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COMMERCE : Program Gives Gang Members a Way Out

October 09, 1994|SIMON ROMERO

Three weeks ago when she decided to end her association with the King Cobra gang, 17-year-old Christine Figueroa said she received a welcome slap in the face.

The hard slap delivered by a fellow gang member signified that Christine--mother of an 8-month-old boy and pregnant with another child--was officially free to leave the feared King Cobras gang, her surrogate family for nearly five years.

Nicknamed "Monstra" because of her size--Christine stands nearly 6 feet--the ex-gangbanger plans to finish high school and attend college.

"I realize now that I'm a mom, I have to provide a better future for my children," she said.

She credits the Probation Department's Gang Alternative Prevention Program for her decision to depart the world of violence and legal brushes she had known since age 13, when she was "jumped" into the gang through a ritual beating delivered by four fellow gang members.

"What was good about GAPP is that it never stopped helping me when I needed help," said Christine of the program that targets at-risk youth and directs them toward positive activities.

"When I just needed to get away from all the gang pressures, they sent me to another school in Monrovia where I didn't know anyone that I would get into trouble with. The counselors also gave advice to my grandparents, who basically raised me."

Since it arrived in the city of Commerce in 1990, officials say the GAPP program is responsible for an impressive decline in the city's recorded gang activities.

"Although the problem is far from completely solved, Commerce is almost like an island of tranquillity wedged in between other violent areas," said Arminda Vengco, who handles gang prevention programs for the Probation Department.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department statistics show seven gang-related assaults and no homicides in Commerce in 1993, compared to 140 gang-related assaults and 11 homicides in neighboring unincorporated areas of East Los Angeles.

"Thanks to some good counseling and prevention programs, the gang problem here is not one of suppression, but of prevention. . . . Now we have to worry about gangs in surrounding areas like Bell Gardens and East L.A. from coming into the city," said Ron Padilla, 45, the city's GAPP probation officer.

According to Padilla, Commerce is divided and controlled by two gangs--the King Cobras and Choppers 12. Both gangs originated in the early 1960s in East Los Angeles.

"An integral part of the GAPP program is to get parents, as well as kids, involved in expanding awareness about gangs," said Padilla. "If the parents don't care or express interest, then it's really hard to reach the kids."

As part of the program, Christine's grandparents attended a 10-week parenting class and helped her straighten out.

According to Padilla, children who are at risk for joining gangs are identified early on by school officials based on their attendance records. Even among elementary school students, a pattern of tardiness often indicates a student is spending time with the wrong crowd or losing interest in structured activities that make joining a gang more difficult.

Once the student is referred to GAPP, a series of meetings takes place between a probation officer, school officials, law-enforcement officials and parents or guardians.

Cooperation and smooth communication between all parties involved, says Padilla, is the key to GAPP's success.

"The program is successful because we target kids early on and don't lose them in the bureaucratic shuffle," said Padilla.

Also helpful is the large amount of funds the city dedicates to crime prevention each year. For 1994, nearly 40% of the year's $30.6 million budget paid for sheriff's services and crime prevention programs.

For Christine, who sometimes laments the loss of security provided by gang life, these efforts have added up to an opportunity to find her own solutions to life's problems.

"It took a long time to break away," she said. "But I handled the beatings I got when I joined, so now I know I can handle a lot more."

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