PART III: Youth and Street Violence
In a city that prides itself on its diversity, the Pico Neighborhood remains a world apart. In a special three-part series The Lookout explores the physical and psychological boundaries that separate Santa Monica’s poorest neighborhood and the crime that often plagues its youth.
By Blair Clarkson and Olin Ericksen
December 7 -- Like other young men in the Pico Neighborhood who have joined a gang, Albert Ruiz is guarded when he talks about his past. He uses an assumed name and doesn’t identify the gang he joined when he was 15 years old.
But listen to Ruiz, and his words reveal the frustration that leads some youngsters in the City’s poorest neighborhood to join a gang. In Ruiz’s case, its was peer pressure and the need for protection.
“That was the thing to do then,” said Ruiz, who is now 21. “I thought, ‘I’m f---ed if I do and I’m f---ed if I don’t.’ I felt safer joining the gang.”
It is unclear how many gang members reside in the Pico Neighborhood, which claims the highest concentration of young people in the city, according to the latest census data.
Police officials blame the violent crime that has plagued the neighborhood on a small number of repeat offenders, and past incidents show that some of the violent acts involve gang members from outside Santa Monica.
While estimates among officials and residents vary, four to five rival gangs are thought to be operating on the Westside, including the Culver City Boyz, the Venice 13 and the Santa Monicas.
“All the poor neighborhoods have gangs,” said Oscar de la Torre, a School Board member who runs the Pico Youth and Family Center. “There isn’t a greater example of people being oppressed then when their children start killing each other.”
But de la Torre is reluctant to say how many teenagers and young adults in the Pico Neighborhood have joined gangs or to identify the gangs, saying he is worried media attention could perpetuate the problem.
“It depends on what your definition of what a gang is,” he said. “The police are going to tell you there's one gang in Santa Monica and its members are from 17th street. How many gang members do you find on that street? Zero is what I'd say, because of the stigma attached with the word 'gangs.'
"Many of the people involved in the violence are not from the Pico Neighborhood, although violence is concentrated in the Pico neighborhood,” de la Tore said. “Many of the people doing the shooting are not from Santa Monica."
Whatever the source of the violence that led to 22 deaths on Pico Neighborhood streets between 1989 and 1998, gang-related crime is on the decline, according to police records. (De la Torre places the number of deaths at 29.)
Between 1996 and 2002 gang-related crimes dropped from 159 to 56, a 66 percent decline, police records show. In the last five years, such incidents fell 29 percent.
Increased visibility of officers in schools and on the streets, undercover drug sweeps, added support services and stricter parole enforcement have helped stem the tide of gang activity, according to Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr.
“We’ve devoted an incredible amount of police resources to attempt to preempt crimes of violence,” Butts said. “We’re much better off today than we were ten years ago.”
These figures, though, may not tell the whole story.
The police have difficulty classifying gang-related crimes because suspects don’t readily admit to being in gangs, and often witnesses and victims are hesitant to come forward for fear of retribution.
Shirley Joseph, whose son Jalonnie Carter was gunned down in a Pico alley in September 2003, believes her son’s murder remains unsolved because residents are scared to talk to police.
“Somebody knows something,” she said after the City Council authorized a $25,000 reward for information in April. “But they’re not telling because they’re afraid. A lot of parents are not speaking up.”
Peter Tigler, a former Pico Neighborhood Association board member who has lived in the area since the late 70s, feels the community itself is concealing much of the problem.
“A lot of people are very protective and defensive over the violence,” he said. “Whenever there are victims, they don’t talk.
“You would think the parents would shake it out of their kid what was going down,” Tigler said, “but I don’t see that here. There’s a defensiveness from the parents and a defensiveness from the community to look at somebody else as the enemy and not look at themselves as the perpetrators of the crime.”
Yet despite a reluctance to monitor itself, Tigler still believes conditions in the neighborhood have improved in recent years.
“Over the time that I’ve been here, things have gotten better, not worse,” he said. “I think the police have been doing a pretty good job, or the best they can.”
Yet while police statistics show a steadily falling crime rate in the Pico Neighborhood, not everyone agrees that the increased police presence and stepped-up prevention methods have made life any easier for kids on the streets.
“It’s hard to grow up like that,” said Ruiz. “Kids are scared to walk down the street because police assume they’re making trouble.”
“You’re in a constant state of fear,” added David, a Pico youth who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s so deep now that the sight of a police officer strikes fear in me, even though I’m not doing anything wrong.
“I don’t think making themselves so visible really prevents crime,” he said of the officers stationed at schools and throughout his neighborhood. “Mainly what it does is make you feel patrolled.”
As the share of officers watching over the neighborhood has risen over the years, so too has the frustration level of Pico youth.
“How come they don’t do that to people who live over there on Montana?” demanded Ruiz, unable to mask the anger in his voice. “Kids are smoking crack up there too. There’s kids having big parties up there and they’re not getting raided by helicopters and narcs and dogs.
“But when you see a Mexican kid or a black kid out here a little drunk, there’s twenty cops around him, and it’s a big issue in Santa Monica that another Pico kid is high.”
Again, de la Torre says, the problem boils down to housing and jobs.
“We have at-risk youth north of Montana,” he said, “with kids doing drugs and committing domestic violence. But the gang problem isn’t there because you don’t have a high concentration” of low-income people.
“What we’re talking about is prosperity bypassing the Pico neighborhood,” de la Torre said. “These are kids who grow up in poverty and end up losing hope because there are no opportunities for them. Gang membership has become important when you’re growing up because you can’t participate in anything else. Everything else costs money.
"This concentration of youths, confined in poverty, are working to redefine themselves and find an identity in these groups, and unfortunately there is an element of violence in those groups," de la Torre said.
“You’re nobody,” he said, “and now all of a sudden you have a nickname, you have a uniform and you have a sense of belonging. They are products of oppression who are dying over street names."
De la Torre also believes the poorer areas of LA have developed a gang culture that instills hatred among low-income youth for those in other poor neighborhoods.
“You can’t go into other neighborhoods when you grow up like that,” he said. “That’s how gang wars break out.”
Turf wars rocked the Pico Neighborhood in 1998, when a flare-up between Santa Monica and Culver City gangs led to a string of shootings that claimed five lives in two weeks and put Santa Monica on the crime map.
The killing spree began on October 12 with the seemingly unrelated murder of a 50-year-old German tourist outside the Loews Hotel on Appian Way.
Later that day, Omar Sevilla, 22, a member of the Culver City Boyz, was gunned down near SAMOHI. Five days later, in a retaliatory strike for Sevilla’s death, a 28-year-old City employee and former gang member, Juan Campos, was shot and killed near Pico and 20th Street as he fled from two attackers who chased him into a liquor store.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Javier Cruz was wounded outside his home on 17th and Michigan, a violence riddled pocket of the Neighborhood.
Then the following weekend, Michael Juarez, 27, and his brother Anthony, 19, were slain while visiting a cousin’s clothing store on Lincoln Blvd. A customer and shop owner were wounded in what police identified as a random retaliatory attack.
Following the sudden burst of violence -- shocking a city that saw only one homicide in 1997 -- more than 1,000 Pico residents took to the streets, marching through the heart of the embattled neighborhood in the city’s largest demonstration against youth violence.
And though the neighborhood has not seen a similar spate of slayings since then, residents bemoan that fact that gunfire still erupts and kids are still getting shot.
“We can’t continue to go through summer after summer wondering which youth is going to be next,” said PNA board member Maria Loya, who lost her bid to become the first Pico resident elected to the City Council. “It has to stop.”
Marizsa Bravo-Casillas, however, didn’t want to wait to find out. Following the flare-up last May that began with a bullet tearing through her home and ended with three straight days of gunfire, she determined to take her frightened family elsewhere.
“Nobody wants to sleep in the room,” she said at a community call-to-action meeting last year. “Nobody wants to sleep in the house.”
With her four young children in tow, Bravo-Casillas, who now works at the Pico Youth and Family Center, packed up and moved to an Ocean Park apartment that gave her more space and more peace of mind.
“I do miss my community and I do miss the Pico Neighborhood,” she said, “but now that I’ve moved out, I do feel safer.”
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