After a spurt of gang-related violence in April and May, and the high-profile court-levied injunctions against several of San Diego's more active gang members, the local media went into a mild frenzy. Here, in a two-part series, CityBeat's Shane Liddick takes a look at gang activity in "America's Finest City." Part 1 pulls a street-level view of San Diego's gang scene by focusing on two documented gang members; it also lays out an overview of the multi-tiered effort that state and federal agencies have enacted to curb the violence. Part 2, which will run in our Aug. 25 issue, uses personal stories to look at the social and economic factors that have shaped the American gang phenomenon through two centuries.
Everyday legends are born and young men die on the streets of inner-city America. Those who survive gain wisdom, but even wisdom offers little in the way of answers. For now, it's the fall of 1993 and Shannon White knows the bliss of the uninitiated.
This is before everything else, the mixed bag of ugliness and experience that comes with life on the streets. Before his brother hangs himself in the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility; before Shannon earns five years for himself in a state prison in Blythe; before he punches a man in the face so hard that doctors say he should have died. It's several years before he copes with the death of his wife-the only woman he's ever loved-from within the uniquely hellish impotence of incarceration. In 1993 Shannon White is America's nightmare: he's young, black and he doesn't give a fuck.
The youngest of six kids, he's spoiled rotten. He has a career Navy man for a father and a brother already in the joint. His folks ride his ass, but it's OK-by 1993 Shannon Bo (as they call him in the neighborhood) has found a sideline that might get him out of the house. Rock cocaine sales have bought him a car, clothes and potential freedom from his old man's harping-all the things the construction job can't quite pay for. Manual labor isn't easy, but Shannon Bo's not afraid of work. It's the pay he's worried about, and when it comes to money, swinging a hammer doesn't compare to slinging rocks.
He's a businessman now, and for any businessman sales are his lifeblood. Pound the pavement, hit the streets-market your wares. What he doesn't realize is there's a hunt on, and he's the prey. Inside shiny glass-paned buildings in suburban commercial parks, white men in dress slacks trade pictures and drop names. They climb into unmarked cars and drive into the hunting grounds-America's urban centers-segregated zones with concentrations of minorities and the poor.
By 1994, the hunting is good. San Diego's crack-fueled murder rate is coming off its highest mark ever. The FBI's multi-agency Gang Task Force has targeted White-a high school dropout living with his parents-in an undercover operation. They will send one of his friends to betray him in a $70 drug deal that will lead, months later, to a grand jury indictment. A self-proclaimed rap artist with an easy smile and an impulsive temper, White holds a day job that can't put rims on his new ride. At 21, he's already a long-gone daddy in the U.S.A.
In the Skyline neighborhood, Blood's the family and Piru's the set. White's never been initiated into a gang, but every friend he grew up with is Piru-call him what you want, he's says he's just a kid from down the block. On the fifth day of May in 1994, the sun's fading fast and he's carrying. Five rocks and a gat-the street equalizer-a .38 a friend gave him for protection. He wears a black jacket and flies no colors; his hair's clipped tight.
He's at the Skyline Rec Center when the cops roll up. White runs. The chase takes him through residential housing and onto public school grounds. He tosses his jacket onto a low-lying roof, to no avail. He's eventually caught, and after the jacket's recovered, he's booked. Another Clinton-era case of crack and black, with a gun, White finds himself staring down the barrel of a 10-year stretch.
His court-appointed attorney writes to a California superior court judge that "Mr. White was timid about describing what life is like in his neighborhood... [and] while he realizes that Joe and John from next door that he grew up with and went to school with are considered fellow gang members,' he thinks of them as his friends from many years back.... [He] is mindful of the danger associated with carrying a loaded firearm. He used bad judgment after the death of a close friend who was shot. Recently, in early July, Mr. White was walking home at approximately 8:00 p.m. and was jumped by a stranger who stole items from his person. In the process, Mr. White's teeth got knocked around, and he had a slit over his left eye. This incident occurred on the very street that he grew up on and still lives at.... Mr. White is at a turning point. Throwing in the towel on this young life for his grave mistake will only lessen his opportunity to be an upstanding member of the community."
Shannon Bo takes three years of a strict probation sentence stipulating that he's not to be in the presence of other known gang members, within two blocks of the Skyline Rec Center or wearing Piru colors. He's released from custody on Nov. 13, 1995.
One month later, he's part of a group of black males talking with another documented Piru member, near the Skyline Rec Center. The police appear, and, again, he runs. The cops catch him in a neighborhood yard-the owner of the house has not given him permission to be there. Charged with trespassing, he's broken probation in three different ways.
The court has had enough, and Shannon Dewayne White cops to a five-year plea. It's 1995 and, hard-pressed with the reality of five long years and prison rape, he's starting to give a fuck. He's 22 years old.
Bad as he is, with the physique of a pit-bull and a hair-trigger temper, Shannon Bo isn't even a scary dream in the shadow of David Barron. "El CH," as he's known in gang circles, is a product of Barrio Logan. He's also a distinguished graduate of the criminal world's higher education system-state prison.
Barron's an American success story and a bi-national pain in the ass. In a criminal career that started out poor and rough on the meaner streets of San Diego and Tijuana, Barron pushed his way into the farm leagues-the Calle Treinta gang of Barrio Logan-before being picked up to go into the Big Show. By the late 1980s, as inner cities around the nation were reeling from the sudden and violent epidemic of crack cocaine, Barron was associating with the Arellano-Felix Cartel. Sharply honed instincts, his street senses and a savage disregard for taking human life made him Ramon Arellano-Felix's No. 1 bodyguard. Reckless Ramon, killed in a 2002 police shoot-out, was the most unconscionable player in the most violent cartel in the world's busiest drug corridor. The clubs of Tijuana were Arellano-Felix's playground, and David Barron was perhaps the only man who could match his subtly crafted tapestry of caprice and brutality.
In the clean-cut corporate atmosphere of the DEA, agents are generally white (but increasingly Hispanic), educated and middle class. Agents carry a haughty disdain for their targets, with hints of class-based repugnance, yet San Diego's DEA spokesperson, Misha Piastro, talks of Barron with a begrudging respect. The implications that the man was a sociopath are clear enough. But it's also clear he was a world-class hit man, an extremely proficient killer.
"A lot of these guys on the street are a lot of talk," Piastro says. "But this guy [Barron], he was for real. He was truly dangerous."
Piastro's office is small and tidy. After years policing the streets and high-level, undercover dealing in places like Southeast San Diego, he's still acclimating to the indoors and to PR duties that generate far less adrenaline. He pops in a CD and pictures of cholos-Hispanic gang members-dance across the computer screen. They look proud and happy-intimidating in the manner of groups of men in their late teens and early 20s.
This is the way it happens, Piastro says, pointing to a gaggle of gangsters who don't know they're being photographed. They stand silently in front of a graffiti-littered market with no apparent purpose.
"Knucklehead, knucklehead, knucklehead," he starts down the row. "These aren't hardcore guys, they're followers. Knucklehead, knucklehead, knucklehead-then there's this guy."
He points to an older man who stands in the center of the disorganized non-activity.
"This guy's one of the leaders-he's an older guy. He's what they call an OG [original gangster]," Piastro says. "In most of these smaller groups, there are only a few hardcore guys, guys who've been to prison, guys who are violent."
The pictures whirl away in a kaleidoscope of gang tattoos, menacing stares and Chicano Park visages. And then there he is, resting peacefully against a brick parapet at a four-way stop in a residential neighborhood in Tijuana-there is David Barron.
In his book The Cartel: The Arellano-Felix: The Most Powerful Mafia in the History of Latin America , Jesus J. Blancornelas, the hard-hitting founding co-editor of the Tijuana weekly ZETA, describes a distinguishing incident in Barron's career, a famous 1992 shootout in Puerta Vallarta's Christine nightclub.
As Blancornelas tells it, Ramon Arellano-Felix, well known in Mexican club circles, rolled into the nightspot with his entourage. In addition to his personal bodyguards, he was escorted by a retinue of paid-off Baja California policemen. The club date was originally set as a rendezvous between Ramon, his brother-cartel leader Benjamin-and another major drug trafficker. Benjamin opted out of the high-level get-together when the other kingpin cancelled, ostensibly for business reasons. What nobody knew was that the meeting was set up as an ambush-the other kingpin was determined to assassinate Ramon.
Barron was armed when they entered, as was every man in his team; he carried a 12-gauge shotgun under his jacket. When a group of men entered-the unrecognized security force of the other Mafioso-Barron unwittingly taunted them with insults. Instinct or a street-imbued sixth sense took root, however, and he sensed something was amiss. Without provocation or a seeming reason, he ordered Ramon into the bathroom. Then he turned, blasted and, as Blancornelas describes it, sent two men to meet their creator.
The shots set the ambush into motion and a full-bore gunfight broke out. Several Baja policemen fell immediately. Barron made his way to the bathroom, where several others were kicking out a grating to escape. One of the perpetrators reached them and took a bead on Ramon in the bathroom. They guy hesitated, but Barron didn't. Half a dozen men died in the incident, while Ramon Arellano-Felix left without a scratch. Barron, 12-gauge in hand, walked away on the cusp of myth and legend.
And now here he is on a DEA computer screen, resting on that parapet, bundled in a neoprene jacket. The bulletproof vest-standard cartel garb-is invisible beneath his pullover.
The scene is a requiem of quiet and stillness, save for dark blood spilling over the curb and pooling in the street. To the right side of the screen is the red Ford Explorer that carried Blancornelas and his bodyguard. It's riddled with 141 bullet holes-four of which found, but didn't kill, the editor. His friend and protector died instantly.
Fate's a fickle thing and nobody understands this better than Blancornelas. It looked for all the world like it would be him who died on that overcast day in 1997. Then, for some mysterious reason that only Barron and his finely tuned instincts could make sense of, an errant bullet from an AK-47 fired by one of his team ricocheted off the pavement and tore through Barron's brain, directly through the left eye.
But legends never die in Barrio Logan.
Everybody in the neighborhood knows about the cartel, the money and the power-the prestige. All people have an instinctual sense of pride, an atavistic desire to possess and be proud of what is possessed. "El CH" started from nothing and achieved power, fame and riches. He's been in the ground for seven years, and still his name is whispered with sideways glances and hushed voices.
Shannon White and David Barron are but two names etched onto the ledger of San Diego's gang-banger history. And though their radically different stories are symbolic of paths taken by many on the streets, White's story is far more common. National statistics show gang members to be overwhelmingly male (though female gangs and gang members are increasing), between the ages of 15 and 25 and unemployed. Gang-bangers who make it into the major leagues of organized crime are rare-which makes San Diego's gang story unique. The Arellano-Felix Organization (AFO) has, for more than a decade, relied on Barrio Logan as a dependable recruitment pool for assassins and kidnappers.
Gangs in San Diego have scattered to all parts, colors and creeds, says San Diego Police Department (SDPD) Assistant Chief Lou Scanlon. While a long tradition of Blood/Crip gang involvement transmigrated to San Diego decades ago in the black community-and Latino gangs are a part of the city's legacy-Scanlon points to a rising Asian gang presence, the existence of white-supremacist groups (particularly in East County) and even activity in the suburbs. Aided by the media, gangs have become ubiquitous.
There are nearly 5,000 documented gang members in San Diego affiliated with 86 identified gangs. Lt. Cesar Solis, the head of SDPD's 10-man gang-suppression unit, explains that to become "documented" in San Diego, a gang-banger has to meet at least three of nine federal criteria (federal guidelines require that at least two criteria be met). Those criteria include self-proclamation as a gang member, tattoos that declare allegiance, tagging offenses, being spotted by police with other documented members of a set and throwing gang signs.
A frenetic weekend at the beginning of April marked a spike on the homicide chart, a surge that exhausted itself in four week's time. It's part of the dramatic vicissitudes-quiet and bloody periods-that keep police spokespeople and the television news media busy. The factor of the unknown in those surges-when and where they'll come-is one of the greatest difficulties in combating modern street gangs. Because they're often comprised of small cliques that claim some sort of affiliation to a larger, loosely defined whole, gangs are ever-changing and reactionary.
"It would be much easier for us if [gangs] would hold elections and run things in an organized manner," says Max Regula, FBI agent in charge of the San Diego Gang Task Force.
Emblematic of the confusion, Shannon White has never considered himself part of a gang. When he ran the streets, he was an independent operator who maintained casual associations with a large number of Piru affiliates. They were also childhood friends. The tricky distinction between gang member and simple neighborhood youth is not only a cause of tension between law enforcement and minority neighborhoods, but it's also led to difficulties in assessing the true extent of the gang problem.
The classic schizophrenic dilemma of law enforcement comes to the fore.
"They have to demonstrate they're doing something-eliminating crime-while at the same time they have to prove danger exists, that they're still needed," says Stephen Lincoln, UCSD professor of sociology.
As a result, many of the criteria, guidelines and gang definitions established by law enforcement are sweeping and general-making statistics slippery and controversial, he adds.
Shannon White says his name has no place on an anti-gang court injunction. "I done my time. I don't have nothing to do with a gang no more," he says. "I'm a grown man, why do I want to be messing around with them kids? I'm just trying to get a job."
Law enforcement finds itself in a precarious spot, playing the center between a San Diego community that's increasingly unwilling to tolerate what it sees as senseless gang bloodshed, and a social-sciences sector that believes targeting and penalizing minorities and the poor serves only to exacerbate the factors that have contributed most heavily to the violence. Lincoln says sociologists in the past decade have concentrated on a dangerous and growing sense of alienation between minority communities and the law enforcement agencies representing the country's largely white power structure.
And gangs are decidedly the domain of the country's minority population. The Department of Justice's National Youth Gang Center estimates that in 2002, of the more than 21,000 gangs active in 2,300 U.S. cities-with a total membership of more than 731,500-49 percent were Hispanic/Latino, 34 percent were African-American, 10 percent were white and 6 percent Asian. It also cites gangs as an urban phenomenon with more than 90 percent of gang activity being reported in large cities. (In May, Los Angeles counted 48,382 documented gang members, of which 59 percent were Latino, 34 percent were Crip or Blood, 3 percent were Asian and 3 percent were white.)
In a four-year study of SDPD's Southeast Division-the city's most active gun-crime precinct-the Rand Corporation noted homicides were extremely concentrated spatially. The gangs responsible for the majority of the violence "appear to fight on their own turf, as well as to attack other gangs on their turf... in marked contrast to Los Angeles... where aggressive violence on all sides was the norm." It concluded that San Diego's Southeast Division "has a gun crime problem that appears to be synonymous with its gang problem."
On April 7, in Lincoln Park, the gun-crime problem exploded shortly after 9 p.m. Five people were wounded in two separate shootings in a 30-minute span. One incident occurred near the same Logan Avenue parking lot where, a year and a half ago, two innocent women were shot to death shortly after attending New Year's Eve church services. Then, on April 10, a carload of men opened fire on another group of men outside a party-an incident linked to gang activity. The following night, a 17-year-old was shot in the face in Mountain View, leaving him in critical condition. That case, too, was turned over to gang detectives. On Wednesday, April 14, a man was shot outside his home in a drive-by shooting, and two teenagers were shot after stabbing another teen in a gang fight.
On the weekend of April 25, all hell seemed to break loose on the streets of San Diego. A rash of four homicides makes a 30-hour period between Sunday and Monday one of the bloodiest reported in the city's history. Four people died, one death positively determined to be gang-related. All are handgun incidents. The Union-Tribune ran a story that projects the city to be far ahead of last year's death toll. The last paragraph reported that in a gang-linked incident, a man was shot twice in the head while in the parking lot of Denny's restaurant in Mission Valley.
Though public perception holds drugs to be a leading cause of gang violence, a series of studies by the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention concluded that the prevalence of handguns among gang youth is a far more likely culprit than drugs. The studies show drugs and violence to be parallel factors in the gang world with a strong common association, but no causal link.
Because of the loose structure of most youth gangs, drugs aren't sold in an organized manner. They're generally peddled independently on the street for personal income. Many violent gang members also sell drugs, but statistics show the factors-gang involvement, violence and drug sales-to be largely independent of each other. The studies highlight the increasing availability of handguns in the past decade.
"When I started on the force 30 years ago," Asst. Chief Scanlon says, "if an officer made an arrest and found a gun, it was the talk of the locker room for some time-it was a big deal. Today it's an everyday occurrence."
On Sunday, May 2, a week after one of the bloodiest spurts in San Diego's history, somebody lit up the Denny's parking lot in Mission Valley with a volley of five shots from a semi-automatic handgun. As people ran for cover, another volley of seven shots rang out. Police were on the scene almost immediately, but a carload of bandits-possibly two-made a clean getaway. Several people wounded, the incident was recorded as gang-related. News channels caught hold of the scent and days of panicked coverage ensued. Within a week, however, the surge burned itself out and the streets of San Diego went quiet.
Highlighted during the spurt was the fact that gang violence is predominately intra-racial; they're killing themselves. Most violence, especially homicide, takes place within the neighborhood, often within the same family of gangs. It's black-on-black, Latino-on-Latino. Gangs here rarely cross racial lines. When territorial lines are breached, on the other hand, retribution is inevitable.
The Rand study found that Southeast's homicides match national trends. Principal players are predominately male, black or Hispanic and 26 to 28 years old. A gun is used in 77 percent of the murders, the 9-mm handgun the weapon of choice. About half of both victims and perpetrators are known to be involved in gangs.
If the victim is in a gang, there's an 89 percent chance he'll be killed with a gun and a 50 percent chance the event will happen on a street or street corner. During the study's four-year period, the set Shannon White was affiliated with, the Skyline Piru-at war with another Blood gang, the Lincoln Park crew-was pinned with four murder raps and lost four members to homicide.
Of the 65 homicides reported in San Diego in 2003, a third were attributed to gang violence (gang homicides have accounted for a third of the city's murder rate for the past four years); 2003 showed a marked jump from the 48 homicides citywide in 2002. By comparison, Los Angeles reported 505 murders in 2003, New York 596 and Phoenix tallied 256. San Diego's homicide rate has been on a downward tilt since the elevated rates of the late 1980s and 1990s (it topped out in 1991 at three times the current rate). This year, the city is on track to repeat 2003's numbers.
For all the violence, San Diego is lucky-it's statistically one of the safest cities in the nation, with a minor gang problem.
"Is that just good luck?" Lt. Solis asks. "Or are we doing our job, or is there some other factor we're not considering? It's probably a combination of all three. But I really believe the programs we've implemented have been effective, particularly where gang violence is concerned."
Those programs-offensive approaches to gang management-include a responsive gang suppression unit and court-ordered injunctions. In a bilateral move, the SDPD, in conjunction with both the district attorney's office and the city attorney's office, has enacted more than a dozen court injunctions against high-activity gangs since 1997. An injunction against a Blood faction of Lincoln Park was updated in early April; another, naming Shannon Bo and 85 other purported Piru members, was put into effect April 17.
The injunctions target what police deem high-profile gang members, prohibiting them from congregating in certain areas, wearing set colors and consorting with other gang members. The order not only limits targeted individuals from planning and coercing younger members, it also gives police enhanced power over them.
White and a number of others listed on the injunctions claim they are being unfairly targeted; they question the process used to arrive at the final list. Solis says the measures have worked so far-when the court orders have been enacted, problem areas go quiet.
In addition to the court orders, the SDPD has turned its gang unit into a flexible and reactionary force. Commanders predict where trouble is likely to occur and flood those areas with police officers. The unit's four patrols are constantly re-assigned jurisdiction as new anticipated hotspots are diagnosed.
And gang suppression doesn't end with the frontlines of the SDPD. Behind them is heavy federal funding through agencies dedicated to the longer-term investigation of organized gang activity-FBI, DEA, ICE (Immigration and Customs Service). The federal assistance is crucial, the DEA's Piastro says, because local police often don't have the time or financial budgets to dedicate to prolonged investigative operations.
The San Diego office of the DEA runs an 11-agent gang unit that responds to requests by local authorities. When a local jurisdiction identifies a gang-related drug problem, a written request is submitted to the DEA for assistance. The San Diego office establishes a plan and a timetable-usually about 120 days-and dedicates the entire team to 24-hour undercover operations in the identified area.
The FBI, on the other hand, targets gang enterprises. They identify and bring legal action to gangs or gang components that are deriving wealth and power from illicit activity. The FBI's Regula says that during the past two decades, gang violence, perceived as an increasing societal threat, has been a growing FBI focus.
With many hundreds of years of police work between them, all the heads of the San Diego agencies fighting gang violence have precious few answers. Gangs have always been a part of the American landscape, and it's a safe bet they always will be.
Though he's a shade wiser, when asked about answers-Why did he play the game? Was it the money, the lifestyle, the prestige?-Shannon White shrugs his shoulders. It was all those things, he says. And it was bigger than a simple decision. Everybody he grew up with was Piru-what a coincidence that the Pop Warner football team wore their colors.
"It was like a fad," White says, standing in his parents' front yard. "Remember BMX bikes, and skateboards? I had a BMX bike. I rapped. I did all that. And it [street life] was like that. It was something I went through."