Retired Gangsters Gang Up On Youth

Jim Myers
November 1, 2000

The five gentlemen sitting around a table in the basement of the Workman Street Church in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood don’t look like people who usually work with kids. Frankly, they look like ex-gang members.

They look street hardened, and they would not deny it. They say you need to be streetwise in their line of work. But there is also an air of patience about them. This is striking, if you know where their work takes them.

Their business cards say, “gang intervention specialist.” They work in the poor Mexican-American communities east of downtown Los Angeles, where traditions of gang warfare go back generations.

And yes, they are ex-gang members. Several of them have prison records, which they say gives them credibility and respect in the upside-down world of gang values. But they say the world at large, particularly grant- and policymakers, sometimes treats them skeptically.

“We’re trying to tell young people not to do the negative things,” says veteran gang intervention worker Henry Toscano. “All we’re trying to do is guide them away from violence toward activities that are more positive.”

But the reality of anti-gang work is hardly simple, and perhaps no place illustrates the challenge better than L.A. — where police estimate there are 407 active gangs. The work can be frustrating, dangerous and sometimes rewarding, if you don’t count the pay scale. The top salary for gang intervention workers in L.A. is about $36,000, which doesn’t go far here. Some do gang work part-time for $10 an hour. And there’s little job security. Gang programs come and go as different approaches to the gang dilemma come into vogue. “Anything called a ‘project’ or a ‘program’ probably won’t get funding forever,” Toscano says.

Like many gang workers, he’s outlived various programs. He started in 1970 with the California Youth Authority. In 1981, he joined Community Gang Services, a countywide program that was disbanded in 1996, just as a new program, L.A. Bridges, was born.
Across the nation, the street-level outreach approach to gangs has come and gone and come again. In L.A. and elsewhere, it was a key element in social agency and community development work in the 1960s and ‘70s. But some programs foundered or were engulfed in scandals that made funders nervous, especially about the role of ex-cons in youth work.

But gang intervention is alive if not well here. “Now they only call us when all the other services fail,” says Danny Oaxaca (pronounced “wah-ha-ka”), another veteran gang intervention worker.

Bridge to Gangs

Few people claim that gang intervention is the sole solution to gang involvement; most experts favor better education, job training and availability, or a comprehensive approach that involves prevention, intervention and when all else fails, suppression (i.e., police crackdowns).

But intervention workers still hope to change attitudes about who they are and what they do. Toscano is chairman of Association of Community Based Gang Intervention Workers, a newly formed professional group.

On Workman Street, he heads a seven-member gang intervention unit that is part of L.A. Bridges, a five-year, city-funded experiment to bring more order to what many saw as a crazy quilt of community-based anti-gang programs in the city. The initiative was created after the 1995 slaying of three-year-old Stephanie Kuhen, who was killed by gang gunfire when her family made a wrong turn into an alley.

With an $11 million budget, L.A. Bridges contracts with community social agencies to maintain gang prevention units in 26 of the city’s middle schools where gang activity is the highest. The in-school units act as referral agencies to community-based services and to counseling for youth and parents. A youth worker is assigned to each of the 26 schools to keep tabs on gang activity within a 2.5-mile radius.

These workers carry caseloads of 30 clients (presumably the most gang-involved or gang-prone youths in the area). They try to help the youths with challenges like getting jobs: The workers say many gang-involved youths claim they want jobs, but employers don’t want to hire gang members, and getting to work is dangerous if it requires crossing enemy territory.

That brings up another role of the youth workers: negotiating truces. “Let’s say group A wants to use a park in group B’s territory,” Toscano explains. “And group B would like to have safe passage for kids to go to a school in group A’s territory — so we have a situation where we can become peacemakers.”

Still, some say L.A. Bridges is spread too thin in a city that is virtually the world capital of gang culture. Los Angeles exports all the details of gang dress; it is the hometown of “gangsta” rap. Hispanic, black and Asian gangs — and multiple variants — vie against each another. Now there are Armenian, Salvadoran, Filipino, Korean and many other ethnic gang offshoots, and any outbreak of violence puts the youth anti-gang programs under media and political scrutiny.

This summer, youth violence surged after seven years of decline. For this year, the L.A. Police Department reported 200 gang-related homicides through August; the total for the same period last year was 86. Police say nearly 70 percent of suspects in all of the city’s homicides this year are between 13 and 24; last year, it was 40 percent.
L.A. Bridges also came under attack, when a study claimed management waste and a lack of provable results. Mayor Richard Riordan proposed closing the program and starting anew, but others wondered, “With what?”

In September, City Council voted for another year of funding for L.A. Bridges.

Friends to Gangs

In Lincoln Heights, the bungalow-lined streets seem deceptively peaceful by day; new disputes have arisen among old gangs like Eastside Clover and Eastlake, named for local streets. This year, Workman Street has been the scene of four gang shootings, three of them fatal.

Yet intervention workers still insist on philosophical distinctions: They work with gangs, not against them. They do not support focusing on suppression strategies that police sometimes prefer. “We do not say gangs are good or bad,” says Toscano. “The gang tradition is part of our culture. When we [Mexicans] came here, they [American society] looked down on us — they wouldn’t let us speak Spanish in school, so we banded together.”

But in the ethnic diversity of L.A., youngsters from dozens of ethnic backgrounds feel a longing to band together.

Youth anti-gang workers insist, for example, that gang “activities” can also involve normal ties among neighborhood kids. “We try to get close to them in a brotherly way,” says intervention worker Art Fierros, who began gang work as part of a ministry called Loco for Christ. “I say, ‘I’m not a cop, I’m not a probation officer, I’m just trying to be your friend.’”

Because of this closeness to gang members, the workers sense that they are treated skeptically by others in youth work. They often talk like outcasts in the field.
“Most people look at us as if we got involved in gangs and never left,” says Gilbert Sanchez, the 37-year-old director of the Gang Violence Bridging Project at California State University, Los Angeles.

Oaxaca says gang intervention works on the same principle as Alcoholics Anonymous: peer support led by those who’ve experienced the same struggle.

But the word “credentials” comes up repeatedly. Intervention workers rarely advance beyond outreach work. “They say, ‘You’ve got the experience but you don’t have the credentials,’” says Manuel Guerrero, a gang worker since 1983.

It rankles them to see people with academic degrees called “experts.” “These people with ‘credentials’ — what do they know about gangs?” asks Fierros.

Oaxaca, a recent winner of a two-year, $50,000 community leader fellowship from the California Wellness Foundation, describes a program he started last year, Project LEADS, standing for Leadership Education Advocacy Development Services. The program got a $127,000 state mental health services grant to operate, and Project LEADS set out to do gang prevention work — mentoring, tutoring and life-skill training for young people and their families.

But the grant was terminated in February. One of the state’s concerns, says Oaxaca, was that Project LEADS hired ex-gang members as caseworkers. “They wanted more of a clinical approach with licensed social workers,” he says. “One of their objections was that our workers had criminal records.”

To help overcome such hurdles, the workers had an idea: Form a professional association.

Credentials and Credibility

Formed in 1998, the Association of Community Based Gang Intervention now has 198 members representing 56 agencies in the L.A. area. Sanchez estimates that 70 percent of the members are ex-gang members and a majority of those may have criminal histories. “The purpose was to bring intervention workers together and give them a voice,” he says.

“It’s a Catch-22,” says Toscano. “You need that kind of background to relate to gangs. But you’re penalized for having that kind of background.”

Hence, one association objective is “to change the way gang intervention workers are viewed by those in power.” Another is “to certify those currently working in this area so that the experience which people already possess can be validated and respected.”
To that end, the University of California at L.A. plans a certification program for “gang and youth violence intervention specialists.” Instruction will be by university faculty and experienced field workers.

All of which will make very little difference if gang intervention specialists can’t clear another big hurdle: showing that they have an impact.

No Administrative Bones

“How can you prove prevention? That’s the great problem,” Oaxaca says.
“You can count the number of times someone pulls the trigger,” says Sanchez, “but you can’t count the number of times they don’t.”

“These programs are very difficult to evaluate — unless [evaluators] are really in touch with these kids,” says Kirsten Thompson, contracts and grants manager for Public Health Foundation Enterprises (PHFE), which administers public health contracts and grants, including for some components of L.A. Bridges. “You don’t know if a kid is not a gang member because of the program or if the kid was just not going to join a gang.”

Another complaint from funders and evaluators is that it’s hard to make community-based intervention programs accountable. “These people are wonderful — they’ve been there and turned their lives around, and they are dedicated,” says Karen Garcia, PHFE’s corporate manager. “But some don’t have an administrative bone in their body. They’re truly excellent at intervention, but try to get them to keep a receipt.”

Nevertheless, PHFE, which administers $98 million in public health contracts and grants, hopes to assist more community-based anti-gang programs: “They are the hardest,” says Garcia, “but they need our services more.”


Ex-gang member Peter Lee demonstrated remarkable leadership only a few years after extracting himself from the gang life. Lee runs the three-year-old Gang Awareness Project he organized at the Korean Youth and Community Center in L.A.’s Koreatown section, just east of Hollywood. It is said to be the city’s only gang program directed at Korean youth, but it includes clients of Chinese, Vietnamese and Guatemalan descent.
Lee, 25, was “jumped in” — the term for gang initiation in which gang members jump on and pummel the new member — at age 14. His involvement with the gang called the Koreatown Crazies led to crack use, he says, but Lee straightened out his life though the intervention of a pastor. He is now an optimistic and motivated gang intervention worker, who initially was happy to volunteer at the center. Eventually he told administrators, “You really need a gang intervention program.”

Lee, a recent California Wellness Foundation community leader fellow, launched the program and ran it for two years by donating money from his CWF grant.

Money will always be an issue.

On Workman Street, Toscano apologizes for the Spartan surroundings of the church basement: a few chairs, folding tables, a desk or two. “We’re embarrassed to bring our clients down here,” he says. “They look at these surroundings and say, ‘Who would want to live like this?’” Indeed, how can a youth worker convince a gang member to choose another life, if the youth worker’s life looks so hand-me-down?

That’s why the intervention workers are also their own peer support group. John Godinez, 40, tells how he did four years in prison for robbery and drug sales — and how Toscano helped him when he got out. Now with five daughters and four sons, he is the volunteer president of an East L.A. fathers and sons group. He says that Toscano inspired him to get into youth work.

“I got the good from him,” he says.


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Myers, Jim. "Retired Gangsters Gang Up On Youth." Youth Today, November 2000, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.