OAKLAND - Miguel proudly wears his tattoos signifying his undying allegiance to the Norteños street gang. He boasts of the countless bullets he has dodged, the string of killings he has witnessed and the many funerals he has attended.

But underneath the red gang colors he sometimes wears and without the protection from the gang he calls his ``family,'' the 16-year-old admits to his fear of dying.

``You never know what can happen when people are always riding and walking around,'' says Miguel. ``I won't go into some areas because I know that anyone can die at any time.''

Authorities say in the last few years gang violence - especially among Hispanics - has dramatically increased in Oakland. So far this year, two out of three of Oakland's homicides have been linked to gang activity.

The most recent was Sunday night when 17-year-old Honduras native Ever Ramos was mistakenly targeted as a gang member and shot while walking with some friends on Coolidge Avenue. He died Monday night.

And on Saturday night, 15-year-old Alberto Salvador ''Rascal'' Villarreal of Berkeley was shot to death not far from there on East 15th Street in what police say was another slaying with gang ties.

Last year, nine of the city's 94 homicides were confirmed as gang-related, triple the number from the previous year. Some of those killings included innocent victims who happened to be wearing the wrong color clothing.

There is disagreement on the flash point that sparked the surge of gang violence. Some gang members and police point to a September 2004 shooting at a gang member's funeral in Hayward that led to three killings later in Oakland.

Others say the escalation stems from the groups just not liking each other and note the Norteños - who have been in Oakland since at least the 1950s - look down on other gangs. One investigator, who did not want his name used, said there is ``no question'' when it comes to rivalries, ``the other side is the enemy. If you are a Sureño, all Norteños are your enemy.''

Police estimate several hundred Hispanic gang members occupy neighborhoods throughout Oakland, mostly in East Oakland from the Fruitvale district to Elmhurst, with International Boulevard the closest traffic artery.

Most prominent are Norteños and Sureños as well as the Border Brothers and South Side Locos, which usually tie in with Sureños, police said.

Miguel, not his real name, mainly hangs out in the Fruitvale district on East 15th Street, in the heart of the gang violence also known to some Hispanics as barrio warfare. While being interviewed he kept glancing furtively at passing cars, warning others in the neighborhood when rival gang members drove by.

``There's hatred from one another and from different gangs, and it's getting worse,'' said Miguel. ``So I'm always on alert.''

He has good reason to be. According to police, for every confirmed gang killing there are several more shootings where victims are only slightly wounded or not hit at all.

An investigator said one reason for that is that younger gang members are reluctant to actually kill someone, but do want to get across their lead-filled message to enemies.

Sgt. Lou Cruz, who has investigated several gang-related homicides in the past few years, said he feels the rising violence stems from members who ``are tied to the gangs so strongly that (it) overwhelms any kind of social conscience and their need for love that they find with other gang members.''

The other investigator said what he sees as the attraction to becoming a gang member is ``a camaraderie, brotherhood, a form of security and protection they don't think they can get themselves.''

Miguel has been involved with gang life since childhood and several of his older siblings and cousins used to gang bang. Miguel's affiliation with the Norteños is generational, so in some in ways he was meant to be a part of it, he said.

But despite his hard demeanor, Miguel has become a realist because of the violence he has seen and the friends he has lost. ``When you see someone you know get killed, those feelings stay with you forever,'' said Miguel. ``That's a sign telling you something.''

Even that has not convinced him to leave the gang life, however.

``This is for me,'' said Miguel. ``We are doing what we got to do to protect our area.''

The police department reactivated its gang unit in August with a Spanish speaking sergeant and four officers, and is working to combat issues of gang violence.

Mayor Jerry Brown said Tuesday evening the police department was developing a plan to add officers to the gang unit and more quickly deploy them to hot spots identified by commanders.

Still, some residents worry that the handful of officers who make up the gang unit is not enough and feel other government agencies need to step up their efforts.

Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who represents the Glenview-Fruitvale district where most of this crime takes place, said he agreed that city officials had spent too much time talking about the problem rather than actually working to end it. ``We have to get the gloves off,'' De La Fuente said.

Cornell Green, the youth pastor at Cosmopolitan Baptist Church on 85th Avenue, agrees. For the last three years he has worked to organize education programs and camping trips to teach youth about the dangers of gangs.

``We want to get them away from the concrete jungle and show them that life has more to offer outside of just being on the block,'' Green said.

To that end, Huaxtec, a local grass-roots organization, is planning to soon hold a community awareness event focused on gang violence.

Huaxtec member David Cruz said their goal is to break the cycle of violence through education and community programs. ``Communities are pitted to fight against each other and something has to be done,'' he said. ``We don't want to live like that.''

Sgt. Fred Mestas, supervisor of the gang unit and a veteran of 28 years working Oakland streets, said there has to be more community involvement and a willingness to change the gang mind-set before things get better and less violent.

``It's one thing to show you're down for your neighborhood or gang brothers, but you still have to operate in the real world,'' Mestas said. ``People see your tattoos and your colors and that makes you a target.''

Staff Writer Heather MacDonald contributed to this report.