March 2, 2007

“Showing Love to the Hood”

A Community Without Gang Intervention

Part I of a II part series

By Raymond R. Beltran

At ages seventeen and eighteen, cousins Carlos and Tony are already veteran gang members in Old Town National City, or more commonly known as OTNC.

They were jumped in during their early teenage years, somewhere around fourteen. But both will testify that initiation was inevitable since before their preteen years and that, for them, the lure of joining didn’t exist. It was more of a right of passage in a childhood already riddled with violence.

Today, they’re trying to make the best out of two lives, labeled by a criminal history. Tony works at a tire shop. He enjoys his trade. And Carlos is in school, and trying to get his life together for his new son, all while subject to the restrictions of National City’s gang injunction.

“I felt like I was by myself, and they took me in ... put clothes on my back and fed me,” says 17 year old Carlos about his initial years in the gang life.

But are they still from OTNC? For these two, there’s no alternative.

“You know how they say it’s never too late? Well, I skipped all those years being locked up,” Tony says. “Like regular students … it’s too late to go back and do that. You already got your friends, your gang. I can’t just go back and make new friends.”

Growing up, Tony’s friends were not only ten years older than him; they were heavy drinkers and gang bangers themselves. He didn’t have a father to turn to and his mother was a drug addict. If there was ever a poster boy for at-risk youth, it was Tony at nine years old, the age he began to recognize drugs, alcohol and street violence.

He and his two brothers, one older, one younger, raised themselves he remembers. Shootings were a part of growing up. In fact, Tony got on his knees during this interview to explain the day when he knelt down to hold his dying uncle, shot by rivals.

By the time he was an eighth grader, he was running the streets and at school, he was working on getting expelled.

“I got kicked out of school in eighth grade for bringing a pound to school, for selling weed,” he says with a tone of practicality. “From there on, I got expelled from the district and went to summit in 2002. But … I just got more homies.”

More homies and more crime led him to his first time incarceration in 2003, possession of stolen property. He was sent to Juvenile Ranch Facility at Rancho del Campo, a facility that focuses on chemical dependency. It sprung somewhat of a comfort in recidivism. He returned five more times before he was sent to Camp Barrett Youth Correctional Center for stabbing someone while at a local corner store on Christmas day 2004.

“If you do a crime, no one’s pressing you,” he says. “But to the hood, it’s showing love.”

Showing love, he says, is the way members prove their loyalty to their “other family,” a vital common denominator in a group that seems to have no chain of command or rules to abide by. Taking care of one’s family at home during an incarceration is another sign of loyalty, Tony says.

The stabbing that led him to Camp Barrett, he says, he didn’t commit. He was showing love by taking the downfall. And asked how OTNC’s activity compares to other barrios in San Diego, like Shell Town and Logan Heights, he simply says, “insane.”

Seventeen year old Carlos lifted up his pants to show his six inch tattoos on his upper legs, an Old English style “OT” on his right and “NC” on his left.

“I’m still in,” he says, in a boyish smile. “I felt like I was by myself, and they took me in when I was on the streets, put clothes on my back and fed me.”

Carlos and Tony seemed to have experienced the same childhood. Carlos’s father was deported when he was barely a child and he was raised by his aunt. He spent a lot of time homeless, shacking up with different ‘veteranos,’ or elders, “earning his stripes” he says.

He’s been a recidivist throughout his teenage years, mostly for probation violation, but the initial arrest was for assault with a deadly weapon when he was fourteen. He beat someone with a baseball bat, retaliation for having been jumped earlier that same day.

Statistically, “violence by perceived gang members declined by 73% between 1993 and 2003,” according to Washington DC’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, and according to the San Diego Gang Crimes Overview 2005-2006, robbery, shootings, and attempted murder have declined citywide.

But these statistics do not speak to the number of youth who are steadily initiated into ‘la vida loca,’ the crazy life.

There’s currently 85 gang sets countywide, according to the San Diego Police Department, with 3,606 members documented. Males exponentially outnumber females, and only five percent of all documented are juveniles that are initiated at age fourteen.

OTNC is rumored to have anywhere from three to five hundred members, with several cliques that fall under OTNC, like sister corporations. Carlos and Tony agree that at least one person is jumped in every week. At times, members who are incarcerated return to the streets and find a group of brothers they don’t even know yet.

“There’s always going to be new fools,” Carlos says. “Once a baby’s born in the hood, there’s always going to be somebody new.”

Tony says initiation is not something that’s pressured or bullied where he’s from. They won’t just take anybody. He says there are gangs that vastly outnumber others in San Diego, because “they just jump in anybody,” the weak, “punks,” and even new immigrants.

Eva Vargas is a resident of South Crest, more commonly known as Shell Town. She’s raising her fourteen year old grandson, Ricky. But lately, raising a fatherless teenage boy has become a fragile situation. His father is incarcerated, and he’s already at a traditionally defiant age. That, she says, means easy pickings for any group.

“I don’t want him to experience anything that’s going to hurt his heart,” she says. “Killing and violence, it does something to you … Little by little, it diminishes you as a human being and takes away from who you are and who you want to be.”

Shell Town resident, Eva Vargas

Ricky is her ear on the street though, and recently, she learned that a thirteen year old boy was beaten up by three young men at the local park. Police have stopped to question Ricky on the streets more often and last November, a seventeen year old boy was shot only blocks away from her home.

“It has its nice times, then it has its eruptions,” Vargas says about Shell Town.

But literally, it’s the writing on the walls, gang tags or graffiti, which tell Vargas that an eruption is brewing in her community.

San Diego Police Department statistics show that Shell Town experienced up to thirteen gang related crimes between 2005 and 2006, a far cry from areas like Logan Heights, Linda Vista and Mira Mesa that experienced up to twenty-five.

Her grandson has been to four different schools in the last few years, and she says that he’s been introduced to several counselors who didn’t help him with issues stemming from family instability, which Vargas says is the root of the issue.

Time is of the essence for her solution, because in the past year, Ricky’s been more apt to walk the streets alone, and his mother, Vargas’s daughter, has been fending off veteran gang members from engaging her son. Not too long ago, he confessed to sneaking a screw driver to school after an altercation with two other boys.

She feels her only hope is to send him to live with relatives in Mira Mesa.

“I know they have their problems too (Mira Mesa), but at least it will be a change. I have to do something,” she says.

Vargas attended a meeting in mid February at St. Jude’s Church in Shell Town with the city’s new Gang Prevention and Intervention Commission.

“The gang issues are nothing like they were fifteen or twenty years ago,” said Henry Rodriguez, a priest in the community. “My main point is, look at some of the things that have been done in the past.”

Gangs in the mid 80s and early 90s cost the lives of many in his church he says. At that time, the community began Neighborhood Policing, a program where officers would conduct monthly meetings about the issue. Residents were made community officers who kept in close contact with police patrols. Many were in favor of the program and, surprisingly, say racial profiling hadn’t been a factor.

“It was helping because residents were taking charge,” Rodriguez says. “They were more of an active role in their community.”

Though gang injunctions seem to be the most favored tactic of police and the city, many residents, like Vargas, say that gangs are only a symptom of a larger issue.

Like Vargas, experts as well as counselors from local youth facilities say what’s missing are more recreational activities, like sports and art, which help fill a void in the lives of at-risk youth. Mentoring programs have been highly underestimated say a number of academic and non-profit sources.

At St. Jude’s, the city’s new gang commission agreed to support the State of California’s Safe Passage Program in schools and to recommend a neighborhood council to get involved. The commission’s task is to advise the mayor about what intervention programs are most successful in order to seek out more funding for them.

“Not to say their not doing the right thing, but [their data] will be put in a folder and put away,” Vargas says about the commission’s efforts. “It’s because the people at the top won’t involve themselves. They don’t want to spend money, and it’s too complicated … Neighborhood Policing was good, but do you see it? No.”

At the meeting, Vargas pleaded in tears for someone to lead her in the right direction. She doesn’t want to see her grandson leave, but immediate results are crucial. She left St. Jude’s with a handful of new phone numbers and no questions answered.

Many in the neighborhood feel the same way. Carlos looks at city officials with skeptical eyes.

“I think they’re trying to put us in a circle to just kill each other, lock us up,” he says. “That’s the city government.”

Carlos, who plans on moving to Temecula once he graduates, says he hopes his son doesn’t walk his same path, but his family history may determine otherwise.

He’s the third generation of OTNC gang membership and he’s seen a slew of tactics used to suppress gang activity, but so far, nothing he’s seen has been done to intervene at the age of gang initiation, which is sometimes as young as eight or nine.

(In Part II of the series, we will take a look at what’s been done in the past to curb initiation and where the city’s gang commission is headed.)

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