DENVER — Santina has just completed two years probation for assault with intent to kill and is sitting on a dirty carpet in the public defender's office.
The 16-year-old former gang member wraps her arms around her lanky legs and ticks off her finer qualities to a dozen other girls around her.
"I'm a good friend. I'm taking classes. I'm gonna get a fast car," she says, her hazel eyes seeking approval.
She and the other teenagers, all self-described "bangers," have been ordered by a judge to attend the self-esteem-building group sessions organized by the city's Gang Rescue and Support Project, or GRASP.
Most are either hanging out with male gangs or trying to get away from them. Curfew violations, physical assaults and possession of concealed weapons have spiked them into the criminal justice system.
They are among the thousands of young women--some as young as 12--who, in a misguided search for respect and glamour, join or "kick it" with male street gangs.
They're "homegirls" if they are the sisters, girlfriends or schoolmates of male gang members. Or they are "hoodrats" or "wannabes" if they are girls from other neighborhoods, some initiated into gangs by having sex with gang members.
Law-enforcement officials and researchers cannot say exactly how many girls belong to gangs. Authorities believe the number is rising, although there are still far fewer girls than boys.
Furthermore, more and more girls are joining gangs in mid-sized cities, and now--instead of hanging out with other girls--they increasingly are hooking up with male gangs that tend to be more violent.
"They're in these environments where violence is endemic," said Jody Miller, one of a few experts nationwide studying girls in gangs. "It's almost like gangs provide them with a way of staking out an identity other than victim or whore."
But ties with male gangs can put girls in life-threatening situations and lead to unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and jail time.
Like boys, girl bangers "stack," or tell stories with hand signals that usually precede acts of violence. "And they smoke bud [marijuana] and roam around neighborhoods looking for fights," Miller said.
Their clothing is telltale as well: large T-shirts, athletic shoes and "rags"--scarves of various colors that tie them to specific gangs. At GRASP meetings, girls walk in with garlands of green tattoos, pierced noses, beepers and long, manicured nails.
Santina got in trouble after she smashed another girl's jaw against a curb. Her foe had shouted a racial slur at her and her brother--both are half-black, half-American Indian--as they played basketball.
She spent 6 1/2 months in juvenile detention. Her brother is in a Texas prison for robbery.
Santina said that when she was running with gangs no one messed with her when she and her friends "jacked" people, robbing them of purses and other valuables.
She finally left her gang after rival gang members threatened to hurt her small niece and nephew.
"I'm happy," she said. "I mean, I still have to watch my back. Because they say once you're in a gang, you're in a gang for life. You don't get out.
"My probation officer--I've actually been able to look him in the face and say, 'Ha-ha, I'm proving you wrong, " she said. Miller based her doctoral dissertation at UCLA on interviews with girl gang members in Columbus, Ohio. The researcher wanted to get away from large cities and explore why teens in small to mid-size cities find gang life alluring.
Almost without exception, the girls who identified themselves as gang members came from homes where domestic violence and substance abuse were common. Many had been sexually abused.
Most of the girls she interviewed rejected the media stereotype that they were merely sex objects for male gang members. They were proud they'd been beaten into gangs alongside boys.
"The girls were real adamant that they want to be beaten in because that proves they're real tough," Miller said. "And you don't get that by sleeping with other gang members."
Cisco Gallardo, a GRASP advisor, said some girls use gangs as "vehicles for their own unresolved issues of anger and violence."
When girls do decide to leave gang life, he said, breaking ties can be difficult because rival gangs remember faces, places, colors, hand signs and slights, both real and perceived.
Many girls enter gang life through their brothers or other males from their neighborhood, making it even more difficult to break away.
"Gang systems are divisive along gender lines . . . and gangs center around power, sex and drugs," said Regina Huerter, a gang expert with the Denver district attorney's office and a GRASP advisor.
Huerter said the availability of guns and drugs, especially crack cocaine, has raised the level of teen violence.
"The pivotal point with girls is that they are almost always used as mules to carry weapons or drugs into neighborhoods," Huerter said. "Young women have a way of getting things stirred up."