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Families Return to Replace Gangs at a San Fernando Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Little kids and their parents seemed to be the winners over the weekend in the ongoing conflict between police and two rival gangs over Las Palmas Park in San Fernando.

“Look at all those kids, all those families--you never used to see that here,” said Detective Mike Langston of the San Fernando police as he pointed to about two dozen children who played Saturday on a recently constructed playground. “That was gang turf--too dangerous for the little ones.”

Langston and his partner, Officer Lance Steaman, found no gang members inside the park Saturday as they began enforcing a new ban on gang members there. But they found plenty nearby.

Police, families who live nearby and even some gang members agreed that the small park at Huntington and Hollister streets on San Fernando’s west side is safer.

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“We never used to bring our kids here. It used to be too dangerous even in daytime,” said Samuel Martinez as he and his wife watched their two small daughters play Sunday afternoon. Gang members “never bothered me before, but they carry guns and we don’t want to be around that.”

But several gang members said that although the ban may keep them out of the park, it does little to solve the problems of gang-related crime and violence that plagues the area.

“It’s a dumb law. Gang members will still pass around the park. Stuff will still happen--it’ll just move to the street,” said gang member Martin Gonzalez, 22, as he sat on a street corner near the park with several friends. “We don’t go there no more. But really, nothing will change.”

The new ordinance, passed Sept. 18 by the San Fernando City Council, gives police a powerful new tool in reducing gang activity in the park, which has been the battleground for two rival gangs for the last year. They are the Shakin’ Cats, a newer gang made up mainly of immigrants, and the San Fers, a gang of mainly American-born Latinos that has been active for 30 years, police said.

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The ban, which has attracted attention from other cities having similar problems, has come under fire from civil libertarians, who questioned its constitutionality. It and the increased police presence stem from a July 3 incident in which Enriqueta Duran and her three small children were wounded by shotgun pellets in gang cross-fire.

On Saturday, police cruised San Fernando streets, serving notice to individual gang members that they were banned from the park. Officers presented each gang member with a document saying he has been designated as an “active member” of a street gang under the state’s Street Terrorism and Prevention Act.

Gang members are formally classified under STEP based on their criminal records, associates, street names, tattoos and other signs of gang involvement, Steaman said.

“We’re not trying to arrest them, we’re just trying to keep them and their trouble out of here,” Steaman said. “The only ones we’ll kick out are the ones who have claimed gang membership.”

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In a town the size of San Fernando--only 2 1/2 square miles--police know many gang members by their first names.

“I’m not going to sign this,” said Danny Chavez, 21, as he held up a STEP document presented to him by Steaman.

“You don’t have to sign it--just read it and stay out of trouble,” the officer told Chavez.

“I’m not in a gang anymore. . . . I’m just hanging out with my homeboys,” Chavez said, gesturing to his friends. “What’s wrong with that?”

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Chavez, Gonzalez and the others cast defiant poses and used tough talk when asked about the park.

But some former gang members , veterans of gang wars of years past, said they would like to see the current battle cool off and even conceded the police crackdown might help.

“All these guns--it’s too crazy now. I used to claim San Fer, pero no mas . I’m too old for this,” said Pedro Martinez, 28, who has “San” tattooed on his left shoulder and “Fer” tattooed on the right one. “I got a wife and kids. I don’t need this stuff. Nobody wants to see all these killings.”

But he also cautioned that it was unlikely things would change soon. “These Shakin’ Cats don’t respect us-- es muy malo . There will be problems.”

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While applauding the police for cleaning up the park, Samuel Martinez, who is not related to Pedro Martinez, agreed that the neighborhood’s gang woes were far from over. The Salvadoran native said that he saw several armed men run past his Hubbard Street apartment Saturday night.

“San Fernando is a tough place but it’s OK,” Martinez said, putting his arm around his wife, Gina. He quickly added in Spanish, “It’s not El Salvador.”


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