But Holley said the new crop of gangs differs in one important way: commitment. "The drug game you can walk away from, but the gang thing is supposed to be for life."

Contact with gangs can come at an early age. But it's difficult to persuade young people to speak candidly about gangs; some don't want to advertise their gang membership; others don't want to offend gang members.

The Westside Youth Opportunity Center is neutral ground in a violent neighborhood. Youngsters agreed to talk to two Sun reporters on the condition that their full names not be disclosed. Sitting at a large table in the basement, they talked about rivalries and the sometimes deadly consequences.

Two young men, Nino and Rashod, both 20, admitted to being in a Bloods gang. Both talked about tensions that can develop between members of gangs and "'hood crews." Gangs can draw from a wide area, but a 'hood crew represents a particular neighborhood.

When conflicts arise, there are no clear rules about where loyalties lie. Asked how they would choose between the gang and the 'hood crew, Rashod put his hands on his face and said: "Man, you're making my head hurt."

Nino said the gangs are selective: "People don't choose a gang. The gang chooses a person."

Gang members will beat up a recruit before he can join, Rashod said. It is called "tough love" and Rashod likened it to initiation hazing in college fraternities or sororities. He said recruiting occurs in schools and even in churches.

They talked about how gang members learn to use hand signals, speak in code and in some cases, learn Swahili - a way, authorities say, for prison gang members to speak freely without corrections officers understanding them. Nino blurted out a phrase in Swahili, but refused to translate it for the group and did not allow a reporter to record it.

A young woman sitting at the table, Kendra, 18, said she has seen recruiting in schools. "They are forcing young kids who aren't even in high school to do it. They say you should be in this clique with me."

Kendra noted that the gangs do positive things in the neighborhoods. They sponsor block parties called "'hood to 'hoods." At the parties there are DJs and basketball games.

"There are good people in gangs that will help us out, for real," she said. Gang members, she said, are often flush with cash and will sometimes lend money to people in the neighborhood who need it.

Police fight back

To combat gang influences, Baltimore police are committed to a combination of intelligence-gathering, enforcement and outreach to the youth most at risk - those just starting to get involved in fights and other trouble. Police are going to their homes, talking to parents and alerting them to the possibility of gang influence in their children's lives.

Police are trying to reach out to the children and offer an alternative to gangs. Bealefeld, the deputy police commissioner said, "There are many at the beginning of this thing, who are 9 or 10 - who are on the cusp of figuring out what way should they go."

Police have also had some recent success on the streets.

On Friday, Shaidon Blake, a high-ranking member of the L.A.-based Bounty Hunter Bloods, was found guilty of torturing and killing a man in West Baltimore. He told homicide detectives that he came to the Druid Hill Park neighborhood in November 2005 to sell heroin and separate the real Bloods, who pay him tribute money, from the fakers who lack out-of-town connections.

Blake's trial offered a glimpse of the violence connected to gang crimes.

Police think that the victim had mishandled money from a drug deal and participated in a fight in violation of orders from gang leaders. Prosecutors said Blake, 35, oversaw the "DP" or discipline, which included slashing the victim with a box cutter, hitting him with a sledgehammer, stabbing him with a samurai sword and burning his lifeless body.

Police are investigating Blake's role in four other slayings.

Police also have made an arrest in another suspected gang-related killing.

On May 16, 18-year-old Eric Tate is to be tried in the slayings of Taylor and Holiday - homicides triggered by a red bandana.

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com annie.linskey@baltsun.com