LIMA, Peru (AP) _ Abandoned by his parents when he was 4, Elmo Molina found a new family _ ``the piranhas.''

The gangs of street children got that name by swarming around victims and stripping them of their belongings in seconds.

When Molina reached his teen-age years, he graduated to the ranks of the Hawks, a well-established gang in the tough El Planeta district, on the banks of Lima's sewage-filled Rimac River. He ousted the Hawks' leader by chasing him through a public market and attacking him with a butcher's knife.

``I sliced him under his arm and across his chest. That's how one becomes leader here,'' he recalled in an interview.

Mostly ignored until recent years, street gangs are flourishing in Lima's bleak shantytowns. As the impoverished country's leftist guerrilla movements dwindle in size and significance, having suffered major defeats at the hands of the military, the gangs are offering a new outlet for disaffected youth.

And they appear to be feeding on a numbing culture of violence fostered by the years of guerrilla war.

Public attention has focused on the gangs more as concern over political violence declined. Although gangs have existed for years, their numbers have soared since guerrilla violence waned.

While there are no official statistics, police estimate there are up to 1,000 gangs in Lima. Gang graffiti covers buildings and walls across the city, and gangs control many neighborhoods where the police seldom venture.

Molina became a legend in his neighborhood and attracted the attention of leftist guerrillas who recruit in the slums.

He recalls how, in the mid-1980s, Tupac Amaru rebels came to the El Planeta district, handing out food to poor residents and trying to win converts.

One rebel sought Molina out. ``He told me I was a leader here and had influence over a lot of people, so why didn't I join them?'' Molina said.

The guerrilla promised Molina money and power, saying the guerrillas were sure to overthrow the government. But Molina was skeptical.

``So far, what have they accomplished?'' he said, recalling their promises.

Molina said he also did not want to face a life sentence for subversion if caught.

The violent life as a Hawk leader eventually wore thin for Molina, who has since left the gang. Now 25, he lives with his wife and 15-month-old son, and earns money by collecting used paper for recycling. He bears a curved scar over his right eye from an attack with a broken bottle.

What is terrifying to many Lima residents is the increasing savagery of the gangs, which were blamed for 11 killings in the first four months of this year _ up from five in all of 1996.

Johnny, a 16-year-old member of the Hawks, underlined that fear with his description of a recent attack on a member of a rival gang: ``We grabbed him and with a knife we chopped off three of his fingers. We broke a bottle over his head and soaked him in gasoline. We would have lit him on fire but we couldn't find matches.''

``We earn respect fighting. The more you fight the more respect you get,'' Johnny added.

Before winding down in recent years, Peru's guerrilla wars resulted in 30,000 deaths in the countryside and urban shantytowns.

The leftist guerrillas, especially the fanatical Shining Path, and the government both employed terror tactics in their campaigns. Peruvians suffered daily car bombings, peasant massacres, assassinations and disappearances. Curfews were common and much of Lima lived under a state of emergency.

Exposure to the war hardened many young, urban poor to the most vicious kinds of violence.

``For a decade or more our country lived in a culture of violence. ... This is causing the violence to emerge now in different ways from in the past,'' said Francisco Loayza, a sociologist.

The guerrilla war also led to a mass uprooting of peasant communities in war zones, sending an estimated 600,000 refugees flooding into Peru's cities, overwhelming their infrastructure and increasing poverty and overcrowding.

This produced a breakdown of peasant family and community structures, as well as thousands of orphans, creating fertile ground for youth gangs.

Studies show that most of Lima's youth gang members come from broken homes and were either abandoned or forced to go out in the streets to work for their survival as children.