Local police have a new tool in their fight against Ventura County street gangs.
Teen Angels, a Rialto-based magazine that publishes gang graffiti, artwork, poetry and even obituaries, has become a primer for law enforcement officials who use it to spot trends among gang members and feature it in training courses and lectures.
Although Teen Angels prints anti-violence and anti-drug slogans, authorities say the magazine glorifies street gangs and their violent lifestyle.
"Gangs use it to advertise their philosophy," said Ventura County Sheriff's Detective Bill Stevens, who reads the magazine to keep up on the latest gang trends.
"Most gangs are looking for recognition," he said. "It's a badge of honor to have your gang in the magazine."
The magazine lets readers speak for themselves.
"We don't overtly preach to the kids," said a Teen Angels employee who asked not to be identified. "They get enough of that from their parents, teachers and the church."
The magazine caters to minorities, said Antonio Beltran, 21, an inmate at the California Youth Authority's Ventura School in Camarillo. "We get to speak and they print it."
With its eye-catching drawings of beautiful Latinas and customized cars, Teen Angels offers aspiring young artists a chance to publish their artwork, readers say.
But some say the glamorous pictures don't reveal the harsh consequences of gang life. "It presents a falsehood that everything is cool," said Lonnie Miramontes, director of community services for El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, a Latino-rights advocacy group in Oxnard.
Although Teen Angels is banned at the Ventura School, inmates are allowed to have illustrations from the magazine that are not gang-related. They use the drawings as models to inscribe pictures into plastic cups. Shoe polish is rubbed into the grooves to highlight the pattern.
A program coordinator at Ventura's Westpark Community Center uses the magazine's Old English-style lettering and drawings to attract youngsters to after-school recreation programs.
Teen Angels is also known as a way to meet companions, swap news and compare art and clothing styles.
The magazine is one of the few links to the outside world for some lonely inmates at many state institutions.
Inmates like pen pals, said 21-year-old Carlo Diaz of Ventura, who says he has acquaintances in the CYA. "They're on top of the world when somebody writes to them. Especially if they don't know them."
Filled with group photos and obituaries of gang members, Teen Angels has become a keepsake album for many incarcerated readers, reminding them of happier times.
"It brings a lot of memories that can bring a lot of uplift," said Soloman Adegbenro, a 19-year-old Ventura School inmate. "To see themselves printed on paper--that's forever."
Teen Angels also discusses topics such as relationships, teen-age pregnancy and abortion in a no-nonsense manner readers easily understand.
"It covers issues young people are dealing with in a way that we can relate to," said Adegbenro, who recalls one issue that featured a list of affordable women's health clinics. "It's something more accepted in our lifestyle."
Despite the Ventura School ban on the magazine, inmates nonetheless claim it as their own. They say the magazine does not promote violence, but merely depicts the reality of the streets.
"It's an outlet," said James Blair of Woodland Hills, an 18-year-old inmate. "They just show people the way they are."
The magazine, which sells for $6.95 and is published every two months, originated in East Los Angeles and spread to other predominantly Latino neighborhoods, said Bob Contreras, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department.
An employee who answered the telephone last week at a number listed in the magazine refused to identify the publisher, saying he would respond only to mail inquiries. However, a previous letter was not answered.
The magazine began as a correspondence network for jail inmates and quickly became popular among gang members, said Sgt. Joe Guzman of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who has lectured on gangs nationwide.
Since its debut in June, 1982, the publication has attracted other subscribers as well: law enforcement officials eager to stem the growing tide of gang members.
Investigators use Teen Angels in training courses and seminars as an up-to-date guide on gang clothing, hair and slang. They also use the publication to verify information on suspected gang members, and even to help convict them.
Santa Paula Police Sgt. George M. Brink, for example, used the publication to build evidence against four youths who were later convicted of stabbings and drive-by shootings.
"It's another indicator he's lying," Brink said of one of the youths who denied being a gang member in court, but whose picture was published in the magazine. "You want to build a good, solid case."