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Tahoe Towns Grapple With a Big City Problem--Gangs


STATELINE, Nev. — Standing beside a snowbank with ski slopes behind him, the 19-yearold from Compton told how he had moved to Lake Tahoe two months ago to escape the violent ways of Los Angeles gangs.

He did not move far enough.

Last week, a feud between two rival South Lake Tahoe gangs erupted in gunfire on his block, sending one teen-ager to the hospital and 10 suspected gang members to jail.

"It's a little L.A. right here," said the youth, who only gave his name as John out of fear of retaliation. "They're totally crazy."

This might be the last place you would envision street gangs taking hold, amid snowpacked High Sierra peaks, crowded ski condos and lakefront estates. But, even with its mountain isolation and resort town atmosphere, Lake Tahoe may be proof that no community is immune from urban-style violence.

Residents were shocked by the shooting--Tahoe's first violent gang episode. Almost as startling was the discovery in the past two weeks of two students--one 14 years old--carrying guns at school.

In part, authorities blame gang members and wanna-bes from Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley for coming to the lake and making gangs seem glamorous to low-income Latino and Filipino youths.

School authorities say that in at least two cases they have caught suspected gang members old enough to be high school graduates attempting to enroll at South Lake Tahoe High School in a bid to enlist recruits.

"This is a developing gang crisis that we're facing up here," said Lake Tahoe Unified School District Supt. Rich Fischer. "It was really alarming to see there actually was a shooting."

South Lake Tahoe police have publicly attempted to downplay the presence of gangs in the popular resort area, but they have been watching the activity and identifying gang members during the past two years.

On both sides of the line that divides California and Nevada, police agencies are focusing their forces in hopes of halting the gangs before they become entrenched.

"Our biggest and most organized gang here in South Lake Tahoe is the Police Department," said Officer Paul Huard. "We've got our weapons and we've got our colors," he added, tugging on the blue shirt of his uniform.

South Lake Tahoe is a long, narrow strip of motels, shops and homes squeezed between the mountains and the southern edge of the 12-mile-wide lake. Mixing multimillion-dollar homes and cheap apartments, it is primarily a tourist town tied economically to the casinos just across the state line.

In recent years, many of the low-paying jobs in motels, restaurants and casinos have been taken by Latinos, who have grown to nearly 20% of the city's population of 21,500. A smaller community of Filipino immigrants also has sprung up near the casinos.

Similarly, in the adjoining town of Stateline, home to Tahoe's biggest casinos, Latinos make up more than 25% of the population of 1,400.

Faced with a chronic shortage of affordable housing, low-income families often crowd into small apartments or motel rooms. In an area where the tourist trade never stops, three couples will sometimes share an apartment, with one couple working the day shift, another working the swing shift and the third working the graveyard shift.

Both south shore towns have long suffered from traffic and air pollution, especially with the flood of weekend visitors. A thriving drug trade was revealed in 1989 with the arrest of then-Mayor Terry Trupp in a federal sting.

But it is the highly transient nature of the population, the round-the-clock lifestyle offered by the casinos, and the growing number of low-income families from big cities that make some here admit that Lake Tahoe is ripe for gang activity.

Authorities disagree on the number, but some say there may be at least four gangs and dozens of gang members. Many hang out at arcades operated by the casinos, but the casinos report no major security problems.

The two best-known gangs are the South Side 13 and BNG, both of which have roots outside Lake Tahoe. For the South Side, the numeral 13 is a code that denotes a Southern California connection, but authorities say they doubt that there is any formal link with a Southland gang.

BNG stands for the Bahala Na Gang, which originated in the Philippines after World War II and made its way to the Bay Area and Stockton in recent years, South Lake Tahoe police said.

The gangs may have gotten their start when lowland gangs sent members involved in violent incidents to "chill out" at Tahoe, authorities said. They may also have gotten a boost from gang members brought by their parents from Los Angeles or the San Joaquin Valley in an attempt to break them away from gang life.

In any case, rivalry between the South Side 13, whose members are Latino, and the BNG escalated last Monday night when a South Side gangbanger threw a bottle at a carload of BNGs, according to the Douglas County, Nev., Sheriff's Department.

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