Two years ago a pair of gang-related murders in San Clemente awakened residents as well as school and law enforcement officials to a burgeoning problem in South County.
After the killings, a task force was formed in March, 1991, to combat gang activity and educate the community. It included officials from the Orange County Probation Department and Sheriff's Department who have relied on input from school district officials, teachers, parents and students.
The cities of San Juan Capistrano, Laguna Niguel, Dana Point, Laguna Hills and the unincorporated area of Aliso Viejo joined in the effort. Each contributes about $18,000 annually to finance the war on gangs.
Since that time, the Gang Violence Suppression Task Force, under the leadership of Deputy Probation Officer Bill Collins, has visited each school in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District and the Capistrano Unified School District, delivering lectures to students on the dangers of gang life and providing training for teachers and administrators on how to prevent trouble.
"Everyone is aware that the problem (in South County) pales in comparison with Santa Ana or East L.A., but it is still a problem," said Collins, who, along with two sheriff's deputies, directs the task force.
Authorities have identified as many as 15 street gangs in an area roughly encompassing El Toro, Laguna Beach and San Clemente.
The gangs are believed to have a membership of about 1,200--enough to penetrate nearly all the area's junior high and high schools.
"It is not so uncommon to have National Honor Society students rubbing elbows with kids on probation," Collins said.
According to Collins, South County gang members tend to be tougher to identify. They are more mobile and, in some respects, more naive than gang members from cities such as Santa Ana, he said.
"What I deal with down here is a little bit more of a naive kind of kid who is enamored with that sort of lifestyle," Collins said. "They like to emulate the walk and talk and the graffiti of Hispanic gangs, and before they know it, they are into it."
Collins said that several of South County's gangs were formed by youths from families that had moved from North County and Los Angeles County to escape gangs there.
"You have a constant flow of people moving to the South County for a better life, and their children bring their gang affiliations with them," he said.
"They get into the school district and start hanging around with the more impressionable kids and eventually they form a membership. We have had a couple gangs form that way," Collins said.
Joe Davis, chief of police services in Laguna Niguel, said that though his city has no street gangs, there are youths who associate with gang members from elsewhere.
Davis said that at Niguel Hills Junior High School, for example, students cannot wear gang attire into the classroom. "But as soon as the bell rings, all the hats and baggy pants come out," he said.
"The emphasis for the gang suppression unit in our city is on prevention," Davis said.
Davis and his deputies respond to calls from residents who have seen youths congregating in town or who are wearing clothing commonly associated with gangs.