LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - They call themselves the Bounty Hunters, the Midget Locos, Project Gangster Blood and China Town Boyz and most of them don’t expect to live beyond age 20.
Forty years after the Bloods and the Crips put Los Angeles on the map, the number of gangs in Los Angeles County has swelled to about 1,000 and their estimated 88,000 members are drawn from every ethnicity — Asians, blacks, Latinos, whites.
“Los Angeles county and city is, unfortunately, the gang capital of America,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said as police on Thursday announced a crackdown on the city’s 11 worst gangs.
Gang culture may have gone mainstream in the last 10 years, its rap music, bling, tattoos, baggy pants fashions and slang aped by middle-class white youths across the United States and beyond.
“All the stuff that was street related has become mainstream so now it’s hard to tell the difference between the real and the fake,” said Alex Alonso, who runs the Web site www.streetgangs.com.
But there is nothing glamorous about life in the tough neighborhoods of the second largest U.S. city.
Gangs are blamed for 56 percent of the 478 murders in Los Angeles last year. Many of the dead were victims of inter-gang warfare or drive-by shootings so commonplace and so far away from affluent Beverly Hills that they barely make the local news.
“Most gang killings involve minorities, black or brown. It is only when something special happens, or a white person is involved, that it becomes newsworthy,” said Malcolm Klein, professor of sociology and a gang expert at the University of Southern California.
Klein said most kids join gangs for identity, status, reputation and a sense of excitement. Baca said 95 percent of gang members in Los Angeles were high school dropouts “who have basically given up on themselves. Some of them say they do not expect to live beyond age 20.”
Public apathy is part of the problem.
“Even in Los Angeles there is a lot of denial. If you live in Beverly Hills, do you really care what goes on in Compton?” said Wes McBride, director of the California Gang Investigators Association.
Some gangs have a notoriety that stretches well beyond Los Angeles city limits.
The Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s to protect early immigrants escaping civil war in El Salvador, is now a major player in drugs and weapons smuggling in six nations, U.S. crime officials say.
But many home-grown gangs have a much lower profile.
“The most common gang-related crimes are minor ones — thefts, vandalism, joy-riding, graffiti writing and drug use rather than drug sales,” said Klein.