updated 8/6/2004 3:21:59 AM ET 2004-08-06T07:21:59

When gang members want out of the lifestyle, they can turn to Homeboy Industries, where even convicted felons can count on finding work and someone to talk to.

A Homeboy shirt once was likened to a Red Cross armband in a war zone: Donning it meant safe passage in a gang-gripped community.

No longer. In the past six weeks, two members of the group’s graffiti removal crew have been gunned down on the job.

“Homeboys had this image of protection and respect, and that’s ending,” said Patricia Zarate, who owns a cafe up the street from the organization. “They were respected even on the street. If they aren’t safe, then nobody is.”

Police say Homeboy Industries is not a specific target, but the killings are emblematic of the increased terror that gangs have spread in communities across Los Angeles.

While violent crime is down 15 percent citywide, gang killings have risen more than 20 percent this year. The upsurge has been blamed on a variety of factors, including the release of gang leaders who have finished prison terms and may be igniting power struggles and settling old scores.

The Rev. Gregory Boyle, a Roman Catholic priest who runs the Homeboy program for former gang members, said this week he would temporarily suspend its anti-graffiti efforts. He met Thursday with law enforcement officers to discuss ways to reduce the violence.

“It’s just knocked the wind out of me,” Boyle said of Tuesday’s shooting of 25-year-old Arturo Casas outside the group’s offices in Boyle Heights, east of downtown.

Casas was sitting at a stoplight in a Homeboy truck about noon, on his way to erase graffiti, when a man shot him repeatedly, police said. The killing came hours before East Los Angeles’ annual anti-crime march.

On June 24, Homeboy worker Rafael Gomez, 35, was shot and killed while removing graffiti early in the morning.

No arrests have been made. Authorities say the killings are not related, but the motives remain unclear.

The nonprofit employs many recently released felons, and Boyle acknowledged that the road out of gang life is not always a smooth one.

“It’s like (drug) recovery,” Boyle said. “You get people coming here at very different stages.”

Some observers worry about a return to the violence of the late ’80s and ’90s, when gang killings soared. The numbers eventually dropped nationwide, and gang membership — estimated at about 48,000 citywide — remains significantly lower than in past years.

Joe Hicks, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Southern California chapter, said the murder rate remains high “in places like Boyle Heights and Watts and other black and brown communities.”

Zarate says she fears the killers are becoming more brazen. She noted that less than a month ago, a man was fatally shot at 11 a.m. in a nearby park.

Police Chief William Bratton, lauded for cleaning up the streets while he was a New York police commissioner, has made anti-gang efforts a priority but said he is hampered by a lack of officers.

“There’s not enough cops,” Bratton said Thursday. “I don’t have what I had in New York. I had enough cops to (cover) the whole city all at the same time.”

Bratton said the best he could do last year in Los Angeles was to add 100 officers to stations in the most violent areas. He previously has said he would like the LAPD to have another 1,500 officers.

Hicks said he believes it is the job of residents to take more of a stand against gangs.

“Where is the public outrage?” asked Hicks, who was head of the city’s Human Relations Commission under former Mayor Richard Riordan.

“When the police officer is viewed on TV beating a suspect, we have protests and national civil rights leaders flying into the city,” he said, referring to the videotaped beating of a suspected car thief by LAPD officers in June. “Yet these heart-rending killings are going on with regularity and there seems to be no resistance.”

Hicks said he also believes those who don’t live in the most dangerous neighborhoods are foolishly turning a blind eye.

“Just because you live behind fancy gates doesn’t mean you are secure from violence,” he said.

Some neighborhood groups are taking steps.

In Boyle Heights, the Dolores Mission has lobbied the city to close off alleys known for gang activity, add more street lights and put more officers on the streets.

Miguel Ramos, 22, is a former gang member who spent seven years behind bars for a carjacking. Now Homeboy’s office manager, Ramos worries about the effect the killings of employees will have on efforts to help others turn around their lives.

“I had chills up and down my body,” said Ramos, who now works with police and community leaders. “It’s a reality check once again right there in my face. It could happen to anybody, at any time.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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