LOS ANGELES – A 14-year-old girl was killed by Hispanic gang members who police say were targeting blacks. A 9-year-old girl died after being hit by a stray bullet as gang members exchanged shots near her home. A cop was wounded in a gunbattle with a suspected gangster.
The soaring violence is prompting police and politicians to promise one of the toughest crackdowns against gangs in city history.
"This is the monster, this is what drives people's fears," said Deputy Chief Charles Beck, who oversees a South Los Angeles district where gang-related crime jumped 24 percent during the year ending in November.
However, the effort has met skepticism in the city that has an estimated 700 gangs with 40,000 members — about four for every police officer — and that gave birth to some of the nation's most notorious gangs, including the Crips, Bloods and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.
"It's too big, it's too entrenched, it's too intimately connected with the urban setup here," Malcolm Klein, a gang expert at the University of Southern California, said of the gang problem. "You can reduce it. But the idea you can somehow eliminate it is ridiculous."
Gangs have thrived for generations in Los Angeles, but the especially violent past year caught police brass off guard. Citywide crime rates fell in 2006 but gang-related offenses increased 14 percent — the first hike in four years. In the San Fernando Valley, gang murders, assaults, robberies and other crimes jumped 42 percent.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has appealed to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez for millions of dollars in anti-gang funds and for more federal prosecutors to pursue racketeering and other charges mostly used in the past against organized crime.
FBI Director Robert Mueller has assigned agents to an anti-gang task force in the San Fernando Valley to work alongside police deputized as federal officers.
Authorities promise to increase enforcement in afflicted neighborhoods. The officers will be armed with injunctions forbidding gang members from assembling in certain areas, lawsuits aimed at shutting down gang hangouts as nuisances and probation orders barring gang members from returning to their neighborhoods after their release from prison.
In some ways, the approach mirrors a multi-agency Boston campaign in the 1990s, known as the Boston Miracle, that resulted in a dramatic decline in gun violence and murder rates.
Past efforts in Los Angeles, however, have produced mixed results.
"We've seen this movie before," said Mario Corona, a former member of the Pacoima Criminals gang in the San Fernando Valley who now works to rehabilitate gang members.
The city has been hampered in the past by a lack of resources and changing department priorities, according to a city-funded report by civil rights attorney Connie Rice.
And a 1980s anti-gang unit known as Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, or CRASH, was disbanded after allegations of police corruption. Few of the thousands of suspected gang members in South Los Angeles were ever charged.
Residents are demanding renewed action while trying to stay out of the line of fire.
Esteban Martinez, 41, hears gunshots at night in the San Fernando Valley, where he lives with his wife and four small children.
"Everybody is afraid, but they don't speak (to police) because they are afraid to get into trouble with the gang members," Martinez said. "I'm worried about my family."
Two weeks ago, an officer searching a house in the area for wanted gang members was wounded in the leg when a gang-banger fired through a closed bedroom door.
Nothing has outraged the city more than the gang slayings of children. Last month, 9-year-old Charupha Wongwisetsiri was standing in her family's kitchen when she was struck by a stray round from gang crossfire in Angelino Heights near downtown.
That came just five days after the shooting death of Cheryl Green, a 14-year-old black girl, who was talking to friends in the Harbor Gateway area. Two Hispanic gang members, who police said were intent on killing blacks, were arrested.
Alex Sanchez, a former MS-13 member who now runs a gang intervention program, said police moves to identify the worst gangs could instead lead to more crime.
"It's feeding the egos of gang members," Sanchez said. "They're all going to want to be on the top 10."
Others said nothing will change without more jobs and better education.
"Until we get those gangsters into real jobs, we are going to have a lethal ongoing problem, pure and simple," said Jorja Leap, a social welfare professor and gang expert at the University of California, Los Angeles, who advises the mayor. "It will never change."