Los Angeles recruiting help to fight gangs

LOS ANGELES -- Here in the nation's "capital" for street gangs, Jose Aleman is an ex-gangbanger with 26 bullet fragments in his brain. Lucky to be alive, Aleman is eating a Mexican pasta soup in the Homegirl Cafe, run by former female gang members, when he's interrupted by an aspiring gangster half his age.

They hug. Aleman, who has spent a third of his 36 years in Folsom and other prisons, is like a mentor.


"I've got a job, man. I'm going to be working full time now," said Richard Hernandez, 18, who for the past few months has been unemployed. Now, Hernandez is going to quit running from the police, he says.

That's good news, Aleman later remarks. It's one less recruit in a city that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says is "the national epicenter" for gang activity.


With one recent study enumerating 40,000 members in 700 gangs in Los Angeles, the city is the originator and exporter of dangerous gangs gone national, such as the Bloods, the Crips and Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13), said FBI spokesman Kenneth Smith.

"We have Blood and Crips sets in Indianapolis and Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville - you know, that middle part of the country where people don't think they have a gang problem," said Smith, who was an Indianapolis policeman for eight years until 1997.

Chicago Crime Commission President Jim Wagner acknowledged Los Angeles as a breeding ground for gangs that are in Chicago's western suburbs. "We are seeing in the suburban areas a growth in the presence of MS-13," he said.

After more than 20 years trying to eradicate Los Angeles' gangs, officials are being sharply rebuked for failures in a new study by a local civil rights group.

Indeed, as gang fighting has turned racial between blacks and Latinos, the mayor, Police Chief William Bratton and other local officials have launched a high-profile campaign with blunt rhetoric.

"We're the gang capital of the United States of America," Villaraigosa said in one interview.

On Wednesday, local officials and the FBI office in Los Angeles will host a long-planned summit with law officials from the U.S., Canada and Central America on "transnational" gangs such as MS-13, which has ties to El Salvador. During the conference, the mayor and police chief are expected to announce anti-gang programs emphasizing prevention and intervention, officials said.

To longtime Los Angeles activists, the renewed government pledges are welcomed, but the fervor appears a political response to a stinging report by the civil rights lawyer Connie Rice of the Advancement Project, in which she calls for a "gang czar" and "a Marshall Plan" to end the gang epidemic.


The gung-ho response by officials appears to be a tactic to secure federal funds to combat the problem, said Rev. Greg Boyle, 52, a Jesuit priest who said over the past 19 years he has saved tens of thousands of youths and adults from gangs.

With the slogan "nothing stops a bullet like a job," Boyle oversees several employment enterprises under the umbrella group Homeboy Industries -which the mayor cited as a model program - that also includes the Homegirl Cafe. In fact, 18-year-old Hernandez's new job is cleaning Boyle's 3,000-square-foot headquarters for $7.50 a hour. Aleman also works for Boyle, as a motivational outreach speaker, making $8 an hour.

"You would ask yourself what would be the interests of the police chief and the mayor to call Los Angeles the nation's epicenter for gangs," Boyle said. "We'd think it would be a PR blunder, but if you scratch ever so slightly, you'll see that they'll be able to get federal money.

"Otherwise it would look insane: Wouldn't that upset tourists?" asked Boyle, who adds he believes that gang violence was worse in the 1990s.

Statistics, however, show a recent upswing in gang activity, though the city's overall crime rate is down, officials said.

Last year marked a 14 percent increase in gang-related offenses, and of the city's 481 homicides, more than half involved gang members, said police spokesman Sgt. Lee Sands.


Overcrowded prisons, 50 percent high school dropout rates and the lack of job training and after-school programs contribute to gang growth, officials said. Another factor is that Los Angeles is the "most under-policed big city" in the country, with 9,000 officers compared with New York's 37,000 and Chicago's 13,500.

In the meantime, Aleman says, he's promoting Criminals and Gangmembers Anonymous, an organization that is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step program. In it, former gang members help active ones to quit what Aleman calls the "addiction" of leading a violent life on the streets.

"I share everything I can in order to expose the truth that gangs never tell you: There's no future to it. There's only three dead ends to gangs: hospitals, death, prison," said Aleman, who was released from prison in 2004 after serving time for involuntary manslaughter. He credits Boyle's prison visits with motivating him to quit the gangs.

Michael Martinez writes for the Chicago Tribune.