Broken Truce : Escalating Violence Has Followed End of South County Gangs’ Pact
“Two guys down. Two to zero. We’re behind man, we’re losing. “
--Gustavo Carrillo, 25, an acknowledged member of San Clemente’s Varrio Chico gang.
Greg Bass was walking down the street with his 3-year-old son, Dakota, when fire trucks and police cars went screaming past them. He thought they were speeding to a car accident.
But minutes later, Bass came upon the true emergency: Jose Zarate Chavez, 18, lay shot and dying in the middle of a downtown intersection right in front of the automated teller machine that Bass frequents.
“It began to sink in that there was a gang problem in our neighborhood,” said Bass, a 30-year-old advertising copy writer who moved here two years ago from Austin, Tex., with his wife and son. “In a deeper way, it meant that we had just missed getting shot at.”
Chavez’s death in September was only the third gang homicide in the city’s 67-year history. Yet the killing, and half a dozen other drive-by assaults that have left a trail of wounded youths, confirm that a fragile truce has ended between historically rival gangs in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano.
“We’re all asking, what’s going to happen next?” said a South County deputy sheriff, who asked that his name not be used.
Compared to other areas in Orange County, such as Santa Ana, where 43 gang homicides have been reported so far this year, the gang problem down here seems minimal.
But the slaying of Chavez is tragic in its own right. It symbolizes the almost hopeless violence that has gone on for decades between the two South County gangs. And it threatens to undermine the peace and tranquillity of residents who are worried that urban-style gang warfare has reached their part of the county.
The truce, in force two years ago, was part of a countywide push by the United Gang Council to end drive-by incidents. But for South County gang members, it was shaky from the start because there was no punishment for gang members who ignored it.
Further, the cease-fire lost momentum when Art Romo, one of the truce’s architects, was arrested for narcotics and money laundering by Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Then another key organizer, Bobby Flores, lost his life to cancer. Efforts to preserve the treaty also suffered when several influential gang leaders died in gang-related violence.
“It was working, but only for a while,” lamented Dr. Thomas Shaver, head of the trauma ward at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo.
The truce dramatically unraveled when a group of Dana Point Latinos was allegedly confronted by San Clemente Varrio Chico (Little Neighborhood) members and then jumped after words were exchanged about each other’s turf in late 1994.
The rhetoric escalated last February, when Abel Diaz, a Varrio Chico gang member, was beaten and then shot in San Clemente, said sheriff’s deputies.
After Diaz was wounded, another Varrio Chico gang member was beaten. Members of Varrio Chico allegedly retaliated March 31 by firing at a group of youths on La Zanja and Los Rios streets, a favorite Varrio Viejo (Old Neighborhood, sometimes referred to as Old Town) hangout. Two San Juan gang members were hit by automatic rifle fire.
Pay-back was swift. Two men and a 14-year-old boy were shot in the back a month later while they walked down a San Clemente street at night. Santos Martinez, 21, a Mexican immigrant from San Clemente who was associated with Varrio Chico but was not a gang member, was paralyzed from the waist down.
Tempers had flared to the point that a Mexican immigrant with no gang affiliation was jumped and stabbed 21 times when he drove his car up a driveway on West Escalones in Varrio Chico turf. He survived the attack.
Then, Chavez was shot.
Chavez was a big, beefy kid known as “King Kong” and “Big Jose” to his homies. He had been working the drive-through window at a local restaurant and was trying to earn enough money to buy a car.
Instead, he was shot sitting behind the wheel of a car in San Clemente’s downtown business section Sept. 11. Sheriff’s deputies believe San Juan gang members are behind the killing.
“You know, if I was younger, like 16 or 17, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be in jail for what I want to do to those [Varrio Viejo] guys,” Gustavo Carrillo said.
Two guys down . . .
The first Varrio Chico member to die was Roman Calvillo, 26, who was shot Nov. 18, 1990, outside a Chinese restaurant after a night of taunting by rival San Juan gang members.
Calvillo and his older brothers were among the older generation that weaned peewees such as Carrillo into the gang lifestyle. Carrillo recalls that it was Calvillo who used to take him cruising around San Clemente in his car and also drove him to Santa Ana, where Carrillo bought his first pair of baggy, khaki trousers.
The earlier days were more peaceful. Turf battles between the two groups were settled without lethal violence.
“I was thinking the other day that we used to settle our differences with fist fights,” Carrillo said. “That wouldn’t happen today. They just get out of their cars and it’s ‘watch for the bullets.’ ”
Police and educators agree.
“It’s changed from just 10 years ago,” said Tom Anthony, Capistrano Valley Unified School District associate superintendent. “In the mid-'80s, there was more fighting to settle disputes. But in the last five years, it’s gotten more violent with use of firearms.”
Sheriff’s Lt. Tom Davis, chief of police services in San Clemente, views the recent confrontations as evidence of widespread youth violence.
“The youth of today cannot be told by their parents, ‘Hey dad, I had a run-in today with so and so,’ and expect their dad to say, ‘Son, I want you to go out there and settle it man to man.’ You can’t send your son outside like that anymore. It’s become too dangerous.”
Nick Albrecht, a 33-year-old carpenter in San Clemente, is angry at residents who prefer “shutting themselves in and shutting their doors” to the community’s gang problem.
“The Ola Vista shooting outrages me,” Albrecht said. “I guess part of my concern is it’s not so much that the last shooting was so close to my home, but that it’s tolerated.”
Both Davis and Sheriff’s Lt. Paul Sullivan, chief of police services in San Juan Capistrano, said their communities are committed to zero tolerance for street gangs.
To combat rising gang violence, the lieutenants have stepped up patrols and pushed for tougher court-ordered restrictions that prohibit convicted gang members from being in the company of other gang members.
They also have approved gang prevention programs in public schools, as part of a long-term educational approach.
“We’ve been hoping to just break through that young group of kids and give them positive direction,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Russell Moore, “but we’re already seeing the young parents who are getting their own kids and those kids are already wearing gang attire.”
In earlier years, many Mexican and Mexican American families in both cities socialized. For example, Carrillo’s father, Jose Sr., 55, moved to San Clemente more than 30 years ago and started a gardening business.
Then, Latinos often got together at someone’s home to have barbecues, drink beer and sing old rancheras.
With each new son or daughter, Jose Sr. would pick a compadre (godparent) from his friends in San Juan Capistrano. In turn, he often would be selected as a compadre to one of their children.
But now, Jose Sr. is given cold stares and a hard time by the children of his old friends, children who have come to hate the Carrillo clan and its strong ties to Varrio Chico.
Both neighborhoods are separated by only a few miles. Yet, cousins are pitted against cousins by gang hatred because they happen to live in another city and on different turf.
Exactly how and when the rivalry started, no one is positive. Veteran police officers and former gang members believe it was a combination of events and not one specific incident.
Older former gang members point to a fight over a woman. Others just hunch their shoulders and say: “It’s always been this way.”