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A mayor cracks down on gangs

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(CNN) -- Los Angeles, California, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa introduced in February an aggressive initiative to combat the surge of gang-related violence in his city.

The plan includes publicly identifying several of the most violent gangs and gang members and includes calls for international help.

"We have had tremendous success in reducing overall crime, crime is down for the fifth straight year," the mayor told reporters at a February news conference.

"But as crime continues to drop overall, we begin to see a glaring exception to the trend with the rise in gang crime. Street gangs are responsible for the majority of all murders in Los Angeles, and nearly 70 percent of all the shootings."

He added, "We tend to think about gangs as problems plaguing individual neighborhoods and individual communities, but as we all know, the world is flat. Gang violence is now a problem of international scope; we must face it on an international scale."

Previously, law enforcement agencies did not identify individuals or gangs for fear of boosting their street reputation, according to the Los Angeles Police Department's Web site. But a 14 percent spike in gang-related crime over the last year and a 160 percent increase in some San Fernando neighborhoods, according to Villaraigosa, had the mayor and law officials scrambling for solutions.

The new plan includes a coordinated effort among local and state agencies, as well as federal agencies, such as the FBI and the DEA.

But for Villaraigosa, enforcement is only half of the solution. The root causes of gang violence must also be addressed, he said. (Listen to Villaraigosa talk about his city's problem with gangs Video)

Those causes include "the break up of the families, ... poverty, lack of education, lack of skills, job skills, the lack of hope in communities," Villaraigosa told CNN in a recent interview.

Villaraigosa may as well have been describing his early life. The 54-year-old mayor grew up poor and fatherless in the City Terrace neighborhood of East Los Angeles. "I grew up in a part of the city that was one of the poor areas ... and was in trouble from time to time, kicked out of school, dropped out of another," he said.

The mayor says these experiences gives him a unique understanding of the gang crisis. "As someone whose life is a poster child for redemption, I believe strongly that we have to believe in people," he said. "We can't just give up on people."

Villaraigosa, who took office in July 2005, is the first Los Angeles mayor of Mexican descent in more than a century. He is married to Corina Villaraigosa, and has four children.


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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is fighting the increase in gang-related violence in Los Angeles.

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