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Latino Gang Truce in Valley Is Praised Despite Rise in Homicides

Crime: Statistics fluctuate annually, but without 4-year-old treaty, more people might have died, police say.

November 30, 1997|EFRAIN HERNANDEZ JR. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were days not so long ago when Christopher Rios was known as "Maniac," and for good reason.

Rios, a powerfully built 24-year-old from Van Nuys, mostly kept busy with carjackings, robberies, drug dealing and other mean, nasty activities. He served time in jail, both as a juvenile and an adult, before deciding enough was enough.

Today, he is one of a busy crew of workers and volunteers devoted to the Valley Unity Peace Treaty, which is beginning its fifth year.

"I'm on a mission to help as many people who want to change," said Rios, who often visits youths in juvenile detention and participates in neighborhood improvement projects.

Despite some shaky moments, and continuing gang violence in the San Fernando Valley, the truce by Latino gangs that started Oct. 31, 1993, continues to be praised by activists, politicians and police.

Police said that although crime statistics fluctuate from year to year, and homicides are up this year from last in the Valley, the truce remains worthwhile.

Without it, perhaps even more gang members and innocent bystanders would be dead, they said.

"It appears that it is working," said Lt. Joseph Garcia, commanding officer of the LAPD Foothill Division's detectives. "The community is more willing to be out walking in their neighborhoods."

Garcia said that so far in 1997 there have been 10 gang-related homicides out of 22 slayings in the Foothill Division, where the gang truce is centered. In 1996, five of 18 killings in Foothill were gang-related, compared with 18 of 28 the year before, he said.

Throughout the Valley, police said, there were 76 homicides this year through October, compared with 66 during the same period last year.

Gang-related homicides in the Valley so far this year number 30, compared with 27 during the same time last year, said Police Lt. Fred Tuller, who coordinates the Valley Bureau's Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) gang unit.

After its first year, the truce was credited with helping reduce Valley gang slayings from 44 in 1993 to 29 in 1994.

But any year, police and activists said, homicide counts are unpredictable. Rating the truce by counting homicides can be misleading, they said.

Police said many current and former gang members now participate jointly in community events without getting into tragic beefs. That was impossible five years ago, they said.

Tuller said police and other agencies all play a role. "It's just a more cooperative effort among all the stakeholders," he said.

And that includes gang members who declare themselves sincerely committed to peace.

"We're just here to give," said Hector Sanchez, 23, who volunteered to help during a holiday food giveaway Monday night in San Fernando. "The heart is still there as far as loving my community."

Sanchez, a former gang member who works as a forklift operator, said he is impressed by gang members who give up personal time to do good deeds.

"It does mean a lot," he said. "This is not the usual thing."

Rios, who also participated in the food giveaway, pointed to a man who was standing nearby.

"If I was still gangbanging, my mission would be to kill him," said Rios, a project coordinator for the nonprofit Communities in Schools organization. "Now we're [good] examples to other kids in the neighborhood."

Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Sylmar) agreed. He watched quietly as young mothers thanked gang members for the turkey, stuffing and vegetables provided by private and public donors.

"It doesn't just touch the stomach. For many people it touches the heart too," Cardenas said.

Garcia and others said much of the credit for the truce goes to William "Blinky" Rodriguez, executive director of Communities in Schools.

Rodriguez, whose office moved from San Fernando to Pacoima this month, was one of two lay ministers who organized the peace gathering in October 1993 that was attended by hundreds of Latino gang members.

At the same time, authorities said, an order was issued by the Mexican Mafia prison gang to stem street violence that threatened to disrupt drug sales.

Both police and Rodriguez said the truce is now holding independently of any Mexican Mafia influence.

"It's a whole different world," Rodriguez said. "I just continue to go forward with the work we have in front of us. I deal with a lot of guys who are looking to transition.

"I feel that if this peace wasn't in place, it'd be a lot worse in the Valley."

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