GUNS drawn and bulletproof vests cinched tight, the special antigang police crouched outside a house cartooned with graffiti in a taproot-tough section of South-Central Los Angeles. Moments later, they burst through the front door, looking for members of a Mexican street gang, South Los, believed to be active in drug dealing.
The take: a loaded .44 caliber magnum pistol (conveniently stored for quick use near the front door), a few shotgun shells, and chunks of wax, which sellers often try to fob off as ``rocks'' of cocaine.
It is another night of crack-and-mouse between police and street gangs in the nation's No. 2 city - a game authorities are not necessarily winning. Despite two years of unprecedented attention, gang violence in Los Angeles appears to be worsening, posing a deepening dilemma for police and the city's political establishment.
While some progress has been made, gang-related crime continues to rise and some authorities say they think membership in the fragmented street organizations is, too.
``It is getting more violent on the streets,'' says Wes McBride, a gang specialist with the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department.
How the city fares in controlling the estimated 80,000 youths who belong to 750 different gangs is of interest to more than local residents. In recent years members of the ``Bloods'' and ``Crips,'' two local black gangs, have taken their violence and drug dealing on the road. `Ride-alongs' popular
Police here have been contacted by authorities in at least 47 states where members (or purported members) of the groups have shown up. How the problem is dealt with at its fount could affect the level of criminal activity in other cities.
Police and politicians from across the country are journeying to Los Angeles to learn what they can about law enforcement tactics or just to view what is one of the most pervasive gang cultures in the world. ``Ride-alongs'' with police into tough neighborhoods seem nearly as popular as Space Mountain at Disneyland.
The guest list of members of the Sheriffs Department's Gang Enforcement Team (GET) and Operation Safe Streets (OSS) unit who work out of the Carson Division, and who were involved with the raid on this night, illustrates the point. Not long ago, they took Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt on a ride. This week a policeman from Seattle was in town, as was a state trooper and TV crew from Oregon. Over the weekend they showed gangland neighborhoods to visiting military officers. Street stereotypes absent
What people see is not the ``West Side Story'' version or Beirut civil war that many expect. Roving bands do not strut down the street and confront rivals in hand-to-hand combat. Nor is every street corner occupied by gun-toting militias.
Many of the youth gangs, which run the gamut of ethnic groups from Filipino to Samoan to Mexican, are loosely structured groups that operate out of a single housing project or a several-block area.
Only about 5 percent are considered hard-core gang members involved in serious criminal activity. But they can cause a maelstrom of mischief. When they retaliate against each other, either for turf or drug-business reasons, it is increasingly with AK-47s, Uzis, or other semiautomatic weapons.
On a crisp night, sheriff's deputy Shea Rush pulls his black-and-white squad car around a corner in South-Central Los Angeles and points at a liquor store where four people were shot, allegedly by a gang member. In another neighborhood, OSS member Robert DeVries drives past a home pockmarked with bullet holes, the result of drive-by shootings.
``It sometimes seems like the Vietnam era,'' says Sgt. Richard Davidson, sitting in the Carson area OSS office, a converted mobile home where photos of criminal suspects and gang hats (``Main St. Crips,'' ``135 Ives'') hang on the walls. ``There are body counts every week.''
Other signs underscore the level of violence. The US Army is sending its doctors to train at the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center in Watts. Reason: The military says the hospital, which receives most of the area's gang shooting victims, offers one of the best combat-like settings to prepare surgeons for war.
By the end of October, the number of gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County was already approaching last year's record number of 452. Overall, the level of serious crimes committed by gang members (rape, robbery, murder) is 31 percent higher than a year ago, though that figure represents only about 8 percent of the city total. Attacking root causes
Authorities attribute some of the enduring gang violence to growing narcotics trafficking and more powerful weapons. Others contend that most of the warring is still turf-related.
Underlying these are deeper causes: a growing underclass in Los Angeles, lack of employment for inner-city youths, erosion of family and neighborhood units.
``We are dealing with communities that are fragmented,'' says Michael Genelin, head of the Los Angeles District Attorney's gang unit.
To combat the problem, authorities are responding with one part prevention and two parts force. Concerted police crackdowns have helped control the problem in a few areas.
Prosecutors are getting tougher, too. Armed with new laws - some of which civil libertarians consider to be overreaching - they are giving higher priority to gang cases and seeking maximum penalities.
Yet local prisons are already overcrowded. Nor is a nightstick the cure-all for a social problem.
``It's obvious that enforcement efforts aren't enough to deal with this,'' says Malcolm Klein, a sociologist at the University of Southern California.
On the prevention front, public and private agencies are trying a new tactic: combine resources and focus on specific neighborhoods. The aim is to avoid duplication and stretch what few dollars are available for social programs. City and county agencies and community groups go into areas and coordinate day-care, job, education, and other antigang efforts.
``We're real hopeful about this new consortium approach,'' says Steve Valdivia, who heads the Community Youth Gang Services, a city and county financed group that seeks to quell gang violence.
Still, even with these efforts and growing neighborhood activism, many specialists believe far more money and manpower will have to be put into antipoverty and other programs if a problem that has been around for decades is to be thwarted.