LOS ANGELES, California – It's no secret that Los Angeles is the capital of street gangs. More than 45,000 gang members live here and some of the gangs, like the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18, and the Crips and the Bloods, have spread outside the city's borders.
But city leaders have been working for the past decade to pioneer campaigns to prevent and eliminate gang violence. Programs include gun buy-backs and networks of “peacemakers” who talk to gang members to defuse violence and avert revenge attacks.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said this “smart” model contrasts with the raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that are part of President Donald Trump's anti-gang strategy. The latest raids rounded up 1,378 suspects. Although the targets were undocumented migrants, most of the detainees were U.S. citizens.
“These big raids in fact are very small,” Garcetti told Univision News. “It's like casting a small net into the ocean in the hope of trapping some 'bad hombres.'”
The Los Angeles Police Department and Garcetti's office last week hosted one of their regular events to prevent gang violence, a gun buy-back in which police reward anyone who surrenders a firearm with gift cards. The deal is anonymous, and police do not ask about the origin of the weapons, even if they are assault rifles or bazookas.
More than 15,000 weapons have been taken off the streets and destroyed under the program since 2009. Organizers usually hold the events the Saturday before Mothers' Day, hoping that anyone who needs money for a gift will think of turning in their guns.
“For me, these strategies are smarter, more focused. They go to where they are needed, instead of making a political statement that does not even scratch the surface of the problem,” said Garcetti. He added that the Los Angeles crime rate linked to gangs has dropped 40 percent from the 1990s.
A huge shotgun like the one Tony Montana used in the movie Scarface, a WWII machine gun and two assault rifles were among the weapons turned into police just minutes after the buy-back started at a Los Angeles Sports Arena parking lot.
“I brought a shotgun because I'm afraid they'll break into my house and then use it on the street,” said Jaime Moreno, a Mexican who lives in a South Los Angeles neighborhood ruled by the Crips, a gang born in this city in the 1960s.
It's not only the police that arrive whenever there's a shootout in Los Angeles. The city government has more than 120 Community Intervention Workers (CIW), most of them former gang members who try to find out why the shooting occurred, help victims and stop revenge attacks.
That initiative is financed with funds received by several community organizations from the $25 million budget of the city's Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) agency.
The CIWs, also known as “peacemakers,” work in the 23 most violent areas of the city. South Los Angeles, where the Crips and Bloods gangs were born, has the largest number of CIWs. That sector alone accounted for 60 percent of the 134 murders reported in all the city in the first six months of 2016.
“If they know that a shooting took place in a neighborhood and there's concern about revenge, they try to talk to people and calm them down,” said GRYD director Anne Tremblay.
A light in the darkness
During summer, when the homicide rate tends to increase, more than 30 city parks in the most violent neighborhoods remain open late into the night for sports, workshops, physical training, meals and other activities. The Summer Night Lights program was developed by the Los Angeles government.
Official figures show those types of activities reduce the crime rate in the areas surrounding the parks. “The gang used to take control of the park, and then people did not feel safe going there,” said Tremblay.
City Council member Curren Price said those kinds of programs are “largely” responsible for the reduction in crime rates. His office offers activities focused on children because they are growing up in an environment that makes it easy for street gangs to recruit them.
“The gangs have left their mark, but prevention and intervention are most important,” Price said. Garcetti added that Watts, one of the most violent neighborhoods in South Los Angeles, has not reported a single murder this year, almost unimaginable 15 years ago.
The mayor said his administration is now trying to prepare for the expected release of many prison inmates under Proposition 47, which downgrades some non-violent crimes, like simple drug possession or the theft of less than $950, from felonies to misdemeanors.
“This requires focus and preparation, not rhetoric and deportation,” said Garcetti.