`THERE is the future of gangs unless we provide an alternative," says Marianne Diaz, pointing to a wall of spray-painted scribbles at the corner of Olympic and Atlantic Avenues here.
The multicolored doodles run the entire length of a city block, over walls, fences, awnings, doors. But they are not the angular and aggressive markings of typical gang graffiti, posted by long-established gang members to define turf. They are the more graceful initials of pre-gang cliques known as "tagger crews."
In baggy pants, combat boots, and sports caps, these younger, urban youths roam neighborhoods far beyond their own. They put their initials or nicknames in the highest, most visible, and most numerous locations: docks, trestles, clock towers, bridges.
Marianne Diaz knows how to harness that energy, daring, and creativity and redirect it away from the gang culture that has flourished here since the 1930s.
But this former gang member and a deputy director of Community Youth Gang Services (CYGS) says she's losing the battle of the bottom line: funding. Beyond the steady drop-off of money to CYGS, the largest such group in the nation, is the fact that other social organizations that offer alternatives to gangs are cutting back as well: schools, parks and recreation, health and welfare, college grants-in-aid. CYGS has had to cut staff and programs at a time when gang homicides are escalating.
"We can get these kids to the truce table," Ms. Diaz says, noting the historic truce CYGS brokered between the Bloods and the Crips, two notorious gangs here. "We can get them to stop shooting, shake hands, and put down their guns.... But then they look at us and say, `Now what?' They go back to it because it is all they know. They have nothing else to do." Anti-gang units halved
As the number of gang homicides has quadrupled in seven years, county funding for the program has dropped by nearly half, says CYGS administrator Frank Trejo. Each of its 14 units has been cut from six to three people, on average; so has a program that taught street patrollers how to deal with street violence, and an 11-gang football league. Gone is an anti-graffiti unit that enlisted teens to remove the markings.
"I had activities from dances to field trips to parties [for the graffiti corps], but I wouldn't let gang members come," says Diaz. "Girls were jumping themselves out of gangs to join us instead."
"CYGS has proven itself to be the most viable organization in the community in dealing with gang problems," says Lt. John Dunkin, spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. "It is really unfortunate that funding has had to be steadily cut, but this is a difficult funding time for all government agencies."
As Diaz drives through gang turf, she recounts five years of immigration that have swollen already-jammed neighborhoods and complicated the maze of gang life. "Social agencies here are still dealing with gangs as a Hispanic or black phenomenon," she says. "But what about the Asians, Samoans, Tongans?"
Refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador, and elsewhere in Central America have complicated the Hispanic mix here, she says. "I understand these streets as well as anyone," says Diaz. "But I don't know what Salvadorans are about."
"Marianne [Diaz] and CYGS are the only place I knew would help me get out of my gang," says one 14-year-old who chooses "Robert" as a pseudonym. Because he faces the dangerous rite of being "jumped out" of his gang - a formalized beating that often includes knifing and sometimes death - Robert has been using two CYGS counselors for safety to get to school and back. The counselors are also troubleshooting family squabbles with a father who would like his son to stay in the same gang the father was in as a
Over the past few years, and especially since the looting of gun stores during the Los Angeles riots last spring, there has been far easier access to guns, including automatic weapons, Diaz says. On a tour of several East L.A. neighborhoods, we pull over in the Geraghty Loma area. There we meet a 14-year-old gang member who was arrested in junior high for carrying his father's .25-caliber handgun to school.
The week before, he and a friend had caught a rival gang member. They put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed. Gang leaders are younger
"The number of gang deaths has contributed to a leadership vacuum filled by younger and younger kids," says Tony Borbon, a CYGS spokesman, "who are trying to deal with more sophisticated weapons they don't even know how to use."
All of that adds up to a situation far more threatening to the average youth, exacerbating the pressure for him to protect himself by joining the local gang. In the huge East L.A. region patrolled by two CYGS workers, 58 gangs have been documented, among them: the Blanchard Boys, the Graveyard Stoners, the Laguna Park Vikings.
Whereas seven years ago most gangs were identified with a few inner-city regions - South Central, Harbor, East Side - gangs have spread to the far corners of the city: Venice, West Side, and the San Fernando Valley.
"Media and movies help generate the feeling that gangsters are cool," says Diaz. "Now middle-class whites want to get into the act, but they don't know what [gang warfare] is about - yet."
Much of the incentive these days, she says, is economic - large sums of money for dangerous but relatively quick work acting as lookouts for drug dealers.
If there is one telling change in the past seven years, it is that Los Angeles gang killings are now so numerous that most don't even make the news any more. The growth of a new phenomenon has generated news, however - increasing numbers of paraplegic and quadriplegic gang members, wounded by gunfire in drive-by shootings.
The other constant, says Diaz, is parental denial.
"It doesn't take us much time to catch on to what's happening with these kid," she says, "because we are on the streets every day. But it takes a long time to convince parents that times are changing, that their kids are becoming gangsters. They don't want to hear it."