From Killing Fields to Mean Streets

  • The middle-aged man had fled Cambodia to save his family from the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Now, as he stalked furiously back and forth across the grimy patio behind a cramped bungalow in the Little Phnom Penh section of Long Beach, he saw a very different threat materializing -- within his own family. His 14-year-old son, gang-named Flipper, and another homeboy, Slicc, 18, were bragging to a stranger about a shoot-out.

    "I'm on the corner phone with my girlfriend," Slicc recounted. "The Mexican drives up and yells, 'What set you from?' I yell it ain't none of his business, and he busts three caps ((shoots three bullets)) at me. I take out my gun and bust four back . . ." At that point, the father began to wave his arms and shout. Friends of Slicc's and Flipper's pushed the man firmly back inside his house. "Parents don't understand," shrugged Flipper.

    In the bizarre and bloody world of Southern California gang life, armed and alienated children are guerrilla warriors. Cambodian gangs battling Hispanic gangs is but the newest infection. Ira Reiner, district attorney for Los Angeles County (pop. 8,776,000), estimates that 130,000 gang members operate in his jurisdiction alone. They range from subteen "peewees" to as many as 13,000 hard-core killers. Last year in the county the gangs accounted for 18,059 violent felonies and 690 deaths. Nearly every ethnic group is represented in the mayhem: the highly publicized black Bloods and Crips; multigenerational Hispanic groups that account for nearly two-thirds of all California gangs; whites; Asians; Pacific Islanders; and Jewish and Armenian groups.

    The kid who traded shots with Slicc was a member of the East Side Longos, a large Mexican-American gang rooted in the Hispanic community that settled along Anaheim Street in Long Beach (pop. 429,000) after World War II. Three decades later, Cambodian immigrants seeking affordable homes arrived. "At school the Mexicans looked down upon us and hurt us," recalls Mad Dog, 29, a "retired" homeboy whose mother was a Phnom Penh university professor. "We saw that American people had groups, white with white, black with black. We decided to become more famous. If they could steal cars and do drive-by shootings, so could we."

    In Southern California that was a logical step for the young Cambodians to take. "You land in a gang neighborhood, it might seem natural to form a militia to defend yourself," explains Steve Valdivia, director of Los Angeles County's Community Youth Gang Services Project. Nearly all the state's street gangs started out copying Hispanic "cholo" (lowlife) styles. Scholars trace Hispanic gangs back to the 1920s, when Roman Catholic parishes organized social clubs for children who felt unwelcome at white high school dances. Despite drive-by shootings and drug trafficking, the gangs were tolerated as a "community" issue for half a century. Explains former teen gangster Ysmael Pereira, 48, who is now a gang counselor: "The code was always to keep it quiet."

    Harassed by the East Side Longos, the Cambodians organized gangs with names like Tiny Rascals and Asian Boyz. They helped swell Long Beach's gang membership to more than 10,000. Mad Dog and the others imitated their enemies. They "kicked back" on street corners and marked their turf with graffiti. Between turf shoot-outs, they also began to extort "protection" money from local businessmen. Fearing reprisals, the merchants have rarely complained. Gang detective Norman Sorenson remembers contacting dozens of Cambodian merchants after police found a detailed list of extortion victims in the car of a Tiny Rascals leader. "They all denied it," says Sorenson. Cambodian gangsters killed their first East Side Longo in a retaliatory drive-by in October 1989. Gang-related deaths last year: 46.

    Many Cambodian gang members became hardened to violence during their escape from the killing fields of Southeast Asia. "I remember walking and walking," recalls Little Devil, 16, describing his family's trek out of Cambodia when he was five. "If we didn't keep up, we'd be lost." Perhaps because of their past globe trotting, Cambodian gang members can be astonishingly mobile. When Long Beach cops saturated the "Anaheim corridor" this summer after a burst of shoot-outs, the Cambodian gangs vanished. "They took off for Stockton and Modesto -- maybe farther," says Mike Nen, an ethnic-Cambodian cop. Adds gang detective Sorenson: "The Hispanics sit on the corner and stare at you. The Asians might fly to Chicago."

    Some observers think the East Side Longos would be wise to get airplane tickets too. "The Cambodians know what real war is," says Nen's partner, Patrolman Dan Brooks. "The Hispanics have a street mentality. They shoot on impulse and go home thinking they're safe. But the Cambodians know better." When combat looms, for example, Cambodian gang members sometimes call in reinforcements from hundreds of miles away. Little Devil is an Oriental Lazy Boy from downtown Los Angeles who rode into Long Beach recently with Lazy Boys from Tacoma to help battle the Longos. They left when one of the visiting Lazy Boys was wounded.

    "The real issue is family breakdown," says Benton Samana, a Buddhist monk. "Don't believe that snow job about the kids joining gangs to protect themselves." In Southeast Asia, parents take wayward children to monks for counseling. In providing that service here, Samana constantly encounters war- related emotional problems, such as withdrawn or hysterical parents suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. "Their children think they are wacky," he explains. "They don't want to be around them."

    State and local officials have been unable to come up with any comprehensive solution to the gang problem. Meanwhile, demography is making radical changes ; in Southern California's gang life. South Central Los Angeles, where the Bloods and Crips began, now has more immigrant Latino youths than African- American kids. Poor black families have moved out, sometimes to the South, to keep their children out of gangs. "In five years," says educator David Flores, a gang expert who runs special school programs, "the Crips and Bloods will cease to be a serious problem there." Perhaps. But Sergeant Wes McBride, a gang expert with the sheriff's department, predicts that "Hispanic Bloods and Crips" may soon fill the vacuum left by the departing black gang members. On Southern California's mean streets, faces change, but the conditions that breed gangs have not.