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Unlucky 13: The Sureños gang identify themselves with 'm,' also the 13th letter of the alphabet.

Gangsters Anonymous

Local Latino teens talk about jumping in and the gangster lifestyle

By Joy Lanzendorfer

Gang activity is on the rise in Sonoma County. This year, Santa Rosa saw 32 drive-by shootings, up from 25 in 2003. Nine people have been injured, including a seven-month-old girl. Only two arrests have been made in connection with the shootings.

Many of the drive-bys are the result of an intense rivalry between Sonoma County's two biggest gangs, the Norteños and Sureños. Gangs also participate in other crimes, including graffiti, petty theft and drug trafficking. Despite the formation of the special Gang Task Force in Santa Rosa several years ago, the violence appears to be getting worse.

"Gangs are slowly increasing how dangerous they are willing to get," says Sean Roney, a coordinator at Teen Court, which works with the juvenile justice system. "The murder rate is increasing, but most of [the gang] activity is in the drug trade."

According to Rafael Vazquez, a gang research advocate who works with troubled youth in Sonoma County, estimates figure that approximately 2 percent of Santa Rosa's population alone--some 3,000 people--are thought to be involved in gang activity. That activity includes "generals" from the outside organization, or "mafia," that controls each gang; the corporate gang captains responsible for funneling money from various criminal rackets back to the mafia; and the kids in the streets who actually sell the drugs and commit the petty crimes that fuel it all.

These gang members exist in a secretive world colored by mysterious signs, rituals and bloodshed. Disloyalty to the gang is not an option, and members who talk about the inner workings of gang life do so at their own risk. Nevertheless, the Bohemian recently located two members, each from a rival gang, willing to speak about their experiences on condition of anonymity.

"Carlos," 18, is a member of the Norteños. Polite and soft-spoken, Carlos tried to stay neutral to the gangs when he first entered high school. Yet every day he felt pressured to pick sides. If he hung out with people in one gang, he was hassled by the other. Even the color of his clothes was an issue.

"Basically, if you are Hispanic, you couldn't wear red because one day the Sureños be talking shit to you, and the next day, you couldn't wear blue because the Norteños be talking shit to you," he says.

Eventually, Carlos picked sides by default. He became friends with some Norteños, hung out with them and was soon known as one of them.

When Carlos was 16, the rival Sureños did a drive-by on his house, shooting through his bedroom window. No one was hurt, but Carlos was enraged. "I was scared, but at the same time, I had so much anger," he says. "I just turned it into looking for whoever did it. It made me get more involved in the gang to the point that I wouldn't care who you were--if you were a Sureños, I was going to get you."

Not long after the drive-by, Carlos jumped in with the Norteños. ("Jumping in" refers to an initiation rite that consists of established gang members beating up the new guy.)

"There's no chance of winning; it's basically hand-to-hand combat," Carlos explains. "It was a lot of pain, but everyone will tell you if that ever happens, just cover your face."

Not all gangs perform the rite, but in all cases an older member, or "G," makes the decision about when someone is ready to join the gang. It usually happens after the wannabe has proven his loyalty.

For Carlos, gang membership meant hanging out, getting drunk and stealing car stereos. After being arrested for stealing, he has curtailed his criminal activity, but he's still a Norteños and he still dislikes the Sureños.

"I don't have no respect towards them," he says. "I don't understand them; I don't want to know them; I don't want to see them."

The hatred between the two gangs motivates the members of each group. "Pedro," 16, grew up in a gang neighborhood in Santa Rosa. He says he won't officially join the Sureños, because "if you jump in, you have to follow the rules. Not jumping in means I can do whatever I want." Still, Pedro hangs with the Sureños almost as if he were an official member. Practically everyone he knows is in a gang.

"That's like my family, you know," he says. "I grew up with them, so I stick with them. A lot of people I know join because they need a family--their mom and dad don't give them the good love they have, and their friends will."

Pedro hates the Norteños. A close childhood friend was killed by a Norteños member. Not long ago, Pedro was arrested for hitting a Norteños in the head with a baseball bat.

The names Norteños (north) and Sureños (south) originally designated whether the gang was from the north or south region of Bakersfield. These days, the geographic lines are blurred. In Sonoma County, most gang activity is in north and southeast Santa Rosa. The gangs break into smaller units called "sets," each with its own name and turf, such as SouthPark, whose members hang out near the fairgrounds, and Varrio Sureño Loco, which operates in Roseland.

Not all gangs in Sonoma County are Latino. There are Asian gangs, most notably the Asian Boyz. There are white racist groups like the Nazi Low Riders and the Peckerwoods. Lately, even Southern California's Bloods and Crips are appearing in Sonoma County.

While Pedro despises the Norteños and Carlos hates Sureños, neither has a problem with the Asian Boyz. The issue of race and gangs is complicated. While some gangs operate for racist reasons, especially in the case of white pride gangs, most exist for commercial reasons. Still, many members confuse being in a gang with race.

"Sometimes, when I ask Norteños and Sureños why are you in the gang, they say, 'Oh la raza,'" says Vazquez. "But when I say, 'OK, but when did la raza change from the Mexican flag to a blue rag?' they run out of things to say. At the core of it is a sense of self-hatred. When you look at the statistics in L.A., nine out of 10 gang-related murders are Latinos killing Latinos, blacks killing blacks, whites killing whites."

In addition to wearing the color blue, the Sureños identify themselves with the number 13. Members draw or tattoo three dots on their arms, hands or by their eyes. They use the symbols "13," "XIII," "X3," "Sur" and "Puro Sur" to mark their turf. They call the Norteños "chaps," "chapetes" and "busters."

The Norteños wear the color red and identify with the number 14. They draw four dots on their bodies and use the symbols "14," "XIV," "X4," "Norte" and "BPN" (Brown Pride Norteños). They call Sureños "scraps," "scrapas" and "sewer rats" or "SURats."

The numbers indicate which Mafia the gang is affiliated with. Th e number "13" indicates m, the 13th letter in the alphabet, for the Mexican Mafia, which controls the Sureños from prison. Likewise, "14" stands for n, the 14th letter, indicating the Nuestra Familia, which controls the Norteños. The rivalry between the two gangs plays itself out in street violence and arcane symbols spray-painted on Sonoma County's walls.

Prison, rather than serving a rehabilitative function, often serves as a recruiting station for gangs.

"A week or two before a gang member is released from prison, he will be called to this or that cell," says Vazquez. "He is given a list of people and told when he moves to, let's say, Windsor, he should contact these people. He's given a job, to sell drugs or steal stereos. But the kids we see out here on the street, they're just kids. A lot of them don't even know how everything works."

But once inside a gang, a member instantly becomes aware that he has to follow the rules and do what he's told--or pay the price.

"Right away, you can notice the person who's a higher rank than you," says Carlos. "He has the word, because if anything happens, he would be the one to tell us go do this, go to this neighborhood and do this."

Generally, girls can't join gangs.

"If something happens, like the girls get cut up, they go snitch and tell people what happened," says Pedro. "So it's only guys."

Some teens are driven to gangs for economic reasons or a sense that their options in life are limited. The word "disrespect" comes up repeatedly, since kids attracted to gangs usually have poor relationships with authority figures. Because of this, convincing kids to leave gangs is a formidable task.

"Regardless of all the pain that these youth cause to our society, they are a symptom of a society that has an illness," says Vazquez. "Our failure to provide for these youth is coming back to haunt us. We must do something positive and proactive to deal with their pain."

Santa Rosa's Teen Court has taken positive steps to salvage kids who've fallen prey to gangs. Among other things, it takes teens to San Quentin to show them where gang life inevitably leads.

But even if the court reaches some kids, leaving a gang is dangerous. It is considered a betrayal, making those who want to leave into instant enemies.

Carlos seems to want out of the Norteños, but he doesn't have a clear idea how he will do it.

"I do think I'll mature and I'll get out of it," he says, before hesitating. "Maybe. Eventually."

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From the December 1-7, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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