Los Angeles grapples with being `national epicenter' of gang activity

By Michael Martinez Chicago Tribune

LOS ANGELES - Here in the nation's "capital" for street gangs, Jose Aleman is an ex-gangbanger with 26 bullet fragments in his brain. Lucky to be alive and well, Aleman is eating a Mexican pasta soup in the Homegirl Cafe, run by former female gang members, when he's interrupted by an aspiring gangster half his age. They hug. Aleman, who has spent a third of his 36 years in Folsom and other prisons, is like a mentor and confessor. "I've got a job, man. I'm going to be working full time now," said Richard Hernandez, 18, who for the past few months has been unemployed and painting gang graffiti with his "tagging crew." Now Hernandez is going to quit running from the police, he says. That's good news, Aleman later remarks. It's one less recruit in a city that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says is "the national epicenter" for gang activity. With one recent study enumerating 40,000 members in 700 gangs in Los Angeles, the city is the originator and exporter of dangerous gangs gone national, such as the Bloods, the Crips and Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS 13), said FBI spokesman Kenneth Smith. "We have Blood and Crips sets in Indianapolis and Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville - you know, that middle part of the country where people don't think they have a gang problem," said Smith, who was an Indianapolis policeman for eight years until 1997. Chicago Crime Commission President Jim Wagner acknowledged Los Angeles as a breeding ground for gangs that are now in Chicago's western suburbs. "We are seeing in the suburban areas a growth in the presence of MS 13," he said.