San Diego The news is good. Murder down 50 percent. Robbery down 18.2 percent, burglary 13.9 percent -- all for the first six months of 1998 (compared with the same period last year). Violent crimes are decreasing for the sixth year in a row, and total crime is continuing an uninterrupted nine-year downward slide. This according to the San Diego Police Department's latest quarterly crime briefing.
So if crime is down in San Diego, how come the number of gangs, and the crimes they commit, is up?
The man to ask is Detective Felix Aguirre, one of SDPD's most experienced gang cops. "When I started working with gangs, in 1988," he says, "there were 24 documented gangs. Today in San Diego there are 65."
Countywide, the figure is "over 100," with gang membership estimated at around 10,000, according to Board of Supervisors chairman Greg Cox. He gave the figures out at the first regional conference on gangs, held earlier this month at the County Administration Building.
SDPD figures show gang crimes up 8.2 percent from January to June this year, including 26 shootings. Within city limits, the number of documented gang members has risen from 4698 to 4881, or 3.9 percent. Arrests of gang members are up nearly 10 percent.
So why are gangs becoming more popular when unemployment's down?
The astonishing fact, says Aguirre, is that it's not "the economy, stupid." Gangs are becoming just as attractive to rich kids as poor.
"We have gangs everywhere. In Mira Mesa, Rancho Bernardo, Clairemont. We have a Portuguese gang in Point Loma, the Tuna Boys. We have gang members from households where everybody in the house has their own car. We also have them in poor neighborhoods. We have them in single-parent families, we have them in double-parent families. We have them black and white and green and yellow."
After ten years working with gangs, Aguirre concludes that kids join for one thing: to belong. "A kid living in a $500,000 house in Rancho Bernardo comes home and there's nobody there, so he goes out looking for comfort and companionship, and they band together, and before you know it, they're a gang. That's not unusual at all. It's a void in the child's life, and he looks to fill that void. A lot of our [gang] kids are horribly intelligent, A students in class, and you'd never know they were gang members. They literally lead a double life."
Aguirre often visits the homes of parents to try to stop a kid's drift into gang life. These have included cops' homes, probation officers' homes, even the home of a judge and his wife. "We sat down to find out what caused [the judge's] kid to begin to emulate the gang characteristics," he says. "It turned out he was simply looking for an attachment to identity. It was a racially mixed marriage. [The son] latched onto the culture he thought was most prominent [his mom's], and he began to emulate the characteristics consistent with a gang's Hispanic culture."
Aguirre managed to save the kid from crossing the line, but he says many kids can't take that step back.
"A kid who is not a gang member but dresses to emulate the gang style, and then goes out and gets an attitude, is likely to get confronted," he says. "And when he gets confronted, he's going to be assaulted, singled out by a living, breathing gang member saying, 'What's up? Where you from?' And there's no right answer to that. You may or may not get attacked, simply because they don't know you. When they say, 'Where you from? Where do you claim?' that's dangerous. It's time to get out of the area. Because you're being challenged. It's saying, 'What gang are you from?' "
Aguirre says kids begin to play with the issues of gang involvement from as early as 8 years old. "The police don't see them usually till they're about 14. When we contact them, it's because they're already hanging out at gang hangouts, they're hanging out with known gang members, they're committing petty crimes. These gang members tell us, 'I've been kicking it for one or two years. I back it up.' "
"If you say, 'Do you claim 38th Street?' 'Do you claim Lomita, or any particular gang group?' they say, 'I've been kicking it with them for a year.' That means they've been hanging out with that gang for a year."
And don't think the rich kids are any less violent. Economics separates the Bloods from the Crips, Aguirre says. "The Bloods [or Pirus] are a little bit better off than Crips. Bloods are from more middle class and upper- middle class communities. There's a distinct separation there that is very visible."
Yet, according to a 1994 study by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), "the Bloods are more violent" than the Crips.
(Aguirre points out that "Blood" and "Crip" are not so much the names of individual black gangs as "umbrella" names. "People think we have a Crip gang and a Blood gang. Or Crip and Piru. That's not so. There's the umbrella name, and then various [individual] gangs fall under that umbrella.")
Rich or poor, says Aguirre, they're destined to become involved in violence. "They begin to get involved in robberies and stealing of cars. Organized auto-theft rings. They get into confrontations. And it escalates from there to stabbings and attempted murders."
In the last three months, Aguirre, who monitors only Hispanic gangs, has seen two especially brutal shootings. One happened in a dispute between members of the same gang from the Mission Bay area. "At 2200 Grand Avenue," he says, describing it in the present tense, "one gang member is opposed by two other gang members and they put four bullets in his head. The victim does not die. On August 14 the suspects were bound over for attempted murder charges."
The shooting added to 20 other attempted homicides by San Diego gang members so far this year, 25 percent up on the first half of 1997.
On June 10 Aguirre was called to a shooting over at 1100 South 43rd Street at a taco shop. "Two victims who are not gang members are confronted by gang members from that area, a Hispanic gang," he says. " 'Where are you from?' 'What are you looking at?' 'Why are they mad-dogging me?' The two victims get shot, one with an AK-47 round, the other with a small-caliber handgun. One of our victims almost died."
Aguirre later arrested two adults. But cases aren't always so easily solved, he says, because gangs keep their problems to themselves.
He won't specify any gangs. Why? "We try and keep names away from the press in print, because the rival gangs see that and say, 'Wait a minute, if they're getting their name in print, let's go out and do something that's going to get us in print.' They'll do anything for publicity, to increase their reputation."
But not all want to advertise. "The thing about black gangs is they're not as much into graffiti as other gangs," says Aguirre. "For example Upside Sick: you can go through [their territory] in the area of Emerald Hills, and you won't find a spot of graffiti anywhere. It's a very prominent community with an established gang, but you'd never know it going through there. Yet as soon as you enter Shelltown, you know you're in a gang neighborhood. Because the Hispanic gangs are the leaders in the writing of graffiti."
Aguirre says he doesn't blame a lot of kids for joining gangs. Especially those with the greatest incentive: children of new immigrants, or of minorities sidelined by mainstream America because of language and cultural barriers.
"Many of our gangs have started up simply because of a protection issue. We can go back to the Filipinos, and then the [other] Asians, and then the Somalis today. Basically they find themselves in public, in school, at social gatherings, where they are being victimized by well-established gang groups. Their simple natural reaction is to band together for protection.
"That's one of the [reasons] that you find a lot of these middle income, upper-middle income neighborhoods having gang 'sets' because they've banded together to defend themselves from predatory attacks by established gangs. That is one of the ways that our gangs have multiplied. Somalis have definitely banded together, fitting the same characteristics because they are being victimized by established gangs in the mid-city area. [They have] a very legitimate concern."
Somali gangs are just at this point emerging. And behind them, a new group. Second-generation Chaldeans, mainly Christian immigrants from Iraq.
"The Chaldeans are an up-and-coming group," says Aguirre. "El Cajon is starting to see the banding together of Chaldean kids in a way characteristic of gangs. I have some personal friends who are Chaldean. They tell me about their children toying with [the gang idea]."
The first clue, says Aguirre, is graffiti. "You start to see them in the school books, in notebooks, on calendars, and sometimes in the home under the bed, in the closets, on furniture. Then comes the rebellious attitude, kids wanting to be more and more away from home, starting to try to pull away. The people the children bring [home display] very much the same attitude. Specific styles of dress, specific colors."
Recently Aguirre addressed a crowd of Filipinos shocked at the number of their kids joining gangs. "One parent said it best," he says. "She told the crowd of Filipino parents, 'He's right; kids come to us and say, "Mom, Dad, can we talk?" And we say, "Here's 20 bucks, go to a movie, we'll talk tomorrow. I'm too tired from work."' "
Despite this month's gathering of more than 100 politicians, law enforcement, and activists, nobody believes they're going to solve the gang problem anytime soon. "The origin of youth gang development can be attributed to the shift from agrarian to industrial society," says the 1994 SANDAG study. What's new, it concludes, is "the increased use of lethal weapons and corresponding violence unprecedented in the history of this country."
Attraction to the gang life is common to all marginalized groups, the study says. "Over the last century, four themes have remained consistent in the study of gangs: immigration, urbanization, ethnicity, and poverty."
Yet "modern gang members are younger and more mobile, numerous, widespread, organized and violent than those in the past," the study claims. And whereas before many gang members "matured out" of a gang, that process "is no longer occurring."
Aguirre doesn't agree. "Generally speaking, most kids begin to outgrow the issues at about 20, 21 years old. They establish responsibility, they have wives, they have families, they begin to realize, 'This isn't for me.' And you don't find young females involved in gangs as often after the age of 18, 19 years old. Many gang members tell you point blank: 'My kid will not be a gang member. I'm going to do better so that my kid doesn't have to live through what I did.'"
But Aguirre says for others, the gang's the nearest thing to family and identity that they've known. He has met gang members as old as 40. "Some just don't want to let go. That's why I believe that all these social organizations that say [the answer is] 'Let's get them a job' [are wrong.] You can give them a job, but you've still got a gang member. Because [some of] these kids don't want to let go." *
ruffled dress that is sure to prove too warm in two hours. Men with ponytails and tattoos leave the lobby for a smoke.
By now I can identify the old-timers. They know to go to the desk at the right of the door and fill out the visitors card, then wait behind the line where they'll be called by one of the clerks. They will pass the filled-out card, plus ID, through the chute (children over 16 are also required to show ID). Visitors are then put on a schedule to speak with an inmate.
No matter what the hour, even if the telephone line is free, a minimum wait of 45 minutes must pass while the prisoner is pulled from his cell. Usually it is longer, depending on how many visitors are already scheduled to use the phones. The principal clerk said there were ten telephones per housing unit. He said they tried to give visitors an hour, if possible. "But sometimes things happen. Sometimes there are fights between visitors."
Those who are not in line or outside smoking or keeping an eye on their children are sitting quietly. I study a young woman with two children, an older man with his granddaughter, a woman alone. I think to go over and introduce myself, but something holds me back and I wait. Again and again, the chutes through which visiting cards, letters, IDs, and money are placed clang open and shut. The noise it makes sounds like the crash of a guillotine.
"Your appointment will be for one o'clock," the clerk tells a young black woman, not much older than a teenager. Her T-shirt is tight and her jeans have been ironed to a sheen. The young woman leaves the building. I stand and watch her walk to the parking lot. She finds her car, unlocks the door, sits down, and closes the door behind her. She does not notice that I am looking at her. She has a blank look on her face. She has a five-hour wait.
An hour later the parking lot is nearly full. One man is waxing his truck, another changes the oil in his car. Children are eating breakfast or curled up in back seats, sleeping soundly. The fog is lifting, and the sky, no longer gray, is going silver on its way to gold. Behind the prison, the mesa is yellow with early morning.
What I don't know about the young black woman sitting in her car or the woman with the two children or the man waxing his truck is enormous. But this is not the place to find out. Every visitor has undergone hardship to get here. Punishment is not just for the prisoner. They deserve their hour. Mine, I hope, will come later.