South Side Story

Andrew Wainer

It was a quiet Friday night.

Deep green lawns, well-lighted streets and tidy homes added to the sense

of normalcy on Keelson Street in the Oak View community.

It seemed unlikely turf for Huntington Beach's largest and oldest street

gang.

Slowly cruising through the neighborhood in an unmarked Chevrolet, Gary

Faust and Mark Garcia, Huntington Beach Police Gang Unit detectives,

encountered little gang activity during their nighttime patrol of the

community that hardly covers more than half of a square mile. But they

know the placid appearance can be deceiving.

"We're in a lull," they said.

Faust stressed that violence among the city's most powerful Latino street

gang -- South Side Huntington Beach -- comes in waves.

"Most of their leaders are in jail," Faust said. "But we still stay on

top of them to try to keep them from growing."

VIOLENCE HAS SUBSIDED

The drop in violence in the Oak View community is recent -- about six

months old.

The two veteran officers said the quiet is the result of a major law

enforcement crackdown in July, after two gang-related killings occurred

in Oak View within 24 hours.

"That's where he was killed," Faust said, pointing from the undercover

patrol car to a home where one of South Side's members was killed by a

rival gang member from Santa Ana. "There was a shrine with flowers and

candles before, but I guess they forgot about him."

The two killings within 17 hours -- and four streets -- of one another

drew a swift and crippling reaction from local police departments.

A multi-agency operation using 80 officers arrested four suspects,

confiscated five firearms and put South Side's leadership in jail. Only

after that massive operation has the neighborhood calmed down, the pair

said.

The department's two foot patrol teams that cover the Oak View area and

aggressive gang intervention have kept activity low since the killings,

Faust said.

"Old South Sider's used to go to other neighborhoods and shoot it up,"

foot patrol Officer Art Preece said after meeting up with Garcia and

Faust at the Slater substation Friday night.

Not so anymore, Preece said.

"We're all over these guys [the gang]," he said.

There have been no South Side homicides since the police summer

crackdown. But that doesn't mean the gang -- made up of 30 to 50 members

-- doesn't still exist. Faust said assault, theft and drug sales are the

three most common South Side crimes. He said officers are engaged in foot

pursuits in the Oak View community "on a daily basis."

And sometimes things get violent.

"Officers have been shot at three times in the last five years," Faust

added.

FACES OF SOUTH SIDE

On Friday, as is typical on weekend patrol, Garcia and Faust confronted

six members sitting on a graffiti-covered brick wall in Koledo Park, in

the heart of the Oak View community.

They seemed innocent enough -- all were minors sitting quietly, talking.

But as Garcia and Faust frisked the shaved-headed youths, Preece ticked

off their not-so-innocent criminal histories.

"This guy was sent to juvenile hall for theft and possession of cocaine,"

Preece said of one, then moved on to his neighbor. "This one was in for

assault."

Four of the youths were taken to the department's nearby substation for

violation of probation. Under state law, individuals who are linked to a

gang and on probation are not allowed to associate with other gang

members for the duration of their probation.

Simply being together was enough for the gang unit to haul the teens to

the station and write them up.

The officers said holding South Siders to gang terms has been a key

weapon in suppressing the group's activities. But Preece said it takes a

constant and watchful eye -- it takes 15 to 20 gang term violations to

send a youth back to juvenile hall. Still, he said, it is this type of

aggressive enforcement that keeps the gang from exploding into the type

of violence experienced last summer.

Although the South Siders seemed unmoved by their detention and citation,

the officers said the tactic let the gang know they are being watched.

"If we didn't do this, they would run amok," Preece said.

And it may even deter kids from joining.

"We keep their membership down," he said. "Kids tell us they don't want

to hang out with South Side because they don't want to be harassed by the

police."

But back at the substation, while the officers were filling out the

paperwork, the youths seemed determined not to let their gang terms keep

them apart.

"I know I'll get in trouble, but I'm not going to stop doing it," said

one 16-year-old South Sider, "Orlando," who is on probation for theft.

"We weren't doing anything bad. We were just hanging out."

Orlando -- whose name, along with other gang members' names, has been

changed in this story because he is a juvenile -- said he is proud to be

a South Sider because "we're the only gang around." But he also

acknowledged, as did all the young men, that their lifestyle was

upsetting for their parents.

"My parents get sad and frustrated with me," confessed Orlando, who said

he was born in Mexico City.

The youths were fatalistic about their future.

They said they knew gang lifestyle is taking them nowhere -- with the

constant encounters with police, arrests and jail. But they didn't want

to change.

"My parents tell me to stay out of trouble, but I don't listen," said

16-year-old "Mario." "It's just the way I am."

Even the threat of landing in juvenile hall doesn't scare him.

"Even if I go back to jail, I'm going to kick it with my friends," said

Mario, who was arrested for selling cocaine.

GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE

In spite of the department's successful suppression program, the gang

unit officers admit they don't expect to eliminate South Side.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," Faust said.

Garcia agreed.

"We can contain them, but not eliminate them," he said.

Garcia cited the early 1990s, before the Oak View foot patrols, when

South Side was "out of control" as an example of what can happen if

enforcement becomes lax. Gang Unit supervisor Sgt. Mike Reynolds said

South Side was even courted by the powerful Mexican Mafia prison gang at

one point during this time.

But officers agree that today, South Side is a shadow of its former self.

Only the continuing influx of poor immigrants, coupled with inhumane

living conditions, keep it going at all, they said.

"Some of these apartments have 15 people living in them," Faust said. "If

you live there, you're not going to want to be with your family all the

time. Kids end up spending time on the streets and creating a new

family."

And, Garcia said, many of the youths come from broken homes.

Faust said that traditionally, immigrants have formed gangs to protect

themselves against a hostile society.

"They view themselves as soldiers protecting the neighborhood," Faust

said. "But unfortunately, South Side preys mostly on its own community."

And Faust said the gang enjoys little community support.

"The average citizen welcomes our presence in the community," said Faust,

adding that the department has an anonymous tip line so residents can let

officers know what the South Side gang is up to.

BELONGING MEANS YOU'RE SOMEBODY

Gang graffiti is another headache for the neighborhood.

Faust and Garcia pointed out sites throughout the area where South Side

had tagged a building, trash bin or sidewalk.

"The city comes in and paints over it," Faust said. "But they just tag it

again."

Despite the paltry neighborhood support for South Side, several of the

young men detained Friday night said they feel a sense of belonging and

pride. And they said that's why they joined South Side.

"Belonging to a gang means that you're somebody," Mario said. "There's

pride in being a South Sider. We're representing the neighborhood."

The Gang Unit officers said the psychological costs of immigrating

between two vastly different cultures can also influence individuals to

seek out a gang lifestyle.

"Most of these kids are the children of recent immigrants," Faust said.

Faust said some gang members come from traditional families from rural

Mexico.

"They get to America, and they don't want to live by the old rules,"

Faust said. "They want to live in the fast lane."

He said that South Siders range in age from 13 to 25.

Many of South Side's most common offenses are money-oriented: drug sales

and theft.

"Their primary activity is selling drugs and stealing cars," Faust said.

"You've got curbside drug service here [in Oak View]. People come from as

far away as Fountain Valley to purchase drugs."

SHOWING THEM A WAY OUT

Paul Castillo, a gang specialist with Community Service Programs Inc.,

cited economic and cultural reasons for the gang's persistence.

"Kids see the gang as a way out," Castillo said. "But by joining the

gang, it ties them even more to the community. These kids don't see any

other possibility for advancement."

Castillo works with at-risk youth, offering museum trips, soccer leagues

and a bike club to get kids focused on positive activities instead of

gangs.

He hopes the kids he works with won't have any dealings with Faust and

Garcia. The two officers would like that, too.

Although they enjoy working on the gang unit because of its range of

responsibilities, it also tires them out.

"We see some of the worst things," Garcia said. "It wears you out."

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