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