SUNDAY, JULY 6, 2003
At 23, gangster knows about life in jail, fear
City man works at getting teens out of gang life
Police gang unit keeps tabs on city's 'sets'
Police target out-of-state tags
Hispanics by zip code Census | Crime coverage
TUESDAY, JULY 8, 2003
Shootings thought gang-related
FRIDAY, JULY 18, 2003
Californians charged in killings
SUNDAY, JULY 20, 2003
Prosecution of gangs costly to all
Jail volunteer speaks language
WEDNESDAY, JULY 23, 2003
Special Report: The life of a gang member
SUNDAY, AUGUST 3
Schools striving to stem gangs
More officers assigned to city police gang unit
With the explosion of Hispanic immigrants into the state, Hispanic gangs have expanded beyond all efforts to limit their growth. Violence has followed.
So far this year, Hispanic community leaders said, gang vendettas are believed responsible for as many as 10 of the city's 33 homicides, including five last month. Eight killings remain unsolved.
Each death increases tension on criminal tempers already pulled taut as bowstrings. Drive-by shootings have escalated, with some homes being targeted repeatedly. One lower northwest Oklahoma City home, police and residents said, was shot up every night for a week. Others have more bullet holes than windows.
"It's a war, said Jose Viloria, a counselor and mentor at the Latino Community Development Agency, "and we're losing.
The death toll sparked a rare acknowledgment from police officials that Hispanic gang violence is growing. Maj. Charles Allen, whose Santa Fe division has seen 25 gang-related drive-by shootings since February, said the department had grown complacent about gangs until now.
Maj. Jessica Cummins said her Will Rogers division has had two confirmed gang-related killings since February and 33 assaults with dangerous weapons. Both Allen and Cummins said gang contract killings are "way up, although the level of violence is still well short of its peak in the late 1980s.
Gang unit officers said the attacks this year provide substantive evidence that Hispanic gangs are "the biggest threat to the city right now.
Opinions differ on how to address that threat. Police sergeants Ritch Willis and John Szymanski said most violence can be traced to one or two individuals; once arrested, the cycle of retaliation slows.
Others, including former Capitol Hill High School Principal Raul Font, said the spread of graffiti and drive-by shootings indicates an absence of leadership within gang ranks that sends "soldiers jockeying for position.
What most agree on, however, is that quick fixes will not solve the problem. Hispanic community leaders are calling on government and schools to increase funding for and offer more after-school programs. Employers willing to take a chance on hiring ex-gangsters also are needed.
Viloria and Leo Mendoza, project coordinator for a developing anti-violence program, said preventive measures must begin in elementary schools. No such efforts are in place, they said.
The problems may be rising from a few neighborhoods in the city, but the consequences could affect everyone.
Children in peril
When Viloria pulls up outside a house in Juaritos gang territory and lays on the horn three times, the curtains rustle along the living room windows and six tiny faces appear.
The kids, none older than 5, smile as they shape their fingers into gang signs.
"You see? Viloria says. "You see? What did I tell you?
The house, an average-sized two-bedroom in an area with declining property values, is home to Petra Juarez and her family. As many as 12 people sleep there every night. It's a tight fit under the best of circumstances.
Since early June, though, the house essentially has shrunk to less than half its previous livable space. Drive-by shootings on seven consecutive nights have the family huddling together at night on mattresses on the floor of the back bedroom. They figure it's the safest place in the house.
To an extent, those who say the Juarez family brought the shootings on themselves would be right. Petra's four sons all are Juaritos, as graffiti on various objects in the fenced-in yard proudly proclaims. On any given day, homeboys can be found lounging in the shade near a shot-up van less than 20 feet from the back door.
Petra's youngest son Manny, 16, grew up saying he didn't want anything to do with gangs. Now Manny's forearms and neck bear gang tattoos, and he has been arrested on complaints of drug possession, driving under the influence and burglary.
"He's a young guy, said Szymanski, "but I think the others kind of look at him as a leader. They're always over at that house.
To Panama-born Viloria, whose job requires him to associate with most of the Hispanic gang members who have run afoul of the law, Manny is a perfect example of why anti-gang, anti-violence campaigns need to begin in grade school.
"We have to educate our families, help our families, and build a strong, better community, he said. "Education is the cure for the problem. It has to be done when they are in the elementary schools. By the time they get to middle school, to the high school, it is already too late. They're already in it.
"If I want to tell you not to smoke cigarettes, it does me no good to tell you when you've already been smoking for years. I have to tell you before you start the smoking. You see what I mean?
The Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, in conjunction with a number of other state and local entities, is working on a two-year study of youth violence that is expected to result in a pilot program focusing on 30 to 40 students at schools within the affected communities.
Patricia Chavez Anaya, project director of Esperanza del Pueblo, "Hope for the People, and Mendoza, the project coordinator, said they hope to provide proven programs for addressing youth violence.
"Our project is a prevention project, Chavez Anaya said, "so we're not targeting the kids who are in the gangs. We're trying to reach them before they join the gangs ... hoping to change the course of lives, not only for the young people but the families where these kids come from.
Leon Bing, national best-selling author of "Do Or Die, a study of the Crip and Blood gangs in Los Angeles, told The Oklahoman the only solution to gang violence is money.
"Inner-city schools need more money, she said. "There's not enough textbooks, (and there are) leaking roofs, poor air conditioning. ... The answer is always the same, always the same: Money. Programs. I'm not just saying throw money at inner-city kids; I'm saying put programs in place for them.
Bored to death
Bing said a lack of options is one of the biggest reasons neighborhood kids end up in gangs.
"These streets that they grow up on are so boring, she said. "They're stultifying. There's no Little League, no Pop Warner. ... These kids are latchkey kids a lot of the time. They're bored, and they drift into a gang lifestyle.
Surprisingly, gangs offer initiates exactly what they're missing at home, she said, including the appearance of unconditional love, order and strict rules of behavior.
"It satisfies a need for a familial feeling that they're missing from their parents because they're too busy to be there, Bing said.
Mendoza, who nearly became both a gang member and a casualty, agreed.
"These pseudo families possess a definite hierarchy that instills rules, support and discipline in its members, he said. "As a result, many youths join gangs to obtain a sense of family and belonging to something special. In turn for this belonging, youths will often fight, kill, rob, steal or sell drugs.
As a kid, Mendoza began hanging out with members of a Hispanic gang in southwest Oklahoma City, attracted to them by events such as barbecues and dances. At first, he said, he didn't know his new friends were gangsters. Later, he just didn't care.
The infatuation vanished when a fight broke out in Wiley Post Park years ago. While racing toward a parked car, hoping to escape, Mendoza ran into someone who was wielding a knife. The blade sunk into his chest, cracking his sternum, but he survived.
"I've still got a scar, he said. "God gave me a reason to look at it every day.
With Hispanic gangs, boredom is coupled with an inherent outsider status, Mendoza said, especially among recent immigrants who speak little English or are growing up as first-generation American citizens.
Both of those categories have shown dramatic increases in recent decades.
According to the 1990 census, Hispanics comprised two percent of Oklahoma's population, a total of 86,160 people. Ten years later, the numbers had more than doubled. In 2000, Hispanics totaled 179,304, a figure equal to five percent of the state's population.
In Oklahoma City, the percentages are even higher. In 1990, Hispanics made up four percent of the city's population, or 22,033. In 2000, Hispanics accounted for 10 percent of city residents, or 51,368 people.
Most, Viloria said, emigrated from Mexico, where gangs such as the Juaritos originated. At least four other Hispanic gangs boast significant memberships in Oklahoma City, drawing heavily on immigrants for new members and "mules, people willing to move drugs or other contraband across national boundaries in exchange for cash.
The Hispanic gangs are separatist even among themselves, Szymanski and Willis said, and illegal activities provide funding for the gangs and reasons for them to fight.
"You won't see a Southside Loco (member) hanging out at a Juaritos house, Szymanski said. "The older ones leave the day-to-day operations to the younger guys ... and then reap the rewards.
Fighting the odds
It's easier to get in than it is to get out. That's one thing on which all the gang experts agree.
Mendoza's knife wound helped him escape. Font said he was just lucky.
"I was a street kid, too, the educator said, "so I know how they think and what they do.
Font worked for Oklahoma City Public Schools before accepting a position last week with the Houston school district. Most recently, Font ran the district's language and cultural services department, but before that, he served as principal at gang-heavy Capitol Hill High School.
"When I was at Capitol Hill, we graduated a big group of our gang leaders in 1996, he said, "and the next year was hell. These kids were just rambling, looking for someone to lead them, and they did a lot of stupid stuff. ... In 1996, the school was taken over by them. By 1999, I won't say they were friends, but we didn't have the same problems.
Font said to deal with the current spate of gang violence, school officials need to meet with police and gang leaders, educating themselves and making concessions to the reality of the situation.
"What needs to be done, he said, "is actually identify the kids that are leading these gangs and have a meeting with them. Make sure we've trained our principals not to confront these leaders in places where they can show off. Make the schools neutral territory, and make the O.G.s (original gangsters) aware of how you want the schools to be.
On the home front, police said, parents should learn about gang behavior and take steps to prevent their children from becoming involved, however inadvertently.
"With our mobile society, Szymanski said, "we have some Southside Locos living down in the heart of the GBCs (rival gang Grande Barrio Central). Their families moved them down there, you know, thinking they're getting their kids away from the gang lifestyle, not realizing they're moving them right into another gang area and putting them in danger.
It's a danger that is difficult for most to understand. Why would children, most between 12 and 17 years of age, kill each other over drugs or turf or colors?
The answer, Viloria said, is simple: This is all they know.