LITTLE ROCK -- In a scene reminiscent of a mob hit, a pack of youths on a street corner opens fire with semi-automatic rifles on a passing car. A 3-year-old girl takes a bullet in the head intended for her father, a suspected gang member. Passing through her skull, it misses her brain. She survives -- barely.
Mail service is stopped for a time in a nearby neighborhood after a bullet pierces a truck on a routine delivery run. The U.S. Postal Service calls the area a "hostile environment."
Two men are ambushed and shot dead while sitting in their car behind an abandoned house in an apparent drug deal gone bad.
Nearby, a 24-year-old man is found dead on the sidewalk outside a beauty salon, shot in the groin in an apparent revenge killing.
A portion of the last six months on the streets of Little Rock. Drugs, guns and gangs.
One gang leader, "Daddy" as he's known on the streets, sits in a car on the corner of 14th and Booker talking with a reporter about his grip on this neighborhood. Young -- armed-- sentinels patrol the street corners, on the lookout for cops and rival gang members.
"Man in the hole!" someone yells from down the street.
Daddy slouches low in the car seat, tips the brim of his baseball cap beneath his eyes and cocks his head slightly to the left as a police patrol car slowly passes.
"They got nothin' on me," he says. "Yeah, I've shot several people. That's just life on the streets. That's why get respect. ... Now, I help keep these kids from killing each other, establish order. Some of the killings before were useless."
It has been 10 years since the Federal Bureau of Investigation ranked Little Rock's per capita homicide rate ahead of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. In 1993, the city hit a record high of 76 murders.
That same year, HBO highlighted the capital's plight with a documentary titled: "Gang War: Bangin' in Little Rock."
City leaders flinched. Before the show aired in 1994, few spoke publicly about the surge of gang violence that began in the late 1980s.
The documentary revealed the skeletons in the city's closet.
Mayor Jim Dailey says business leaders were frantic.
"You're not just killing the people on the streets, you're killing our economy," Dailey said he was told.
Gangs carved out territories in 10-block chunks -- killing each other in the process. Gun shots rang out in the night.
Law enforcement task forces were formed, a youth curfew was enacted, neighborhood associations cropped up by the dozens, church groups mobilized and the state legislature passed strict sentence-enhancing bills.
Gang violence slowed considerably.
Residents in stricken neighborhoods no longer had to sleep in their cast-iron bathtubs for protection from stray bullets. But that could change.
Gang leaders are hitting the streets again after serving fractions of their 10-and-20-year sentences. The sounds of gunshots are returning to the night. Recruitment is on the rise as gang leaders try to rebuild their sets. And city officials are again faced with the dilemma of escalating violence.
Police say the streets of south Little Rock and a few other areas are hostile. Gang violence is like a festering wound not to be healed, but simply confined, kept from infecting the rest of the city.
City leaders and advocates are more optimistic, hopeful that street-based programs can redirect disenfranchised youth born to a generation of drug dealers, addicts and gang members. Officials say they have made progress with prevention and intervention programs and continue to create alternatives for kids considering gang life.
But former and current gang leaders say that, as long there is poverty and a market for illegal drugs, nothing will change on the streets of Little Rock -- or any other American city.
Commercial real estate agent Dickson Flake said the HBO documentary devastated the city's efforts to recruit new business.
"Back then, it was adversely affecting our ability to compete for business," Flake said. "Many locations are now acceptable to new businesses whereas, before, they would have eliminated a site due to the perception that it was not safe."
Mayor Dailey said police acted swiftly in the wake of the HBO documentary.
"They went into these neighborhoods to enforce anything they could and drove out the cockroaches," Dailey said. "There are still gangs on the streets, still gangs in schools. We still have youths selling drugs, but there's also a great success story here."
Detective Todd Hurd is the Little Rock Police Department's lead gang intelligence officer. He spends his days driving through the most gang-infested neighborhoods, talking to informants, watching small-time drug deals and gathering intelligence on who's in charge on the streets and when and where the big deals will go down.
"Right now it's all about making money. It's all about dealing dope," Hurd said. "They look at the police like speed bumps. We're just out there trying to slow them down."
Several times a year, the LRPD offers residents of the stricken neighborhoods a reprieve from the gang siege on their community.
It's a two-day operation to set up what narcotics officers call reversals. Police sweep the neighborhoods of street corner drug dealers and replace them with undercover officers wired with hidden microphones to capture conversations of would-be drug buyers and make arrests.
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