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— The news is good. Murder down 50 percent. Robbery down 18.2 percent, burglary 13.9 percent -- all for the first six months of 1998 (compared with the same period last year). Violent crimes are decreasing for the sixth year in a row, and total crime is continuing an uninterrupted nine-year downward slide. This according to the San Diego Police Department's latest quarterly crime briefing.

So if crime is down in San Diego, how come the number of gangs, and the crimes they commit, is up?

The man to ask is Detective Felix Aguirre, one of SDPD's most experienced gang cops. "When I started working with gangs, in 1988," he says, "there were 24 documented gangs. Today in San Diego there are 65."

Countywide, the figure is "over 100," with gang membership estimated at around 10,000, according to Board of Supervisors chairman Greg Cox. He gave the figures out at the first regional conference on gangs, held earlier this month at the County Administration Building.

SDPD figures show gang crimes up 8.2 percent from January to June this year, including 26 shootings. Within city limits, the number of documented gang members has risen from 4698 to 4881, or 3.9 percent. Arrests of gang members are up nearly 10 percent.

So why are gangs becoming more popular when unemployment's down?

The astonishing fact, says Aguirre, is that it's not "the economy, stupid." Gangs are becoming just as attractive to rich kids as poor.

"We have gangs everywhere. In Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo, Clairemont. We have a Portuguese gang in Point Loma, the Tuna Boys. We have gang members from households where everybody in the house has their own car. We also have them in poor neighborhoods. We have them in single-parent families, we have them in double-parent families. We have them black and white and green and yellow."

After ten years working with gangs, Aguirre concludes that kids join for one thing: to belong. "A kid living in a $500,000 house in Rancho Bernardo comes home and there's nobody there, so he goes out looking for comfort and companionship, and they band together, and before you know it, they're a gang. That's not unusual at all. It's a void in the child's life, and he looks to fill that void. A lot of our [gang] kids are horribly intelligent, A students in class, and you'd never know they were gang members. They literally lead a double life."

Aguirre often visits the homes of parents to try to stop a kid's drift into gang life. These have included cops' homes, probation officers' homes, even the home of a judge and his wife. "We sat down to find out what caused [the judge's] kid to begin to emulate the gang characteristics," he says. "It turned out he was simply looking for an attachment to identity. It was a racially mixed marriage. [The son] latched onto the culture he thought was most prominent [his mom's], and he began to emulate the characteristics consistent with a gang's Hispanic culture."

Aguirre managed to save the kid from crossing the line, but he says many kids can't take that step back.

"A kid who is not a gang member but dresses to emulate the gang style, and then goes out and gets an attitude, is likely to get confronted," he says. "And when he gets confronted, he's going to be assaulted, singled out by a living, breathing gang member saying, 'What's up? Where you from?' And there's no right answer to that. You may or may not get attacked, simply because they don't know you. When they say, 'Where you from? Where do you claim?' that's dangerous. It's time to get out of the area. Because you're being challenged. It's saying, 'What gang are you from?' "

Aguirre says kids begin to play with the issues of gang involvement from as early as 8 years old. "The police don't see them usually till they're about 14. When we contact them, it's because they're already hanging out at gang hangouts, they're hanging out with known gang members, they're committing petty crimes. These gang members tell us, 'I've been kicking it for one or two years. I back it up.' "

"Kicking it?"

"If you say, 'Do you claim 38th Street?' 'Do you claim Lomita, or any particular gang group?' they say, 'I've been kicking it with them for a year.' That means they've been hanging out with that gang for a year."

And don't think the rich kids are any less violent. Economics separates the Bloods from the Crips, Aguirre says. "The Bloods [or Pirus] are a little bit better off than Crips. Bloods are from more middle class and upper- middle class communities. There's a distinct separation there that is very visible."

Yet, according to a 1994 study by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), "the Bloods are more violent" than the Crips.

(Aguirre points out that "Blood" and "Crip" are not so much the names of individual black gangs as "umbrella" names. "People think we have a Crip gang and a Blood gang. Or Crip and Piru. That's not so. There's the umbrella name, and then various [individual] gangs fall under that umbrella.")

Rich or poor, says Aguirre, they're destined to become involved in violence. "They begin to get involved in robberies and stealing of cars. Organized auto-theft rings. They get into confrontations. And it escalates from there to stabbings and attempted murders."

In the last three months, Aguirre, who monitors only Hispanic gangs, has seen two especially brutal shootings. One happened in a dispute between members of the same gang from the Mission Bay area. "At 2200 Grand Avenue," he says, describing it in the present tense, "one gang member is opposed by two other gang members and they put four bullets in his head. The victim does not die. On August 14 the suspects were bound over for attempted murder charges."

The shooting added to 20 other attempted homicides by San Diego gang members so far this year, 25 percent up on the first half of 1997.

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