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June 30th, 2004 Nick Budnick | News Stories
 

La Vida Loca

Hispanic street gangs take over Portland's east side.

     
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Earlier this month, the Portland Expo Center was jammed with eye candy: hot rods decked out in glorious colors, gleaming gadgets at product booths and, of course, scantily clad women.

The crowd of 3,000, which was predominantly Hispanic, was there for the Lowrider magazine Legends Tour. And, given the importance of the customized cars in their youth culture, it's a safe bet every self-respecting Latino gang member in greater Portland was in attendance.

Normally, the Portland Police Bureau sends several gang cops to such events. They give a friendly "hi" to known bangers, subtly letting them know their presence has been duly noted--thus dampening any urge toward the violence that retired gang Sgt. Neil Crannell says is entirely "predictable" at such gatherings.

But for the June 6 lowrider show, not a single gang cop was there. Why not?

"That's a good question," says Lt. Eric Hendricks, the distinctly irritated head of Portland's gang unit. "I'll tell you why: I wasn't aware of it."

Hendricks is supposed to have his finger on the proverbial pulse of gangs in this city. But the first he knew of the nationally advertised show was the next morning.

That's when police found the body of 16-year-old Alexx Alexander.

Alexander, a suspected member of the Paso Robles Boyz, is believed to have been shot by a rival after leaving the Expo Center. He was the third Latino killed in a five-week span, a deadly spree that hints at a burgeoning Hispanic youth gang problem that has taken social-service providers--as well as Portland police--completely by surprise.

You'd think the violent deaths of three young Portlanders (one victim was 14) might be cause for alarm. But as one local gang expert notes, the deadly gang war on the east side of the city has hardly drawn a yawn from the media and the region's elected leaders.

"They are dying in East County," says Officer Rafael Cancio. "And nobody gives a rip."

When you mention the topic of gangs in Portland, most people think of Bloods and Crips, the overwhelmingly black gangs that arrived here in the late '80s.

Officials in Oregon were slow to recognize the problem, but once they did--following Portland's first drive-by shooting death, of Joseph "Ray Ray" Winston in August 1988--the response was overwhelming. Mayor Bud Clark kicked off major reforms of the Police Bureau to tackle the problem. Gov. Neil Goldschmidt hired a full-time aide to combat Portland's gang activity. Community leaders, nonprofits, government social-service agencies and businesses such as the Trail Blazers poured millions of dollars into Northeast Portland to attempt to knit back the fraying threads of society, create job programs, employ role models and give young black kids choices by creating alternatives to gangs in Northeast Portland.

To an extent, it's worked. "Kids are able to walk about on the streets and play where they couldn't before," says Dave Barrios, a recently retired gang cop.

As the African-American gang problem has slowly been brought under control, its Hispanic counterpart has quietly grown. In the early '90s, African-American gang members outnumbered Hispanic gangsters in Oregon by a ratio of 9 to 1. A decade later the ratio is reversing: At last count, the statewide Hispanic gang membership of roughly 1,500 was estimated to be twice that of Crips and Bloods combined, according to the Portland Police Bureau.

Much of this is a matter of demographics: The local Latino population has tripled in the last 15 years, bringing to Portland's streets vast numbers of immigrants' children as well as hardened gang members from California and Mexico.

The first Latino gang to be documented in Portland, in 1989, was the Eighteenth Street gang, a California import named for a Los Angeles thoroughfare. Others soon followed.

There are definite parallels between the black and Hispanic gang experiences. In Latino gang life, instead of homies, there are pachucas and cholos. Instead of the 'hood, there is the barrio. Instead of the NBA, there is a fascination with customized lowrider hot rods.

Rather than Crips and Bloods, the Latino gangs are largely divided into Sureños (southsiders) and Norteños (northsiders). Both camps are descended from rival prison gangs that left the California penitentiary system and became organized narcotics rings that use street gangs as distribution networks. Once you leave prison, the distinctions are meaningless: Sureño gangs, for instance, often fight other Sureño gangs.

Police say that Latino gangs, like the black gangs that preceded them, tend to hang out on the street, handling their business in public. In that regard, they are unlike the Russians and Asians, who cops like to say have "graduated to the next level," meaning they engage in organized crime, high-tech scams, extortion and fraud. As one officer puts it, those latter groups "got smart. You don't see them out on street corners throwing hand signs and selling dope."

Over at East Precinct, Officer Jim Lawrence, a lean, wiry cop, has been tracking the new reality of Hispanic gangs.

On the wall, he keeps a map with little multicolored push pins marking crimes, graffiti and homes of local gang members. The pins denoting gang activity are most prevalent in the area bounded by the Cully neighborhood in outer Northeast Portland out to the Rockwood neighborhood in Gresham. The pins for residences of known gang members are clustered along East Burnside Street, Stark Street and 162nd Avenue, scattered among a sea of look-alike low-rent apartment buildings.

Whereas African-American gangs tend to be involved in dealing crack, Latino gangs are more commonly affiliated with methamphetamine, marijuana and heroin. But in Portland, Lawrence says, Latino gangs generally do not function as commercial drug-dealing enterprises the way many of their African-American counterparts do. They generally do not clash with black gangs, instead fighting among themselves. A feud can begin for something as seemingly trivial as another gang painting over your gang's graffiti tag.

Whether it's the newish Paso Robles Boyz or an older rival Portland clique, for Latinos to "claim" a gang is about more than just protection and a desire to belong. "They are as proud to be a member of the PRBs as a U.S. Marine is to stand in his dress blues," says Cancio.

In addition to the Eighteenth Streeters and PRBs, Portland's most active Hispanic gangs include the South Side 13, Califas 13, and Compton Varrios Segundos. The CVS, as it is known, is named for the fact that it is the second gang to come out of Compton, Calif. (following Compton Varrios Tortilla Flats).

The dynamic between these groups used to be simple, says gang cop Cancio. "It was the Eighteenth Streeters versus everyone else."

Today, however, the PRBs' growing numbers have rejiggered the balance of power, causing friction and violence.

It is a different sort of violence than Portland has known before. If you know the human landscape in Northeast Portland, where African-American gangs still dominate, just about every shooting can be traced to an old grudge, a jilted boyfriend, or competition for market share in the underground drug trade.

But a scan of the previous year's reported Latino gang violence reveals a different sort of animal (see "A Year in La Vida," page 24): People pulling up next to total strangers, beating them or shooting them. Innocent bystanders shot and sometimes killed. Belonging to the wrong gang can be enough to spark an attack--but so can belonging to no gang at all.

"It seems out of control because it is so random," the retired Barrios says. "It is really kind of stupefying."

The current gang war, cops say, seems to have its roots at a party in March 2003 in the Cully neighborhood.

The party was hosted by a CVS member. Then came a knock on the door: It was Bladimir "Dollar" Abarca, who founded the Paso Robles Boyz after moving here from the sleepy Central California town of Paso Robles in 2001. He was with a girl the CVS member didn't like, so the host turned them away.

Days later, the young man's apartment was burglarized, his computer stolen, and his walls painted with PRB graffiti tags--the name "Dollar" and, according to police reports, the phrase "We get the last laugh."

Cops suspect this payback triggered a series of clashes that went unreported to the police.

Last October, Abarca was deported to Mexico on a parole violation from on an earlier domestic-violence conviction. But even with "Dollar" gone, hostilities continued.

This past March, a CVS member was walking home from school on Southeast 112th Avenue when a group of PRBs viciously beat him with a length of chain. Two months later, on May 15, a group of CVS members and their friends were having a barbecue near Northeast 106th Avenue and Wygant Street when a carload of PRBs drove by. Police say CVS member Alfonso Ortega allegedly opened fire with a 9-mm pistol but missed his mark, instead killing a friend of the CVS gang who was there for the party, 14-year-old Andre Andaur.

Another way in which Latino gangs differ from others is the youth of their members.

"Just in my neighborhood I have more than 50 kids who are wanting to be gangsters--and they're like 11 years old, 10 years old," says Lucy, a 16-year-old who lives in Southeast Portland and belongs to a Latina girls gang she founded in sixth grade (see "Girlz in the Barrio," page 23). "They're in elementary school, trying to bang--and they don't even know what's going on. They just want to be like their older brothers."

As a result, overwhelmed social workers are shifting their anti-gang efforts to elementary-school children, realizing that by high school it's usually way too late. "The 10-to-12 age range is the most vulnerable," says Gloria Wiggins of El Programa Hispano, the Gresham-based Latino arm of Catholic Charities.

Sitting in her cramped front living room in outer Southeast Portland, Hilda Guerrero knows this only too well, thanks to her 13-year-old son, Julio, a cute, dark-eyed human twig with a bright grin that makes him all teeth. Kids his age belong in a playground, not a police lineup. But ask him what he thinks of this spring's violence and he'll flash a shy smile and tell you the biggest problem is that too many of his pals are behind bars. "Last year, they took only some kids to jail," he says.

When one of Julio's friends known as "Psycho" was recently shot in the arm, Guerrero realized her son was in danger of falling victim to gangs. She now makes an extra effort to keep track of where he is and is frustrated by other Latino parents' acceptance of gang culture. "I think a lot of them don't care," says the small woman. " A lot of parents tell me, 'I don't know what to do, I can't control my son.'"

While the rise of low-income, single-parent African-American households has been well-documented, social workers say poor Latino parents are more likely to stay together. But because the parents are holding down two, sometimes three jobs, they are often absent from the home, and their ability to track their children is frequently hampered by language barriers.

In addition, social workers estimate that as many as 75 percent of poor Latino families have issues with immigration, meaning their fear of authorities may make them reluctant to tap into services.

Those who do seek help find that there is not enough to go around. In the 1990s, to combat gang problems in Northeast, four nonprofit anti-gang programs were operating, along with an alternative school, a job center and a publicly funded community center staffed by the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods.

There is no such equivalent in the east Portland Latino community. County Commissioner Serena Cruz, who headed a recent task force on Latino gangs, says that, in contrast to the well-developed infrastructure used to combat African-American gangs, "we don't have a system built around Latino gang issues."

For example, although Latino gang members outnumber their African-American counterparts, there are roughly half the number of gang-outreach workers serving the Latino community as there are serving African Americans. "I don't think there are 10 bilingual case managers in the entire county," says El Programa Hispano's Wiggins.

Similarly, the Portland police have largely ignored the Hispanic gang problem. Out in East Precinct, Officer Lawrence is trying to change that.

Last October, Cliff Jensen, then commander of East Precinct, got tired of the bureau's Gang Enforcement Team, or GET, refusing his entreaties for help. He asked Lawrence to spearhead a new detail funded out of Jensen's own budget.

Though it does not even have a name, Lawrence's four-member team has had some success, reading graffiti like tea leaves to discover several new gangs and designating 75 youths as officially documented gang members previously unknown to Portland police.

That's more new gang members than were documented in that span by GET--the 12-member unit that's supposed to be handling the job.

But while most cops view Lawrence's team as a step forward, it clearly falls short. For one thing, all its members are gringos.

The downside of that was evident last week, when Lawrence came upon two 16-year-old gang members, one holding a switchblade as well as a knapsack bearing a bottle of malt liquor plus four car stereos, wires dangling and almost certainly stolen.

Without enough evidence to make a bust, Lawrence gave the boys a chewing out. But one boy's failure to meet Lawrence's steely gaze caused the officer to escalate the situation.

"I'm addressing you like a man," scolded Lawrence. "Why don't you look me in the eye?"

Told of the exchange, Barrios, the retired gang cop, says it is a perfect illustration of the Police Bureau's problem.

"I think he's not aware of the culture," Barrios says of Lawrence. Whereas police might think failing to look someone in the eye is a diss, "in Mexican culture, someone who is averting his eyes is really deferring to you and respecting you."

Although the city's Latino population has more than tripled in the past two decades, the Portland Police Bureau, which has roughly 900 cops, has only 23 Latino officers. According to Barrios, most of them cannot speak Spanish.

GET's sole Latino officer, the Cuban-born Cancio, a 28-year veteran, is assigned to intelligence, meaning he gathers tips from officers on the street and does his own investigations to get a handle on gangs--a job formerly divided among three officers. Since 1998, the number of gang cops working in the key afternoon-to-evening shift has dropped by half, from 22 to 11.

Chief Derrick Foxworth says the situation is typical of his entire bureau, which has lost more than 100 positions in the last six years. But in the wake of the recent deaths, Foxworth says the gang team may have to reconsider its current focus on African-American gangs. "No child should lose their life to that type of violence," he says. "So we've gotta do something."

Chief Foxworth says the solution lies as much with schools and social services as with the police. "There's a lot more that the community could do," he says. "I just hope others step up as well."

Crannell, the retired sergeant, says money is no excuse for ignoring the problem. "It's always a question of resources--but it's also a question of, is it a priority? Because if it's a priority, then resources will be found."

Flor Gomez, a gang outreach worker, says she's seen what the future holds if nothing is done. She recently attended the funeral of 23-year-old Enrique Rodriguez Borja, the oldest of the three recent homicide victims.

"It was amazing," she says. "There were around 70 youths, ages 14 to 18, all dressed like gangsters. There were maybe eight adults. Some of the teenagers had babies. It was scary. What are they going to teach their children?"

GIRLZ IN THE BARRIO

Whereas in other cities young African-American women form gangs, the girl-gang phenomenon in Portland is almost entirely Hispanic.

Gang experts and social workers say that, based on a recent flurry of graffiti wars, Latina girl-gang activity is on the rise. But, according to a young woman who founded one of them, Latina girl gangs have been around for years.

Lucy, a 16-year-old high-school student who asked that her last name not be revealed, says she started the Latin Babies in sixth grade while attending Binnsmead Middle School. She says the gang, now spread among several schools, numbers well over 30 members--so many that they now require members to prove their affiliation by getting tattoos of "X3" or "13" and their gang names (Lucy's is "Brown Eyes") on their backs.

The main thing they do is get together and "kick it" or put up "tags," says Lucy, who was born in Mexico. Last July, for example, someone broke into the Brentwood-Darlington Community Center and left the interior walls covered with "Latin Babies" graffiti.

But if needed, Lucy says, they'll fight--like if another girl is badmouthing them or crossing out a Latin Babies graffiti tag. As a freshman at Marshall High last year, she says she got into more than two dozen altercations.

To join the LBs, new members must either survive getting beat up by three girls for 13 seconds, or they must "jump" a girl the LBs do not like.

Some girl gangs exist independently, while others, such as the Paso Robles Girlz, are auxiliaries to boy gangs. Other local girl gangs include Sureña Pride Girls, Locas Hinas, Tiny Locas, Play Girls, Sureño Bitches and Portland Jueda (Spanish for "white girl"). All except for the Jueda are Hispanic.

Girls who are not in girl gangs are sometimes inducted into boy gangs, either by being beaten or "jumped" in or "sexed" in, says Sandra Rodriguez, 24, who works with 20 girls as an outreach worker with El Programa Hispana. "They have to have sex with all the male members of the gang at once, with no protection," she explains. Once in the gang, they are expected to do all the crimes that their male counterparts do, like car prowls.

Lucy, born in Mexico, now attends Listos, an alternative Pearl District school run by the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement. She's says she's happy finally to be in a setting where she is actually learning. But she says she has no intention of leaving the gang, adding she would only get in more fights: "If you do not claim your gang, you'd be [in] deep trouble."

Twelve months of Latino gang activity.

Most gang violence is never reported to the police, and what is reported rarely makes it into the news. Here is a year's worth of apparent Latino gang violence as documented by the Portland Police Bureau.

May 18, 2003: Seven gang members in a car, one with a baseball bat, pull up to four Hispanic males and a 13-year-old girl walking on East Burnside Street at 110th Avenue. They ask whether the pedestrians belong to a gang, pull a gold necklace off the girl and threaten their lives.

May 20: Two guys in a car whistle at a girl on the sidewalk on Southeast 84th Avenue. Two Eighteenth Streeters jump in their car, give chase and ram the whistlers' car repeatedly.

June 5: Two Hispanic men pull up in a yellow Ryder van and ask a pedestrian whether he belongs to a gang. When he says no, they beat him and run over his leg with the van.

June 18: A guy is assaulted by his girlfriend's ex-boyfriend, a 19th Street gang member.

July 11: A car pulls up, the driver asks pedestrian if he is a "13," and he says yes. "Come here, we got something for ya," the driver responds, then fires three bullets into him.

July 23: In a break-in at the Brentwood-Darlington Community Center, the interior is covered with "Latin Babies" graffiti.

July 25: Two bullets are fired into an apartment after graffiti, including "13" and "187," the California penal code for murder, are painted on the exterior. Two boys sleeping inside are not hit.

Aug. 4: A woman is shot at, apparently by a gang-member ex-boyfriend, who also slashes her tires.

Aug 15: Four PRBs are arrested after a fight at a MAX stop.

Sept 6: Two Eighteenth Streeters at a bus stop are shot at; one is hit in the leg.

Sept. 11: Some Eighteenth Streeters follow a young Tortilla Flats gang member being driven to school by his dad, slashing their tires while halted in traffic.

Sept. 18, 23: Five prominent Eighteenth Streeters are arrested for homicide in the Expo Center murder of Marcus Moultrie.

Sept. 23: A report of shots fired and male Hispanics fighting with baseball bats.

Sept. 25: Two suspected PRBs ask a pedestrian his gang. The answer is "none," so they beat him with a baseball bat.

Sept. 29: A Tortilla Flats gang member has his house shot up, apparently by Eighteenth Streeters.

Oct. 18: A man sitting in car outside Club Rodeo is pulled out and beaten by 10 to 12 suspected Eighteenth Streeters.

Oct. 25: The son of Tortilla Flats gang member is shot while out with his father.

Nov. 8: Three Hispanic males sitting in a car are shot at, one wounded in the head and chest, by Eighteenth Street gang members.

Nov. 15: In a drive-by, five or six bullets are fired at two Hispanics standing in front of a market.

Dec. 24: Seven suspected Trece gang members stab a 21-year-old several times on a street corner.

Jan. 25, 2004: Two PRBs stab someone.

Feb. 25: Several PRBs in a blue van viciously assault a student allied with CVS as he walks home from school.

March 20: A drive-by shooting wounds a 14-year-old boy.

March 22: At a MAX station, Eighteenth Streeters punch a boy in head and steal his bike.

March 23: Three days after a 14-year-old is wounded, he is again the target of a drive-by; an Eighteenth Streeter is arrested.

April 29: A 15-year-old Ma Vida Loca associate allegedly stabs 23-year-old Enrique Borja, a PRB, to death.

May 1: A man at a gas station is wounded in drive-by; the intended target was a group of several Hispanic males.

May 2: A teenage Eighteenth Streeter is stabbed while he and his pals confront rival gang members who'd shot up his father's house.

May 6: A 27-year-old Hispanic male is shot at Denny's.

May 15: An 18-year-old CVS accidentally kills a 14-year-old friend of his gang while aiming at a carload of PRBs.

May 29: Sureños gang member assaults girl.

--Compiled by Nick Budnick, with assistance from Dave Fitzpatrick.


A lowrider is named for the hydraulic system used to suspend a car's chassis just inches from the ground.

A gang is typically defined as a group of people who engage in a heightened level of criminal behavior. However, it is not illegal simply to claim allegiance to a gang.

The Sureños faction of gangs is also known as Trece, Spanish for the number 13. This is a reference to the 13th letter of the alphabet: M, as in their father organization, the Mexican Mafia. The rival to 13 is 14, standing for the letter N, the Norteños or Nuestra Familia.

As of June 3, the Portland Police Bureau listed 160 Latinos as designated gang members, versus 144 members of Crips and Bloods, most of whom are African Americans. There are also 68 reported Asian gang members.

The city's totals underestimate gang activity, cops say. That's because since being sued in 1993, the Police Bureau has applied strict criteria before someone can be called a gang member.

According to the 2000 Census, African Americans make up 6.6 percent of the county's population.

More than half of the county's Latinos are 24 years old or younger--on average, they are a decade younger than the general population.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Latinos in Multnomah County grew from 18,390 to 49,607, or 170 percent. The general population increased overall by only 13 percent.

Latinos comprised 7.5 percent of the county's population in 2000. The census found that almost half of them (41 percent) do not speak English well. The average per-capita income is less than half of that for Anglos.

In Portland, Latino students drop out of school at twice the average rate, 22 percent versus 10 percent. In the Reynolds School District, only 21.4 percent of Latinos graduated, versus 76 percent of students overall.

 
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