Ventura County Builds Case Against Gang
D.A. will go to court Monday to seek an injunction against the Colonia Chiques. But some fear innocent youths may be harassed.
By Daryl Kelley
Times Staff Writer
May 23, 2004
Ventura County ranks as the most crime-free urban area in the West, but gang violence has spiraled so sharply upward in the last year that prosecutors want to ban the county’s largest street gang from congregating in public.
Invoking a strategy common in Los Angeles but unprecedented in Ventura County, prosecutors are set to ask a Superior Court judge Monday to prohibit at least 500 Colonia Chiques gang members from publicly hanging out together within a huge “safety zone” where about half of Oxnard’s 186,000 residents live.
Authorities contend the Chiques, including parolees who joined the Mexican Mafia in prison, are the county’s most violent gang and were involved in 10 homicides in Oxnard last year and four this year before the injunction announcement in late March.
The gang has terrorized Oxnard for 30 years, authorities say, but has taken its ruthlessness a step further recently — routinely robbing farmworkers, terrifying emergency-room employees at a local hospital, and walking into parties of rivals and opening fire, instead of limiting itself to more traditional drive-by shootings.
“With the escalation in crime last year and the year before, we did a work-up and found the Chiques were the genesis for most of the violent gang crime in the city,” said Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez, a former deputy chief in Los Angeles.
“I talked about this when I first came to Oxnard [in 1998],” he said. “But my assistant chiefs were kind of cold on the idea. They thought we didn’t have the problem to justify it.”
Defense lawyers contend that the proposed anti-gang injunction could be illegal because it is so broad, covering a 6.6-square-mile swath of Oxnard and listing up to 500 unnamed defendants. Supporting documents identify 36 Chiques members.
Some community groups also say the ban is racist and could be used by police to harass innocent Latino youths who simply live near gang members or are their friends. They have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene by establishing a formal process to mediate disagreements between the community and police.
“The Oxnard Police Department is attempting to establish dangerous precedent in our community by proposing a ‘carte blanche’ enforcement tool,” Chris Espinosa, of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said at a news conference last week.
If approved, the order would impose sweeping restrictions on hundreds of the gang’s members within the restricted area. Violators would face misdemeanor charges for flashing gang signs, wearing Dallas Cowboys clothing, staying out past 10 p.m. and socializing with one another publicly.
The Ventura County case has prompted Public Defender Kenneth Clayman, whose office usually defends suspects in criminal cases, to take the unusual step of assigning two top deputies to a civil case.
The legal issue, Clayman said, is not whether anti-gang injunctions are legal in California — a 1997 state Supreme Court case found they can be, and many others have withstood court challenges — but whether the proposed Ventura County prohibition goes too far.
“The real issue is whether the restricted area is too large and whether the restrictions are greater than have been allowed,” Clayman said. “We think they are. We want to make sure [the injunction] doesn’t infringe on the constitutional rights of our clients.”
So far, Judge Fred H. Bysshe has denied Clayman’s requests to enter the case, although Clayman said several Chiques members were represented by his office in criminal cases.
The other Chiques lawyers, John H. Hachmeister of Torrance and Gabriella Navarro-Busch of Ventura, contend the injunction request is based solely on one-sided information from Oxnard police officers.
“The plaintiff relies on 133 supporting declarations from members of the Oxnard Police Department, alleging ‘gang’ control of parks and neighborhoods, yet fails to produce even one declaration from a resident, business owner, or simply a person that frequents or works within the ‘safety zone,’ ” the lawyers wrote in their response.
The injunction, Hachmeister said, would give police a free hand for harassment. “My concern is that we sometimes have overzealous peace officers who overstep their bounds,” he said in an interview.
But Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Wold, who helped draft the preliminary injunction, said such concerns were unfounded because individual gang members must be served a copy of the judge’s order, as well as a list of barred activities, before they can be cited for violating the order.
Law enforcement officials said the March 24 announcement by Police Chief Lopez and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten that they intended to seek an injunction has helped prove their point.
Since then, Lopez said, Chiques members have threatened to kill Totten, police officers and community members supporting the ban, while also circulating fliers encouraging gang members to lie low until Bysshe rules on the injunction.
The result, Lopez said, was an immediate one-third reduction in violent crime in the “safety zone” in April.