“We Get All Hyped Up. We Do a Drive-by.”
A report from the front lines of the San Antonio gang wars.
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It’s one-fifteen in the morning on a Sunday in May. At the Alazan Apache Courts, one of San Antonio’s toughest housing projects, seven teenage boys wearing designer jeans and polo shirts huddle behind the fence and garbage dumpster that separate the rear courtyard from the street. The boys crack jokes and suck down forty-ounce bottles of malt liquor.
The cover is decent here. They can see the street through the fence, and they have memorized every car in the neighborhood and its owner. Anyone cruising by looking to shoot somebody would have difficulty aiming into the shadows of the Courts. The boys, ranging in age from sixteen to eighteen, are members of three different gangs that get along—usually. They lean against the dumpster or sit with their backs against a concrete wall. Just blocks away live their “enemies,” members of rival gangs from neighboring housing projects: the Cassiano Homes, the San Juan Homes, the Villa Vermendi, and the Victoria courts, all warring fiefdoms clustered on San Antonio’s West Side.
“You always got to watch your back,” says one of the boys, a sixteen-year-old who joined his first gang when he was eleven. He chats amiably about what he and his friends do for fun. “We get really drunk,” he says. “We get all hyped up, and we do a drive-by or something like that.”
At that moment, five shots rip through the air, and he and the others fall silent. The shots were loud and close. All seven boys start running through the rear courtyard—toward the gunfire. If the shooters make another pass, the boys can see who it is.
The boys backtrack through the soggy yard, where laundry hangs from clotheslines and the grass needs cutting, and they are a little edgier than they were before. Behind a sagging sheet, a dark figure approaches the boys with a gleaming sun in his hand. He yells something in Spanish as he points the gun at them and slides back the chamber. Is this it?
The moment is tense, but the boy turns out to be a friend. The others laugh at his performance and return to their spots against the wall and the dumpster, but something has changed. The air is electric. They chuckle and say they are not afraid. “Things like that happen here all the time,” says one. Meanwhile, the teenager with the gun paces around the periphery of the group, watching their backs.
No one got hurt that night, but the incident brings into relief the two San Antonios: one a thriving city of beauty, history, and culture that draws tourists from around the country, and the other a city of warring youths, where small children are killed in their beds by stray gunfire. In 1993 there were 1,262 drive-by shootings reported in San Antonio, which has a population of 935,933. (The police department estimates that for every drive-by that is reported, ten are not.) In contrast, Dallas, with a population of 1,007,618, and reported 221 drive-by shootings last year. Fort Worth’s police department recorded 186 drive-bys, and in Austin there were an estimated 50. (Houston and El Paso don’t keep figures on drive-by shootings but group them with homicides or assaults.)
“People are afraid to go outside. Children are afraid to play outside,” says San Antonio police officer George Sexton. Until recently, Sexton patrolled Military Drive, a favorite Sunday-night cruising strip on the South Side where gang members go to meet girls. Gun-toting teens routinely turn the strip into a war zone. Says Sexton: “Drive-bys are the biggest fear we have in this town.”
Marky sits at the kitchen table of his family’s three-bedroom apartment at the Alazan Apache Courts, where he lives with his mother, elder brother, younger sister, and sister-in-law. His brown eyes are still droopy at eleven-fifteen on a weekday morning because, he says, he heard shots outside his home late last night and got up to investigate. Marky lives on the West Side, where the Hispanic gangs predominate.
Marky’s sister-in-law, who is 21 years old and seven months’ pregnant, sits on the couch in the living room watching soap operas on TV. A mirror and a print of flowers on the wall behind here hide only a few of the dozen or so bullet holes in the wall.
“The first time we got shot up, it was my mom and her boyfriend sitting in here,” Marky says, yawning and rubbing his beefy neck. “They guys who did it were looking for me and my older brother because were LA Boyz and these guys were Kings. They were ‘forks down’ and we were ‘forks up.’”
The sign of a pitchfork—made with the thumb, index finger, and middle finger—pointing either up or down indicates which of the two broad alliances of San Antonio’s Hispanic gangs a particular gang belongs to. Gangs that use forks down are in the Black Circle; those that use forks up are in the Blue Circle. Wearing “colors,” such as black or clue bandannas (called rags), can also tip off gang members as to who their friends are. And each individual gang has its own set of hand signs, usually the first letter of the gang’s name.
Marky joined the LA Boyz, started by Lanier High School football players who used the Lanier Athletics logo for their name, when he was in the seventh grade. “me and my best friend wanted to get in because they had a lot of parties and a lot of chicks,” he says. “We had to get rolled in [beaten up] by about fifteen guys in the plaza right here at the Courts for initiation, but my dad had always kicked my ass, so I didn’t give a shit. This one huge guy looked at my friend Juan, so I thought he was going to hit him, but he went pow and I hit the wall and bounced off it, and he kept hitting me, and I don’t know how, but I got up, and they all beat me into a corner. Afterward they said, ‘You made it. You can cry now.’ But I didn’t want to cry.”
When Marky was thirteen, he quit the LA Boyz and joined Damage, Inc. He strips off his shirt to display his tattoos—proof of his allegiance. On his left shoulder is a yellow Tweety bird clutching a handgun, left over from the days when he belonged to the LA Boyz. Beneath the heavily armed bird is another tattoo: D Inc.
By the time Marky was fourteen, he had taken part in several drive-by shootings. Drive-bys are almost always committed by organized street gangs. Anything can trigger a drive-by—a turf battle, a squabble over a girlfriend, “throwing’ hand signs at rival gangs, an initiation, or the sheer thrill of it. “Drive-bys start when people from another gang act big shit and be, like, ‘You’re nobody,’” Marky explains, “and some people get serious and get out the guns.”
Gang members get their guns from pawnshops or gun shows; after they pick out their weapons, a companion who is over 21 buys them. “I remember the first time I shot a real gun,” Marky murmurs with a faraway look in his eyes. “It’s like a high, and you like it, and you want to do it again and again and again. I don’t remember doing my first drive-by—that was a long time ago. But I remember using the first Tec-9 [a semi-automatic pistol]. We were driving around and we said, ‘Let’s hit up some houses.’ I was on the passenger side and they said, ‘Go, Mark! Go!’ I just shot like that –pow-pow-pow!” Marky points his right hand out to the side and jerks it high in the air. “It was kicking, and I didn’t know it would do that. My friends thought that was cool, but they were all scared too.”
Marky says he regrets one drive-by that killed innocent people. “We went to the wrong house. It was like the house was all shady and shit. I saw it on the news. They didn’t live. I felt bad about it. I didn’t want to thing about it.” He looks away and frowns. “I don’t think about it.”
Explaining why he participates in “gangbanging”—a word that in his milieu describes not gang rape but a long list of activities that includes beating people up, stealing cars, throwing hand signs to incite rival gangs, and doing drive-bys—Marky says, “It’s fun. It’s exciting. We get crazy. Everybody thinks I come from a messed-up family and my mom don’t love me and shit like that, but that’s not it.”
Still, Marky describes a childhood filled with physical abuse. “My dad used to hit me, and my mother would just watch or go to her room and shut the door. I stole money from my grandmother when I was little to buy soda and candy—twenty bucks. She told my dad, and he beat the shit out of me. He always wore boots, so he used to kick me with them. I once told him, ‘Hit me when you’re sober why don’t you?’” Marky has not see his father in four years.
OFFICER RICK RIOJAS IS A LARGE MAN who is quick to laugh at any joke, but after three years in the trenches of gang warfare in San Antonio, his good humor is wearing thin. “They’re all a bunch of dumb kids,” Riojas says with a sigh. “They may do some horrible crimes, but it’s easy to catch them because they think like kids.”
The 35-year-old Riojas is a member of the San Antonio Police Department’s gang unit, which was formed in June 1991. The gang unit saturates trouble spots with patrolling officers and mobile police stations. Its sixteen members photograph every suspected gang member they stop; then they try to record his name, nickname, address, gang affiliation, and tattoos for a computer database. Police officers say they are making progress. The number of drive-bys reported so far this year is down 40 percent from last year, when the city averaged three and a half a day.
There are approximately 2,000 hard-core gang members in the city—2 percent of the students in middle and high school—according to police department figures, and another 2,500 associates who engage in less-violent behavior. The names of the different gangs are as varied as the crimes they commit: Big Time Criminals, All Violent Boyz, Hispanics Causing Panic, Brothers Taking Over, Gangers Against Police, and Niggers in Charge, to name a few. On the Anglo North Side, the biggest gangs are the Northside Rollers, the Skinheads, and the Bad Boyz, Inc. Some gangs just go by the crimes they specialize in: Burglary Rape Crew, ATM Robbery, Church Burglars, and Dope Overthrowing Gangsters, who specialize in robbing street drug dealers of their money and narcotics.
There are no firm numbers on the thousands of “pee-wees” or “wannabes”—gang affiliates who are either too young or too unpopular to become full-fledged gang members but who may shoplift, help older teens sell drugs, or spray-paint private property with gang graffiti. Of the more than three hundred gangs the SAPD has documented, about one hundred are active at any one time and capable of doing drive-bys. Some of the younger gang members are the most dangerous, notes Riojas. They feel they have something to prove.
After three years of roaming the troubled streets of San Antonio night after night, Riojas has little sympathy for the hard-luck stories of the delinquent youths. “We’re not out to help them with midnight basketball games—that’s for PAL [the Police Athletic League],” he says. “By the time they come across our desk, they need to be put away.”
Cruising the East Side in his patrol car, Riojas deciphers the complex hieroglyphics of the gang graffiti that scar the walls of run-down shops and houses, translating the markings into a history of bloody turf battles and kids who fancy themselves young warriors. This is the part of town where the black gangs dominate, and where “BK 187” appears in blue on a street sign with a small x painted within the lower circle of the B. Riojas explains: “’BK’ means ‘Blood Killer,’ so you know it’s the Bloods’ rival, the Crips, who wrote it—meaning the kill Bloods. Plus, it’s painted in blue, which is the Crips’ color. The x inside the B is meant to show disrespect to the Bloods. The number 187 is the California penal code for homicide. A lot of San Antonio’s gangs trace their roots back directly to Califronia and Chicago.” Farther down the street is the graffito “CK,” for “Crip Killer,” with a small red x within the C.
Riojas points out kids wearing T-shirts and caps with sports-team logos. “Every athletic team there is gets adopted by the gangs,” he says. The Crips wear Chicago Bulls T-shirts, the NY Posse likes the Yankees, and the ND Posse wears Notre Dame T-shirts and baseball caps. Even Mickey Mouse and Tweety have become recognized gang symbols, and some San Antonio schools have banned clothing with images of the cartoon characters from their campuses.
Like the Hispanic gang members on the West Side, the African American gang members on the East Side strongly identify with the subdivision where they live. The ETGs, or East Terrace Gangsters, and the WCGs, or Wheatley Courts Gangsters, even take their names form their turf. However, says Riojas, the black gangs differ from the Hispanic gangs in some respects. “The Hispanics have a more traditional type of philosophy, where turf and familia, or the gang, are the most important forces in their lives,” he says. “The blacks are more individuals, and the gangs are more like a business venture—a way to sell crack cocaine and make money. They are more likely to do a drive-by on someone who is cutting into their business.”
It is a Friday night of the east side. In front of an elementary school, a gang unit patrol car stops a battered sedan with four teenage boys wearing white T-shirts and dark pants for failing to use the turn signal. A quick search of the car produces a Flock 9mm handgun under the back seat.
A law passed in 1990 makes possessing a handgun within one hundred yards of a school a felony. After the officers handcuff the boys and threaten to bring charge, one of them admits that the fun is his. “We got to protect ourselves from Little Joker and Al Capone,” says another, a sixteen-year-old. “They hate blue. Little Joker’ll shoot you for wearing blue Dickies. That’s why I wear black.” The minor with the gun is taken to a Texas Youth Commission detention facility for booking; the others are released. The only place a minor can be detained while awaiting trial is the Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center, which has 96 beds. Some 1,900 youths are currently awaiting trial in juvenile court. The overflow are usually sent home—and back to the streets.
Ten minutes after stopping the four boys, the officers pull over another car, this time for expired plates. The driver, a slight, smiling young man, turns out to be the infamous Little Joker—one of the Original Gangsters, or OGs, who started a gang under the Blood “set” called the Blood Stone Villains, or BSV. A veteran of the East Side gang wars, Little Joker, who is eighteen, has been shot nine different times.
Parts of Little Joker’s right arm look patchy and scarred where skin grafts mark gunshot wounds he received in 1993. The last time he was hit was the day after Thanksgiving, when he was washing his car with some friends and a shotgun blast shattered his left leg; it had to be amputated above the knee. “My friend got shot in the back,” he says. “I’m not afraid to die, but anyone who hangs out with me can’t be scared either.”
Little Joker, who has bee in gangs since he was ten, says he started off shoplifting and then moved on to burglary and stealing cars. “It was fun,” he says with a shrug. He has been in and out of juvenile detention several times over the years and has never held a job. Little Joker claims he has retired from gang activity but says he is still a marked man, since he can’t receive the ritual beating from fellow gang members that would let him exit from the gang. “I’m one of the OGs. No one touches me,” he explains. “I can’t get rolled out of a gang I started.”
To drive away, Little Joker has to start his car with a screwdriver; the ignition was cracked open when the vehicle was stolen recently. “I can’t really get too mad they stole my car,” he says. “I used to steal cars myself.” As soon as Little Joker gets the car started, he peels out. “Yeah, he’d better hurry,” says one officer. “Did you notice all the cars slowing down to check us out? Now they know where he is. He’s a moving target.”
BACK AT THE ALAZAN APACHE Courts, five girls with long dark hair and bright red lipstick walk the neighborhood streets wearing white T-shirts and baggy jeans slung low, with men’s boxer shorts peeking above the waistband. The girls call themselves the ND Chicks, a sort of female auxiliary to the ND Posse, whose sworn enemies are the LA Boyz. “We mostly have a good time and fight against other gangs, like the LA Chicks,” says thirteen-year-old Irene. “We don’t use guns—we just throw gang signs, and if they want to start fighting, we fight back.”
The girls say they honed their fighting skills by sparring with the NDs, but they fight only with female gang members. “We learned to take the pain from guys, so when we go up against the bigger girls, we can take the pain from them,” Irene explains, making a fist with a well-manicured hand. “First you hit them in the face to mess them up. We try to punch them so they fall, and we push them and we start kicking them. We make them kiss the rag.” The rag is the green bandanna that the NDs have adopted as their colors. The gang’s mascot, which shows up in tattoos and graffiti, is Notre Dame’s Fighting Irishman, but with a twist: His hands are wrapped around an Uzi.
“The NDs defend us—they back us up,” says Maria, also thirteen. “When other guys mess with us, the NDs get into it for us.” The girls attend Tafolla Middle School, but they say that since joining the gang, they have skipped a lot of classes and their grades have fallen. Their days are spent hanging with the NDs and smoking marijuana. “We get it from the NDs,” says Irene. “We have parties.” Irene lives with her aunt. “I got tired of my mom,” she says. “I left once, and she got made and said, ‘Get your clothes and get out.’”
San Antonio and its girl gangs were caught in the glare of the media spotlight last year after Planned Parenthood published its March newsletter. According to the newsletter, girls on the city’s West Side were being initiated into gangs by having sex with members who were HIV-positive. Reporters from all over the world—from Geraldo to the London Times—inundated San Antonio’s police department with calls.
The SAPD maintains that there is no proof the story is true. The ND Chicks say their initiation is to get “rolled in” with a beating from female gang members. But none deny that willing girls get passed around among male gang members. “You really don’t know who had AIDS or not,” notes Marky, who says he has participated in threesomes and has “pulled trains”—lined up with several guys to take turns having sex with one girl. “Some of them be young—we call them Little Ho’s,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll say, ‘If you want to hang out with us, you got to have sex with us.’” Marky admits that some gang members rape girls, but the victims are always drunk or on drugs, so no one would believe them if they told. He adds that his gang, Damage, does not have an auxiliary girl gang. “We just play around by calling the girls who hang with us PODs,” he says. “Property of Damage.”
JIMMY YBARRA HAS LIVED HIS entire life at the Alazan Apache Courts and the Cassiano Homes, and he knows gang life intimately. A 33-year-old ex-convict and former heroin addict, Ybarra pledged his life to helping the kids in his neighborhood after he kicked his habit five years ago. He landed his first office job in 1990, as a community education specialist for the STEPS Project for high-risk substance abusers. He also supervises youth activities at the Alazan Apache Courts.
Ybarra spends much of his free time driving around the Courts keeping tabs on the teens, passing out condoms, encouraging kids to get free HIV tests at the clinic, and trying to persuade gang members to turn their lives around the way he did. “I hang out with them and try to calm them down when they want to fight or do a drive-by,” says Ybarra. “They laugh at me and tell me I’m old or a Jesus freak, but they don’t know that I’ve been through exactly what they have. It’s just that we used to use knives and bats—now they have guns.”
As Ybarra steers his Ford Escort through the West Side’s dark streets on a Friday night in August, he points out the abandoned house where he and his buddies used to shoot up heroin. The kids trust Ybarra and run up to the car to chat or say hello. “He’s always here to help us,” says Miracle, a fifteen-year-old former gang member, as she leans into the car. Ybarra has caught up with Miracle outside a teen dance sponsored by Inner City Development, a private organization devoted to helping kids. Still sweating and out of breath from dancing, Miracle squats on the curb and munches hungrily on a Snickers bar that Ybarra has handed her from a box on the back seat. The first two buttons of her jeans are undone to make way for her growing belly—she is five months’ pregnant.
In this world, the simple rituals of adolescence—going to a party, playing basketball—can turn deadly. Miracle’s boyfriend, who is the father of her baby and a gang member who lives at the Alazan Courts, just a few blocks away, did not attend the dance. “It’s too dangerous for him,” Miracle says. “There are a lot of other gangs here.”
Ybarra notices large groups of teenage boys walking around, looking drunk and surly. He talks Miracle and two girls from the Alazan Courts into accepting a ride home.
To Ybarra, the greatest tragedy of the gang wars is that Hispanics are killing other Hispanics. “These kids don’t remember the Chicano movement of the seventies,” he says. “They’ve never been taught the importance of La Raza, brother helping brother. When you don’t have any hope for the future, you fight among yourselves for what little you got. That’s what these kids think it takes to be a man. The gang is everything to them.
“Why should they work if welfare will provide them with everything they need just to lie around on their butts all day?” Ybarra says. “The way the system is set up has not really helped these people. It has hurt them in the long run.”
A few blocks from the Alazan Courts are the Cassiano Homes, known for the huge murals—colorful renditions of Aztec gods and modern-day heroes—painted by graffiti artists on the sides of the two-story buildings. One tells the story of twelve-year-old Jose Rodriguez, Jr., who was fatally shot in 1991 when he tried to quit a West Side gang. They boy had lived with his grandmother, who is depicted weeping beside his coffin.
One group of gangs under the Black Circle—including the LA Boyz and the West Side Posse—live at the Cassiano homes, the Billa Veramendi, and the San Juan Homes. But membership in the same alliance doesn’t preclude hostilities. In an effort to bring peace, the Good Samaritan Center, a community center adjacent to the Cassiano Homes, began a gang outreach program in the after-math of the much-publicized murder of the Rodriguez boy.
The program, called Youths-in-Conflict, is headed by three former gang members with master’s degrees in social work who hold weekly war councils with gang leaders from the three housing projects in an attempt to mediate differences. Mediation may include the time-honored tradition of a fair fight—one on one. “When we can convince the YICs to allow two individuals who have a disagreement to fight each other fair and square, rather than do drive-bys on each other, we’ve saved some lives,” explains Andy Hernandez, the director of the Good Samaritan Center.
On a broader scale, a coalition of San Antonio businesses, church leaders, and community activists held a gang summit last spring to try to get warring gang leaders to lay down their arms. It had only limited success: Four gang leaders from the West Side signed a peace pact, but they already got along. And the East Side gangs shunned the summit altogether.
The Good Samaritan Center serves as a neutral ground where gang members can get assistance with court cases and probation officers, tutoring, and even a job. “These kids have closed off so many options,” says Hernandez, 63. “When you have capped [shot] somebody, you have restricted yourself to staying with your gang in the area where they are strong. When these kids try to venture out somewhere on a city bus, they have to work out elaborate routes so they can stay out of another gang’s turf in order to stay alive.”
Police say violence in the area has decreased considerably over the past few months. “We have appealed to the leaders, who are extremely intelligent,” says Hernandez. “They are the surrogate parents for the gang members: They provide food and shelter; they protect them. A lot of gang members don’t live with their own families anymore in order to protect them from drive-bys.
“We show the leaders that there are alternatives to killing each other,” Hernandez says. “We take them out of a crowd where they feel they have to prove how tough they are and show them another way.”
Gang members who end up serving time in jail as adults often graduate to the toughest gang of all—the Mexican Mafia, or “La Eme,” a prison-based gang that controls drug sales in San Antonio. Joining the Mexican Mafia is equivalent to playing in the major leagues. Drive-bys become planned executions, and drug sales and racketeering replace auto theft and vandalism. Members are recruited in prison. Young street-gang members taking their first trip to the penitentiary often choose the hard-core gang lifestyle of the Mafia for the protection it offers in jail.
Usually, though, kids involved with gangs quit long before there is any temptation to join the Mafia. The fast life is not as alluring when they have children of their own to support. In May, Marky said he planned to quit gangs altogether.
“At middle school they had some counselors go over there and tell you what lie is and what jobs are good,” he said. “They talked about being a paramedic. That’s what I want to be. I know how a bullet is, and how it comes out. I’ve seen a lot of blood.” Since then, Marky has indeed quit Damage, he says, after falling out with its leader.
There are success stories of kids who have turned their lives around and left their days of drive-by shootings and stealing behind. In August the talk at the Alazan Courts was of a gang member who had joined the Marines. Jimmy Ybarra still fondly remembers the day a year ago when a lot of the Kings, one of the biggest gangs on the West Side, dropped their colors forever. “They just up and quit!” he says. “They said, ‘We are sick of it and we won’t do it anymore.’”
Many of the ids who are involved with gangs do not fit the profile of thuggish troublemakers who don’t have the brains or patience to make it in school. They can be the bright, popular kids or members of the football team. One eighteen-year-old former Kings member says he was an honor student and a junior varsity football and basketball player at Tafolla Middle School when he joined the gang his childhood friends belonged to. His life changed for the worse. “I got kicked out of school for fighting, and they sent me to Jefferson High School. Then they kicked me out over there because they thought I was the leader of the Kings there,” he says. “Every day in high school we skipped school, watched a movie, and got stoned. Now I realize I messed up.
“All the Kings stopped because we got kids now,” he says. “I don’t want to be a bum. It’s like a cycle. We get older and we grow out of it, but then our little brothers and cousins grow into it. I wish it were over, you know? It’s not worth it.”
On a sunny afternoon, Ybarra watches the kids playing basketball at the Alazan Apache Courts. As he lights a cigarette, he notices one fifteen-year-old get in the face of another and punch him in the head three times. Ybarra jogs over to break up the fight and learns that the kid who was taking the punches had been accused by two seven-year-old boys of touching their crotches while playing. The youth meting out the punishment is an uncle of one of the little boys—and an ND gang member. The wounded teenager walks off the court without a word, and the play continues.
Ybarra looks on as gang members share the basketball with younger kids, making lay-ups and fighting for rebounds. He watches the ND grab the ball and shoot. The little boys also watch him and move closer, mimicking his style.