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Oklahoma City faces growing gang problem

By Ken Raymond Published: July 6, 2003
IN THE BARRIOS of Oklahoma City where walls drip with graffiti and bullet holes dot the dented siding of aging homes, boys barely old enough to shave are fighting battles that seldom show up on TV.

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With the explosion of Hispanic immigrants into the state, Hispanic gangs have expanded beyond all efforts to limit their growth. Violence has followed.

So far this year, Hispanic community leaders said, gang vendettas are believed responsible for as many as 10 of the city's 33 homicides, including five last month. Eight killings remain unsolved.

Each death increases tension on criminal tempers already pulled taut as bowstrings. Drive-by shootings have escalated, with some homes being targeted repeatedly. One lower northwest Oklahoma City home, police and residents said, was shot up every night for a week. Others have more bullet holes than windows.

"It's a war, said Jose Viloria, a counselor and mentor at the Latino Community Development Agency, "and we're losing.

The death toll sparked a rare acknowledgment from police officials that Hispanic gang violence is growing. Maj. Charles Allen, whose Santa Fe division has seen 25 gang-related drive-by shootings since February, said the department had grown complacent about gangs until now.

Maj. Jessica Cummins said her Will Rogers division has had two confirmed gang-related killings since February and 33 assaults with dangerous weapons. Both Allen and Cummins said gang contract killings are "way up, although the level of violence is still well short of its peak in the late 1980s.

Gang unit officers said the attacks this year provide substantive evidence that Hispanic gangs are "the biggest threat to the city right now.

Opinions differ on how to address that threat. Police sergeants Ritch Willis and John Szymanski said most violence can be traced to one or two individuals; once arrested, the cycle of retaliation slows.

Others, including former Capitol Hill High School Principal Raul Font, said the spread of graffiti and drive-by shootings indicates an absence of leadership within gang ranks that sends "soldiers jockeying for position.

What most agree on, however, is that quick fixes will not solve the problem. Hispanic community leaders are calling on government and schools to increase funding for and offer more after-school programs. Employers willing to take a chance on hiring ex-gangsters also are needed.

Viloria and Leo Mendoza, project coordinator for a developing anti-violence program, said preventive measures must begin in elementary schools. No such efforts are in place, they said.

The problems may be rising from a few neighborhoods in the city, but the consequences could affect everyone.

Children in peril
When Viloria pulls up outside a house in Juaritos gang territory and lays on the horn three times, the curtains rustle along the living room windows and six tiny faces appear.

The kids, none older than 5, smile as they shape their fingers into gang signs.

"You see? Viloria says. "You see? What did I tell you?

The house, an average-sized two-bedroom in an area with declining property values, is home to Petra Juarez and her family.

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