AS a schoolboy growing up in a graffiti-strewn West Chicago neighborhood, George Vega idolized the street toughs in high-tops and baggy pants who ruled their turf with guns and bravado.
But after six years as a member and leader in one of America's fiercest gang-war zones, Mr. Vega feels trapped by what he describes as a culture of skin-deep loyalties and heartless killing.
Only days ago, Vega stood in a neighborhood church, gazing at a shrine he helped build for 16 lost friends. Faces in photos smiled out from among ritual loaves and skulls marking the Mexican Day of the Dead. All but two of the youths died in the past eight months. Most were victims of gang feuds in this Hispanic enclave called Little Village.
"I feel like an old man," says the tall teen, pressing his face into his palms.
Vega - like others around him - is seeking an escape from the violence, fear, and dead-end prospects of gang life. Kill- ing and revenge seem to define this two-square-mile neighborhood, home to Mexican bakeries, street-corner tamale peddlers, and 2,000 gang members. During flare-ups in fighting, shootings occur daily, not only in darkened alleys but on the main business strip at midday.
In Little Village and across America, street rivalries are growing more lethal as gangs spread at an alarming rate. The number of US cities with street gangs skyrocketed from 172 in 1980 to more than 1,000 today, while the number of gang members soared to half a million, according to Malcolm Klein, a leading authority on gangs at the University of Southern California.
Nationwide, there were an estimated 2,200 gang killings in 1991. The bulk of these were in Los Angeles and Chicago, the country's most gang-ridden cities, where a growing number of gang murders account for about a third of homicides citywide.
Police suppression, the chief strategy for combating gangs since the 1970s, has failed to curb the violent brotherhoods and in some cases has backfired, US officials and experts say. "The more you crack down, the more you play their war games for them," says Professor Klein. "Deterrence directed at gang members tends to boomerang by giving them the status they joined for."
Help from communities
In response, the federal government is promoting a new, community-based strategy in its most sweeping effort yet to counter gangs. This year, a dozen US cities will receive from $200,000 to $400,000 each to test the program, which mobilizes communities to target youths like Vega and offer education, jobs, and counseling to draw them out of gangs.
Already, there are signs the strategy works. Under a pilot project started in Little Village in 1993, preliminary data show a leveling of gang homicides and a drop in residents' perceptions of gang crime. Still, the strategy is too expensive to promote nationwide without additional funding, says Jim Burch of the Justice Department, which oversees the effort.
The new approach - underway since May in the gang-troubled cities of Chicago; Riverside, Calif.; Mesa and Tuscon, Ariz.; Bloomington, Ill.; and San Antonio - is rooted in a simple but crucial idea.
"Kids want to find a way to get out of the gangs, but they don't know how," says Irving Spergel, the University of Chicago sociologist who developed the new model for curtailing gangs.
Most gang members are products of an urban underclass with few good options. The vast majority are black and Hispanic youths ages 12 to 25. Like Vega, they live in poor, racially segregated inner-city neighborhoods where schools are substandard and crime and unemployment are high. Many come from broken homes. They often do poorly in school and lack social skills.
These young men embrace gangs above all for status and a sense of belonging, or for protection from rival gangs - not for violence - says Klein, author of "The American Street Gang."
"I dreamed about being a big-time gang leader. I wanted to prove myself," Vega says. Enlisted at the age of 12, he rose to become a leader of the Two-Six gang, which started in the 1970s from a baseball team on Chicago's 26th Street.
Omar Velasquez joined the Two-Six gang for protection from the rival Latin Kings. Founded in the 1960s, the Latin Kings are Chicago's oldest and biggest Hispanic gang, with factions throughout the Midwest. "I just got sick of the beatings, I couldn't take it any more," he says.
Once in the gang, Vega and Velasquez bolstered their status by joining in turf battles, assaults, and drive-by shootings - at a mounting personal cost. In 1993, Velasquez was run down by rival gang members who then got out of their car and broke several of his ribs with a baseball bat. This year, both Velasquez and Vega were shot by drive-by gunmen.
Crippled by bullets, both youths discovered the flimsiness of gang loyalty and the elusiveness of protection. "My boys left me lying there bleeding," Vega said bitterly. Velasquez nods. "When I was in the hospital all stitched up, they lied about how they were there for me," he says.
Disillusioned and afraid, Vega and Velasquez were targeted for help by community workers in the Little Village project. Under the project, community groups, youth workers, beat police, and others cooperate to identify and steer gang members into alternatives like sports, school, and jobs.
After months of counseling from a community group called Neighbors Against Gang Violence, the two youths are studying for high-school equivalency degrees. Velasquez has a night job loading boxes for United Parcel Service. Although still gang members, Vega and Velasquez have withdrawn from street fighting and encouraged others to do the same.
"If we can saturate them with activity they'll be okay," says Marilu Gonzalez, a Little Village homeowner and mother of three who runs the Neighbors program. "They're looking to get out."
As they pull away from the gang, Vega and Velasquez are falling back on sympathetic mentors like Mrs. Gonzalez as well as supportive family members.
"When I was in jail, only Ma came to visit," Vega recalls in a low voice. "Ma was out there crying, and I couldn't hear nothing. I just said, 'Yeah, yeah.' I thought, am I ever going to see daylight again? Am I going to touch my mother again?"
He pauses and looks up. "You think the boys are your family? You only have one family: the one that made you."
Today, Vega and Velasquez speak proudly of being "clean." But they are not out of danger. Nearby streets are covered with gold and black graffiti boasting of killings by rival Latin Kings with monikers like Silent, Baby Evil, and Wacko. Whether waiting at a bus stop or walking a date to the movies, they remain marked men.
"Every day when I leave my house I ask myself, 'Will I come back?' " Velasquez says. He and Vega fear for their younger brothers, who have ignored their urgings to stay out of gangs.
"I walk around until 3 or 4 a.m. worrying, 'Where's my little brother?' " Vega says.