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DON'T LEGITIMIZE GANGS BY CALLING FOR A SUMMIT

Anyone who believes a peace summit among Utah gang leaders is the answer to growing violence hasn't examined the effects of such truces elsewhere. Virtually every agreement hammered out among hoodlums in recent years has ended in a hail of bullets.

In East Los Angeles, members of 13 Latino street gangs met in March at a banquet to honor a peace accord. Two weeks later, they were arming for battle against each other after a member of one of the gangs was shot for reasons unknown.Other Los Angeles gangs, brought together with a great deal of pomp after riots tore the city apart at the end of the trials of officers in the Rodney King beating in 1992, have continued killing.

Always, the truces fail because they don't end the gang lifestyle. They fail because gang members continue their illegal activities and their fierce code of ethics that demands retribution for every insult.

What is worse, the truces cause long-term harm by lending official legitimacy to armed groups of outlaws, treating gangsters as if they were the heads of sovereign nations or political movements.

Now, Latino community leaders along the Wasatch Front are hinting at the possibility of a similar summit here. They have honorable intentions. Senseless violence is tearing apart families and destroying the chances many young people have of succeeding as adults.

But a peace conference among hard-core gang leaders, people guilty of terrible crimes, is not the answer. Society should punish criminals, not simply make them promise to be good. After all, community leaders wouldn't consider a summit among burglars, con artists or others who continually break the law.

At the same time, the community must increase its efforts to help the fringe gang members - the youths who haven't committed terrible crimes but who are on the verge of a long-term commitment to that lifestyle. That will take close cooperation between community leaders and police, as well as help from churches, businesses and virtually every segment of society.

Otherwise, if society decides to legitimize gangs and gang members, it must be prepared for the results. For a hint of what those might be, look at Chicago, where gang members and gang-supported candidates tried unsuccessfully to run for municipal offices earlier this year. Police beefed up their forces on Election Day because of threats that gangs would intimidate voters. No such incidents were reported, but the threats worked. Voter turnout was abysmal.

Gang members who supposedly were using the legitimate system to gain influence were instead importing their own illegitimate practices to manipulate the system.

The message from Chicago is clear. The gang lifestyle is anathema to a free and open nation. Any method of eradication that does not include disbanding gangs and changing their members' lifestyles will fail.