed to increase last month.
On May 28, gang members shot up the Pontlavoy Avenue home of a non-member, who had been involved in several past confrontations with his attackers. The victim came under attack after he confronted a youth who was vandalizing his car, and reported the incident to sheriff's deputies, officials said. Two people were wounded in the shoot-out. Six adults and five juveniles have been charged with attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.
Before the Enriquez killing, the last gang-related killings occurred in Norwalk when two groups feuded in May, 1986. Two men from each gang were shot or stabbed to death.
There were three gang-related killings in the larger Norwalk station area in 1982, one in 1983, five in 1984, six in 1985, the four in 1986, none in 1987 and two in 1988.
Last year's high of 2,000 gang-related incidents surpassed the previous record of 1,546, reported in 1985. The number of gang crimes for the first three months of this year is running at about the same rate as last year, according to sheriff's statistics.