On a Sunday afternoon in July, 13-year-old Elizabeth Tomas was sitting at her bedroom window in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. She was putting on her makeup when a bullet came through the window and hit her just above the left eye. Tomas, who had just started high school, was the innocent victim of a random gang shooting. After visiting her in the hospital, L.A.'s new mayor, James Hahn, put up a $25,000 reward for information on the crime. "If a young girl can't stay in her bedroom safely," he says, "we are in terrible shape."
Los Angeles is in terrible shape--again. The city's street gangs, which had been relatively quiet since the crack-cocaine epidemic of the late '80s and early '90s burned itself out, are back with a vengeance. After falling steadily from 1996 to '99, gang murders in the city increased 143% last year; 331 people died because of gang violence, in contrast to 136 in 1999. The violence got worse during the first half of this year, with a 23% increase in murders. Even as gang-related property crimes decrease--robbery is down 8.8%, carjacking is down 28%--other violent crimes are up. Felony assault by gangsters is up 9.7%, attacks on police officers are up 35.5%, witness intimidation is up 50%. In other words, there is less drug dealing and theft, more violence for the sake of violence. "It's a disturbing trend, and there's nothing I am going to be spending more time on," says Hahn, who has discussed the problem with President Bush.
TIME followed one gang, the Playboys, off and on for three months. The Playboys, with several hundred members, are just one of 1,300 such groups in L.A., all of them stuck in a deadly spiral of violence that the justice system has not broken, though it has put tens of thousands of gangsters behind bars. Five members of the Playboys were shot dead in the past year--most of them in senseless turf battles with nearby rivals.
Criminologists point to two reasons for the city's upsurge in violence. First, veteran gang members jailed a decade ago during the crack epidemic are getting out of prison--and returning to reinfect their neighborhood with violent habits hardened and reinforced in prison. "The next generation of gang homicides is going to have a different construct [from the crack epidemic]," says Jack Riley, director of the criminal-justice program at Rand Corp. His research points to returning felons as a major reason for the spike in shootings across Los Angeles. "Locals in South Central and East L.A. think it is people returning from prison and trying to re-establish their authority," he says. There are 100,000 gang members in jail in California, and they are getting out at a rate of about 3,000 a month, according to the state's department of corrections. This year alone will see more than 30,000 veteran gang members back on the streets. Social workers call them "spoons"--people who get out of jail and stir things up.