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Gang Truces All but Forgotten as Homicides Soar

Crime: Police and activists seek new ways to stop the killings. Only a treaty in Watts is still functioning, and a Valley cease-fire is in the works.

July 21, 2002|MICHAEL KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ten years ago, the gangs of the Watts housing projects signed a peace treaty. Other truces followed in South Los Angeles.

San Fernando Valley gangs agreed to their own peace accord in 1993, a year in which Los Angeles police counted 346 gang-related homicides in the city.

By 1999, thanks to factors including law enforcement efforts and the treaties, gang killings in the city dropped to 136.

But now, except in Watts, the treaties no longer seem to be working. Gang-related killings last year matched the 1993 total, police say. And, at the current pace, this year's total could be even higher.

"Yeah, I remember hearing about the truce," said 20-year-old Jose "Chuy'' Gonzalez. "I remember hearing about JFK getting killed too."

Like others, he recalled the peace treaty as if it were part of a history lesson.

Alejandro Novoa of the Pacoima Project Boys pulled his Chevy to a stop in an alley next to the San Fernando Gardens housing project on Van Nuys Boulevard.

"For me, the treaty was so good because I could go out shopping, could go out and have fun and not worry about being shot," Novoa said. "But now, you can't go nowhere. It's worse than before."

Novoa, 24, blames the violence on "the rookies," young and new gang members trying to earn a reputation for being fearless.

Los Angeles police said there had been 158 gang killings through May, the most recent statistics available. At that pace, gang killings would surpass 370 for the year.

Many police, gang-intervention workers and community activists agree that the resurgence in killings is related to newcomers who had nothing to do with the pacts from years ago. Gang membership has changed and some new gangs have emerged, they said.

In addition, some are critical of efforts such as truces and treaties, saying that they do little to address the core problem of youths joining gangs and getting involved in illegal activities.

"The gang treaties of the 1990s were a temporary, short-term fix that have not lasted," said Lt. Gary Nanson, commander of the Los Angeles Police Department's Valley Bureau gang unit. "We readily credited the lull to the peace treaties, but we don't know that for sure. We like to think they helped."

Nanson and others said their goal remains to find ways to keep youths from ever joining gangs.

Some police and activists support the multi-agency, anti-gang Community Law Enforcement and Recovery program, which has been credited with reducing crime in various neighborhoods by combining the resources of the police, city and county district attorneys, and parole and probation departments.

"CLEAR is one of the best policing programs the LAPD has ever been a part of," said Sgt. Andrew Chase, head of the gang unit at Pacific, adding that the program is currently in only a handful of the city's 18 police divisions.

"It's the way gang violence will be targeted in the future citywide," he said.

Though crime persists in Watts, it is not a result of gang rivalries, according to gang members, residents and LAPD Capt. Dick Bonneau of the Southeast Division.

Police and community activists say that in addition to organizing a sports league and celebrating the anniversary of the truce, some residents of the area rush to quash any potential problems when they arise.

They said that several gang members who recently had been released from prison were not very receptive to the idea of a cease-fire, but peacemakers intervened.

"We school those guys that get out and try to be destructive," said Daude Sherrills, 34, an activist from the Jordan Downs housing projects. "We educate them on the value of the treaty and of unity. We work at it all the time. You've got to work on the healing."

Bill Martinez, a consultant who teaches gang intervention at Cal State Los Angeles, said the newcomers who make it through the current violent times may be the ones who ultimately make a push to stop the killing.

"You have to go through the rough times to appreciate the value of peace," said Martinez, who credits the treaties as a major reason for the drop in homicides in the 1990s. "The kids on the streets are going through those rough times now."

William "Blinky" Rodriguez, who helped broker the peace effort in the Valley in 1993, said a new treaty, actually a cease-fire, is in the works.

"You can sense the excitement in my voice because it has taken a long time to get back to this," said Rodriguez, a former professional kick boxer and boxing manager who got into the peace movement after his 16-year-old son was gunned down. "The 'hoods are willing to talk again."

Rodriguez feels the truce from nearly 10 years ago was a learning experience.

"We have more experience, more infrastructure," said Rodriguez, executive director of the nonprofit Communities in Schools, a social service agency that does job training but specializes in gang prevention and hard-core intervention. "It's more of a group effort this time. Police. More community organizations. Churches. More grass roots. Hopefully, more gang members."

Deputy Chief Ronald Bergman, commander of the Valley Bureau, went to Rodriguez last year to discuss what could be done to combat the rise in gang crime. That led to several strategy meetings this year with community organizations, parole officers, probation officers, elected officials and police.

Rodriguez, while recognizing the seriousness of gang violence, passionately argues that the public in general and the police in particular stereotype all gang members.

"I recognize the need to suppress the guys who are out of control," Rodriguez said. "But they are not all shooters. Not all terrorists. You got 50 guys from a 'hood, maybe three of them are crazy. But you got 47 guys that are OK."

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