In San Jose, anti-gang team tries to shut down Sureño-vs.-Norteño violence

By Joe Rodriguez

Mercury News
Posted: 01/16/2009 05:46:15 PM PST

“This is a traditional Sureño street,” says police Sgt. Matt Archer as we cruise into a San Jose neighborhood stacked deep with shoddy two-story apartment buildings. A half-century ago, developers dubbed them garden apartments. But now, what grows here is juvenile crime and plenty of other kinds of trouble. This is a street even gangbangers fear at night.

Archer’s careful, slow roll is part of his job on the San Jose Police Department’s Violent Crimes Enforcement Team, or VCET. Despite the flashy name — known as “V-Set” — Archer is not the leader of some ruckus-raising SWAT team or bomb squad. Instead, the special unit of 15 officers is the city’s best hope for shutting down or catching some of the 6,000 or so street gang members. In a city battling serious gang crime, VCET must constantly maneuver between aggressive anti-gang policing and a respect for civil rights.

Archer’s team is part of a multiagency effort to squelch the gang warfare that erupted in the 1980s and eventually dethroned San Jose as the safest big city in America in 2006. It appears to be working. kil#i*ggs and other violent gang crime dropped by 16 percent at the end of last year.

In five ride-alongs with VCET, a reporter and photographer Josie Lepe tried to capture the quiet work of this squad of police officers. Their training was obvious the night Acher was cruising in a Sureño neighborhood. Turning left on Gramercy Place, he suddenly hears something clank, like metal on metal.

“Did you see them drop a weapon?” he asks his two pblankengers.

See who?

Hear? We didn’t hear anything!

In one motion, Archer pulls his unmarked police car over. Out of the gloom ease two teenage boys dressed in black. They’re walking past a green dumpster sitting against the curb.

“Police officer,” he calls out. “Sit down now!”

The boys, 15 and 17, obey. Archer is a tall and fit college graduate who speaks some Spanish. Without pause, he points his flashlight at the ground and quickly spots a switchblade knife and a long screwdriver.

“Did you drop this? ” he asks.

“No, I didn’t drop nothing,” grumbles the older boy.

“I don’t know anything, either,” the 15-year-old echoes.

Archer puts the knife and screwdriver on the hood of his car. Within minutes, he’s joined by another unit of VCET. Archer says his teams make dozens of stops like this one every day.

Usually, Archer’s team can only ask suspected gang members to answer a few questions. In police lingo, these are called “consensual stops.” If the person declines, the officers drive on.

But once he heard the clanking sounds, Archer had a legal reason to stop the boys.

A gaggle of neighborhood Latino kids soon comes around, locked onto the sight of white officers interrogating a pair of handcuffed Mexican boys. The boys say they’ve been in trouble with the law before. The 15-year-old casually recounts the time he brought a knife to school, but doesn’t say why. Their parents, who speak only Spanish, arrive a little later. They’ve seen this before.

The 15-year-old finally admits to dropping the screwdriver, telling Archer he carried it for protection. The other boy keeps mum. After the questioning, Archer offers this background: A group of rival Norteño gangbangers had driven by on Gramercy a few nights before, signaling that they’d come back with a gun. The Sureño boys were either protecting themselves or looking for a fight. Archer isn’t sure which. He lets the boys off with a ticket and turns them over to their parents.

“I really don’t know what to do with him anymore,” the exasperated mother of the 17-year-old tells us. She starts crying. “I wish the city had a program to get him to stop smoking marijuana, to get him to stop fighting.”

Archer drives away, resuming the hunt. We come across a footbridge on the East Side crossed by Sureños and Norteños alike. In general, but not in every case, Sureños are Mexican nationals. Norteños are Mexican-Americans. Sureños wear blue. Norteños, red. Crossing this bridge at the wrong time in the wrong colors is asking for trouble.

The gang “hot spots” we visit this night and on others also include a park in the Washington-Gardner district near downtown, a shopping strip near Story and King roads, a dead end offering a beautiful nighttime view of the east hills.

Impoverished and poorly educated young people romanticize gang life. They talk of other bangers as “brothers,” and as their “family.” They are drawn into the lure of street power and making money by dealing drugs — and now more girls are being attracted to the perilous lifestyle. What is obscured by that version is all the destruction of real families, the incarceration, the addiction, the lives marred by crime, violence and murders. Battling gang life is such a towering task, how can a few stops and checks help alter the big picture?

“What did we accomplish?” Archer asks after leaving Gramercy. “Made a statement to the kids that we won’t tolerate carrying knives and screwdrivers in their hands. We got them off the streets tonight and with their parents. We might have stopped a fight or something worse.” In 2008, VCET made 1,214 gang-related arrests, 657 of them for felonies.

But the citation Archer gave the boys requires them to appear in court. If the juvenile justice system works as it should, social workers will enroll the families in some sort of gang-prevention program — from mental health counseling to special education. The more early intervention to help youths and families, the better chance there is to make something good happen. But failing that, the next stops for the boys could be juvenile hall or state prison, where gangsterism flourishes.

And that’s where Anthony Reyes thinks he’ll end up, again.

The 26-year-old English-speaking former Norteño was walking with his girlfriend along a Sureño-claimed street just south of downtown, when one of Archer’s VCET men asked him for a consensual stop. Reyes was wearing a gray hoodie and baggy, low-slung jeans.

Surprisingly, Reyes agrees, knowing the cops will call up his rap sheet and discover he didn’t show up for an appointment with his parole officer. He spent six years in prison for drunken driving and robbery offenses. While inside, he says, he joined a Norteño gang because that’s an offer Latino inmates can’t afford to refuse.

“They wanted me to put a hit on someone,” says Reyes, who is remarkably talkative, even cheerful in handcuffs. “You know, to ki*l somebody for them. But I told them I wouldn’t. They just use you, you know. Take advantage of you. That’s all they do.”

He says the young Sureños hadn’t bothered him during his brief freedom. Gang fighting on the streets, he says, is tame stuff compared with what it’s like in prison.

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