A bloody conflict between Hispanic and black gangs is spreading across Los Angeles
Father Greg Boyle keeps a grim count of the young gang members he has buried. Number 151 was Jonathan Hurtado, 18 - fresh out of jail. Now the kindly, bearded Jesuit mourns him. 'The day he got out I found him a job. He never missed a day. He was doing really well,' Boyle says.
But Hurtado made a mistake: he went back to his old neighbourhood in east Los Angeles. While sitting in a park, Hurtado was approached by a man on a bike who said to him: 'Hey, homie, what's up?' He then shot Hurtado four times. 'You can't come back. Not even for a visit,' says Boyle, who has worked for two decades against LA's gang culture.
Boyle's Los Angeles, where daily slaughter is a grim reality, is a world away from the glamorous Hollywood hills, Malibu beaches and Sunset Strip - the celebrity-drenched city that David Beckham and Posh Spice will soon make their home.
Boyle's Los Angeles is where an estimated 120,000 gang members across five counties battle over turf, pride and drugs. It is a city of violence as a new race war escalates between new Hispanic gangs and older black groups, each trying to ethnically cleanse the other. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has referred to his city as 'the gang capital of America', has launched a crackdown on the new threat.
The latest front is the tiny strip of turf known as Harbor Gateway, a nest of streets between malls and office blocks. It was here, just before Christmas, that Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old fond of junk food and television, died. At school she had just written a poem beginning: 'I am black and beautiful. I wonder how I shall live in the future.' She never found out. As she stood on a corner talking with friends, two Hispanic members of the neighbourhood's notorious 204th Street gang walked up and opened fire, killing Green and wounding three others. They were targeted because they were black. Traditionally the outside view of LA gangs has been of black youths like the Bloods and the Crips and their countless subsets. It focused on the streets of Compton and South-Central and the culture of gangsta rap. But Hispanic gangs are in the ascendant, spreading across America.
They have names such as Mara Salvatrucha, La Mirada Locos and Barrio Van Nuys, and now the 204th Street gang - who made it clear that they will kill innocent girls to force black families off their turf.
Last year there were 269 gang-related killings in LA. Gang-related crime leaped 15.7 per cent last year, as most other types of crime fell. Hate crimes against black people have surged. With a rapidly growing Hispanic population, LA's gang culture is shifting. It means that being black in the wrong neighbourhood can get you killed.
Green's murder was the latest in a line of killings by the 204th Street gang. In 1997, 11-year-old Marquis Wilbert was killed on his bike. In 2001, Robert Hightower, 19, was killed. In 2003, Eric Butler, 39, was shot dead trying to protect his daughter from being harassed. There are streets that blacks have been forbidden to cross.
Green's death brought the gang war between 'brown and black' to public awareness. Next week a summit will be held called the Black and Brown Strategy Meeting which aims to head off a race war. 'All of the signs are there that a racial war is going to explode in this city,' says Khalid Shah, director of Stop the Violence, one of the groups organising the meeting. Memories of the 1992 Rodney King riots, which claimed 53 lives, remain fresh, but Shah believes that worse is ahead. 'It will be 10 times bigger than what happened after King. You are looking at an event which could not only paralyse an entire city but an entire state,' he warns.
Diversity Is Strength! It’s Also…Gang Warfare