Beirut west? L.A. seeks gang truce

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It is a simple one-page document that declares, among other things, ``We agree to lay down our weapons so that all neighborhoods can celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas in peace.'' It bears about a dozen signatures. The truce is something you might expect to see circulated among warring factions in Beirut. But in this case it is aimed at quelling what often seems an equally intractable problem: violence among the more than 400 youth gangs in Los Angles.

In an unusual attempt to stem the growing problem of gang-related violence, community leaders and some gang members themselves are circulating treaties to try to declare a ``season of peace.''

Their hope is that the pacts will be a first step toward breaking the growing cycle of violence in many of the city's neighborhoods over the past couple of years.

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While many longtime gang-watchers here are skeptical of the initiative, no one is willing to completely write off anything that might save a few lives.

``We are going to save more than one life,'' says Steve Valdivia, executive director of Community Youth Gang Services, a county-sponsored group that is helping to negotiate the treaties.

The past year has been an inauspicious one for attempts to curb gang violence in Los Angeles. After a sharp drop in gang-related homicides in the early 1980s, the numbers are edging up again. Through October, 162 gang-connected deaths had been recorded in the city - more than for all of 1985. In some parts of Los Angeles County outside the city, however, the homicides have been down.

Police and community leaders are uncertain as to what has led to the upsurge. One belief is that drug money is increasingly fueling the deadly rivalries. In years past, gangs used to form mainly to control neighborhoods - ``turf.'' If there was any drug dealing, it involved marijuana and heroin and was generally controlled by a few people.

Now many gangs are getting involved in the sale of illegal drugs, including ``crack'' (a type of cocaine). As they try to expand their trade, battles break out.

The situation is more dangerous than in the past, because many gangs are better armed now. ``It used to be zip guns [homemade weapons], chains, and clubs,'' says Bruce Coplen, head of the Los Angeles city attorney's gangs unit. ``Now they have Uzis and other automatic weapons.''

``If it sounds a little like war out there,'' says Mr. Valdivia, ``that's because it is.''

There is speculation, too, that the influx of immigrants into the area has fueled gang violence. In some cases, the new arrivals have formed gangs in areas where other groups had long been established, exacerbating territorial conflicts. The 400 to 500 gangs in Los Angeles County have a combined membership of close to 50,000, with virtually every ethnic group - from blacks to Hispanics to Filipinos - represented.

One disturbing trend in recent years has been the rise of white gangs, mainly in suburban areas. In the San Fernando Valley northwest of downtown, the number of Anglo gangs is believed to have risen from a handful three years ago to about 75 today.

The peace treaties range from simple statements declaring, ``We agree not to kill one another,'' to complex ``nonaggression'' pacts that spell out where and when rival gang members can enter one another's turf.

Organizers of the initiative, led by Mr. Valdivia, are working with about 100 gangs and hope to secure signatures on some 40 pacts. Where possible, they are trying to get gang leaders to sign the documents and enforce the rules among members. Where leaders can't exert such control, organizers settle for signing up individual members.

The treaties come on the heels of several other peace efforts launched in the last month. A radio station recently held a phone-in forum in which singer Barry White and several other prominent entertainment and sports figures urged peace among gangs.

Some in the law-enforcement community, while lauding the spirit of these efforts, doubt their impact. ``But,'' says Lt. Bob Ruchhoft, head of the Los Angeles Police Department's gang activities section, ``if even one guy doesn't get killed because of a peace treaty, it is probably a good thing.''

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