East Los Angeles' Chicano street gangs, largely written off as a problem over the last decade, have regained muscle by courting and recruiting a generation of younger "stoners"--youths who formed gangs based more on a love of drugs and loud music than street violence.
The trend, which coincides with an increase in gang murders and gang-related crimes on Los Angeles' Eastside, has raised concerns among gang experts who fear a renewed cycle of killings and retribution.
In unincorporated East Los Angeles, for example, gang murders are up from none in 1988 to eight so far this year. Similarly, the Los Angeles Police Department's Hollenbeck Division, which patrols the community of Boyle Heights, reported 10 gang murders in 1988, compared to 22 so far this year.
There are no easy answers for this rise in gang violence, which has caught even some gang experts unprepared. But interviews with law enforcement officials, parents, teachers and gang members suggest that old-line " veteranos "--imprisoned since police crackdowns in the late 1970s and early 1980s--are returning to the streets as ex-cons with hopes of reviving their largely inactive gangs.
"Guys getting out of the joint feel like time stopped while they were incarcerated," said Gilbert Garcia, director of the California Youth Authority's Gang Violence Reduction Project in East Los Angeles. "They're coming back to find a lot of youngsters no longer following the rules of the old guard. They are looking at these youngsters as potential recruits."
In a return to familiar gang images, some groups of long-haired stoners have cut their locks and traded in their heavy metal garb for traditional cholo dress--oversize Pendleton shirts, khaki pants and short-cropped hair slicked straight back with gel.
A prime example is the Geraghty Lomas gang.
Its membership was gutted by drug overdoses, gang murders and heavy prison sentences. That left only about 15 aging but street-wise Geraghty Lomas veteranos to claim their hilltop City Terrace barrio.
As the gang's power ebbed, a new group of mostly nonviolent but raucous teen-agers, calling themselves Rockwood Stoners, emerged in the area. These newcomers wore long hair, listened to heavy metal music and partied with people who did not respect the boundaries that have traditionally divided rival gang territories.
Disturbed by what they saw as a breakdown of the neighborhood and the gang codes they once lived by, the older Geraghty Lomas members began courting the younger stoners--who numbered close to 100, according to authorities and gang members. In October, they voted to merge. The new gang became known as Geraghty Lomas/Rockwood.
Now, after inheriting each other's enemies, the new gang--larger and more potent--is at odds with as many as 49 rival gangs.
"They saw us getting crazy and I guess they just wanted to feel young again--that's why they cliqued up with us," said one 16-year-old member of the new gang.
"We got them up again, that's what they wanted," added another gang member, also 16. "They gave us guns and we started taking care of business."
Geraghty Lomas/Rockwood is one of a growing number of Eastside gangs that have propped themselves up in the last year with new recruits of stoners and impressionable youths. Others include El Hoyo, Barrio Nuevo and even White Fence, one of the oldest Latino gangs in the city, authorities said.
The fact is "they're back to killing themselves for dirt (territory), and that's really sad," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Joe Guzman.
Only a mile northwest of the East Los Angeles sheriff's substation, a 35-year-old father of a 14-year-old boy wondered out loud, "What's going on? How did this start again? I'm seeing graffiti (of gang names) I haven't seen in years.
"Just six months ago, there were children playing football in the streets of my neighborhood," said the man, who asked that his name not be used. "Now, the kids don't go outside anymore and people are afraid to walk to the corner store for a bottle of milk."
In the same neighborhood, Patrick Vasquez, 30, whose 20-year-old brother was killed in a gang fight 10 years ago, lamented that the gang members "don't think about what the mothers, the wives and children are going through."
"Every morning I tie my shoes and wonder if I'll be untying them at night or if the coroner will be untying them for me," Vasquez said. "A lot of these kids think it is all fun and games."
The situation represents a dramatic turnaround for unincorporated East Los Angeles--the birthplace of Latino gangs--where gang murders had been on a steady decline since 1980, when 22 killings were recorded. By last year, gang activity claimed no lives on the Eastside--a time when killings by gangs in South-Central Los Angeles soared.