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A juvenile offender sits beneath a quote from Leonardo da Vinci at a re-entry program session last month in the John J. Connelly Youth Center in Roslindale. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)

Young, armed, and dangerous

Boston gangs smaller -- and more lethal

Jamal and Tony manned the gates of Grant Manor, casting wary glances at Washington Street and the battleground that lay beyond, two members of a street gang that they call their ''family" guarding the three city blocks in lower Roxbury they consider their territory.

As they hustle for a living in the street world of crime, drugs, money, and guns, Jamal and Tony keep an eye out for their blood rivals, the Lenox Street gang. Here, as in dozens of other neighborhood turf battles across the city, the foot soldiers offer a brutally simple explanation for the seemingly senseless violence that has come to characterize Boston's gang wars.

''Hate Lenox, even if they just right across the street," Jamal said as he and Tony, members of a gang known as 1850 Washington, loitered near a playground where a basketball coach was gunned down in July. ''If someone from Lenox walked over here, they gonna die."

Grant Manor is a flash point in the new kind of gang violence that has shaken Boston, miniature turf wars that have contributed to an alarming increase in the number of homicides this year and have left city officials, police, and community activists struggling to find a solution. As of yesterday, Boston had recorded 55 killings in 2004, compared with 41 for all of 2003; two police officers who have investigated the violence said two-thirds of the slayings are believed to be related to gang activity.

Street by street, new gangs are springing up, populated by ever-younger members, some as young as 12, who are better armed and more likely to commit random, unpredictable acts of bloodshed, according to gang members, clergy and community activists, police and city officials. The collaboration of police and civic groups that in the past kept gangs in check and won Boston national fame has lost some of its urgency and effectiveness, several observers said.

The new gangs are small groups that have banded together for protection, with simple geography their most important unifier. Most of them have neither a rigid hierarchy nor matching caps and jackets to separate and identify themselves. Today, different gangs often are indistinguishable because of identical braided hairstyles and vintage sports jerseys.

Gangs used to fight their battles over drug-trafficking turf. Now, they have for the most part disintegrated into fights over the ambiguous but deadly serious definition of ''respect." Some of the seemingly insignificant events that lead to violence -- a lingering stare, a dance with someone else's girlfriend, an offhand remark, an anonymous game of one-upmanship via cellphone party lines or the Internet -- are not a new phenomenon. But such squabbles are more likely to lead to bloodshed now, youth workers said.

Some struggle to find an explanation for such killings as the brazen daylight slaying of Gerald Burgan, 17, who was shot to death at close range Sept. 24 by another youth while Burgan stood outside a Dorchester pizza restaurant. The assailant remains at large. Police believe Burgan was affiliated with the Morse and Ellington Streets gang, which is feuding with Lucerne Street youths.

''It's not normal for a kid 15 years old to walk up to another kid and blow his brains out," said the Rev. William E. Dickerson II, a Dorchester pastor who works with gangs. ''It's demonic."

The homicide numbers do not approach the 152 murders tallied in 1990, Boston's worst year for gang violence. But the surge has prompted an outpouring of anger and fear in the neighborhoods, an urgent review of policies at City Hall and the State House, and questions from pulpits and police headquarters about how to stop the killing.

Police acknowledge that trying to stem the violence has been frustrating. A monthlong, heavily publicized police sweep of violent criminals in the city this summer did not prevent the fatal shooting of three young men Sept. 4, victims of an ongoing feud between the Franklin Hill and Franklin Field housing developments in Dorchester.

In an interview with the Globe this month, Boston Police Superintendent Paul Joyce and Sergeant Detective Robert Merner, a founding member of the Boston Police Youth Violence Strike Force, played down the problem, saying gang activity is neither on the rise nor more difficult to control than before.

''Clearly, we have gang activity in the city," Merner said. But, he added, ''It doesn't look anywhere near how it did in the late '80s and early '90s."

Some police officers emphatically disagree, citing the rise in murders along with police records that show 93 nonfatal shootings this past summer. In the years 2000 through 2003, there were 66, 68, 73, and 65 nonfatal shootings during the summer.

''Absolutely, it's on the rise, all the murders, the excessive shootings," said a police supervisor in one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. ''You've got to remember, in the '90s there weren't as many shootings. There were more killings because EMS and the hospitals weren't as good."

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the easier accessibility of handguns for younger and younger kids has created a charged atmosphere.

''There's tension in the streets," he said. ''You can feel it. There's tension at roll call. You can feel it. Cops are apprehensive about going to work. Every five kids, there's probably a gun. And we're understaffed too."

The Grove Hall section of Roxbury, known as a center of gang activity in Boston, provides an example of how larger gangs of an earlier generation have splintered.

A dozen years ago, Grove Hall had eight to 10 gangs, according to Warren Williams, a former gang member who now is a supervisor of the area's ''street workers," city employees who counsel youths who are in gangs or at risk of joining them. Williams said the area now has 30 to 35 gangs.

''Their fathers might be in jail, they have no guidance, and they're running amok," said Williams, 32.

Joyce said police do not discuss the number of gangs because they do not want to glorify gang activity. Some city youth workers estimate that there are as many as 70 gangs in the city today.

The crimes seem more random and brazen now, said Robert Lewis Jr., recently named by Mayor Thomas M. Menino to head the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, the agency that oversees the city's youth workers. Lewis has firsthand experience with the recent violence. His son was warming up to pitch in Ramsay Park in July, when William ''Biggie" Gaines was shot to death as he coached youth basketball at the Roxbury playground.

Lewis and other city officials who work with gangs say members are so young now that they understand even less than previous generations the life-and-death consequences of a hair-trigger response to any perceived slight.

''I don't think a lot of them realize that death is permanent," Lewis said.

The average age of gang members had been 18 to 20 years old, said Christopher Byner, who supervises the city's street worker program for the Centers for Youth and Families. Now, he said, the ages are primarily 14 to 17 -- youths who are leaderless, well-armed, and willing to use lethal force over trivial disputes.

''The kids now seem to have really no respect for anybody. They don't respect life, their parents, or adults," Byner said. ''There's no organization there. It's just a bunch of kids who have access to guns."

The result can be spontaneous, indiscriminate violence.

In August, an 11-year-old boy was shot as he signed up for Pop Warner football in a Roxbury park, and a 15-year-old girl was hit by gunfire as she waited for a pizza delivery near a Dorchester park. Both victims, who survived, are believed to have been innocent casualties who were caught in retaliatory gunfire by gang members.

Near the squat red-brick buildings of the Grant Manor housing development, where the 1850 Washington gang, named after the development's street address, draws its recruits, Tony, 19, described the day when he walked out of his home into the sudden violence of a gang-related shooting.

''I walked through the gates" of Grant Manor and out to Washington Street, Tony said. ''There were kids with bikes on the corner. Bam, bam, bam. They just shot at me for nothing."

Like the other gang members interviewed for this story, Tony spoke on condition that his last name not be published. All of the interviews with gang members were arranged through youth workers or others who had direct knowledge of their gang-related activities.

In Grove Hall, near the busy intersection of Warren Street and Blue Hill Avenue, J.R. was wearing a New England Patriots jersey that made him resemble many other 19-year-olds. J.R. spoke openly how he and ''his family," the other teenagers in the gang on his block, mug passersby for money, and do whatever is needed to continue what he called ''the hustle" to survive. ''I've been shot at plenty of times," said J.R. ''When you live your life like this, you're used to it. We wake up to it every day."

Police might know a victim's gang, but figuring out which of dozens of potential enemies pulled the trigger is proving much more difficult on today's chaotic gangland battlefield. Each gang is likely to have more than one rival, gangs occasionally form alliances to fight other large groups, and gangs are known to travel to other parts of the city to settle a beef. Many of the murders and shootings remain unsolved.

One former gang member, Dee, 33, said today's teenagers carry more of a malevolent attitude and show less respect to adults than he did at their age. On one recent afternoon near Dudley Square, Dee said, he was standing at a bus stop reaching for a cigarette when he was surrounded by a half-dozen teenagers. When the leader of the group demanded the cigarette, Dee said he prepared for a one-sided brawl. '' 'You have no idea who you're walking up on,' " Dee recalled telling the youths. '' 'Don't do this.' "

The teenagers scoffed at Dee, he said, until two of his friends showed up. They warned the group not to attack a man who Dickerson said was once known as a dangerous and feared gang member.

''These youth, they don't have a chip on their shoulder, they have a plank," Dee said.

Two months ago, Dee turned from the streets of Dorchester to Dickerson and his church, the Greater Love Tabernacle. Dee said he knows what draws today's recruits to gangs, and what keeps them there.

''It was the love of the streets," Dee said. ''There was more love from the streets than there was at home."

Those bonds almost always are stronger than any forged in broken homes with no fathers, and where single mothers often struggle to provide for their families, youth workers and clergy said. When trust is built in dangerous activities that can lead to prison, injury, or death, the ties become steel-strong and long-lasting. Once a teenager is in a gang, Dorchester youth worker Emmett Folgert said, extricating him is a grueling, labor-intensive long shot.

The city once targeted such youths in a collaborative campaign that helped quell the rampant gang violence of the early 1990s. The strategy was to attack Boston's alarming murder rate with the unprecedented cooperation of police, clergy, and community groups who offered counsel, warnings, and jobs to gang members. The campaign, which was later known popularly as the ''Boston Miracle," helped reduce the number of homicides to 31 in 1999.

Today, many of the key players who made the campaign work -- officials such as former US attorney Donald Stern, city youth services director Tracy Litthcut , and Joyce, then a police sergeant -- have different jobs. The collaborative meets only sporadically.

''We're working in silos now," said Byner. ''We need to work together again."

An integral part of the past campaign was Operation Ceasefire, a hard-nosed police tactic that confronted gang members with the threat of federal prison. Each time the operation was run, police would haul in members of a targeted gang and warn them that they could all face federal charges for crimes committed by any of their members. Joyce said that Operation Ceasefire still exists, but could only cite three instances when the tactic was used in the past two years.

Instead, he said, the police rely on the Boston Juvenile Reentry Project, which targets youths serving in juvenile detention centers who are identified as the most likely to return to crime once they return to the streets. Before they go free, police officers, clergy, and Department of Youth Services workers lecture the youths about the consequences of breaking the law again. The project also assigns mentors to the youths, who receive guidance on how to find a job and avoid neighborhood feuds.

Supporters of these programs say more needs to be done to make them work.

''The problem is we are really stretched," said the Rev. Ray Hammond, cofounder of the Ten-Point Coalition, a group of clergy who work with the police and community activists to curb street violence. ''We've got to identify high-impact youth players and do the same thing that was done in the '90s with Ceasefire. The challenge is, where do we get the bodies?"

Cutbacks have dried up funding that supported the city's effort to give youths alternatives to gang activity, Hammond said.

One troubling budget casualty was the elimination in 2001 of Boston Housing Authority youth workers, a $3.1 million annual program that placed 18 youth workers and six supervisors among the city's housing developments. In addition, a federally funded job-training program for city youths -- one that received $6 million in fiscal 1999 -- was slashed to $4.5 million this fiscal year.

The tighter economy also affects the estimated 300 inmates, most of them adults, who leave the correction system for Boston's streets each month. Of that number, many former gang members are interested in reclaiming turf and status, street workers said. At City Hall, Larry Mayes, the mayor's newly appointed director of human services, and other officials are devising a broad plan to answer the rise in violence, one that aims to reinvigorate and expand the groups that worked together during the ''miracle" days. An outline will be delivered to Menino shortly, Mayes said.

Although Menino and Joyce stressed that Boston's streets are not as bloody as in the worst days, and that Boston is comparatively safer than most other major American cities, the stagnant economy has brought a sense of foreboding. To Williams, the Grove Hall street worker, jobs are the critical component to reducing the number of youths who join gangs.

''The old boys, we have two weeks to save them" once they leave prison, Williams said. Otherwise, he added, the financial rewards of street crime win out.

But Jamal of the 1850 Washington gang, who at 23 is already a twice-convicted felon, said the promises offered by the Reentry Project ''don't work." Jamal said he is not looking to make an honest living, because it is so much easier to make money in the streets.

''You can make $200 out here in an hour," he said. ''The streets is always gonna be the streets."

Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at Suzanne Smalley can be reached at 

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