San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano in a push against gang violence

Turf battles between gangs have gone on since the 1970s. This month, a boy died in a clash and three teens face murder charges.
By H.G. Reza, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 30, 2008
Gia Lugo knows all about the gang turf battles in southern Orange County. So when she taught school in San Clemente, she was careful not to let students know that she lived in San Juan Capistrano. And she never told people in San Juan where she worked.

“I was afraid to have a SJC sticker on my car because it might get tagged or vandalized,” said Lugo, 36, who has lived in San Juan most of her life and remembers gangs in junior high.

“And I was careful not to have anything on or in my car about San Clemente because it might get vandalized in town.”

Placid and suburban, southern Orange County may seem unlikely territory for gang warfare, especially in one city best known for its mission and the other for its beaches and as the place

where Richard Nixon once lived. But the turf feud has boiled for decades.

What began as teen rivalry in the 1920s between Latinos from the neighboring cities evolved in the 1970s into gang violence that continues today, said business owner Juan Luna, 51, whose family has lived in San Clemente more than 80 years.

The latest spasm occurred June 6, when Jonathan Mendez, a 14-year-old San Juan Capistrano boy, was struck and ki*led by a concrete block in a fight with San Clemente gang members.

He and other teenagers identified by authorities as San Juan Capistrano gang members had ventured into their rivals’ turf allegedly looking for trouble.

Three San Clemente 14-year-olds, identified by Orange County sheriff’s deputies as gang members, have been charged in the kil#i*gg.

Prosecutors have decided to try them as adults; each faces 25 years to life if convicted. The three are being held in Juvenile Hall on $1-million bail each.

Four San Juan Capistrano boys ranging in age from 15 to 17 have been charged with various felonies and a misdemeanor for allegedly instigating the gang attack that led to their friend’s death.

They, too, were charged as adults and face nearly 12 years each in custody if convicted. Bail for each was set at $100,000, and they are still in Juvenile Hall.

The case has dominated talk in both cities all month, with community newspapers carrying lengthy articles about the incident.

On a recent Sunday, Latinos from San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente staged a candlelight vigil at a San Clemente park to protest the violence. They were joined by whites, who also called for peace.

“We’re tired of the violence and want to show solidarity with the families of San Juan Capistrano,” said Brenda Elizardi, a San Clemente community activist and an organizer of the vigil.

The attack occurred about seven months after the Orange County district attorney obtained an injunction prohibiting about 230 gang members from both cities from congregating and engaging in gang activity in specific neighborhoods, including one across the railroad track from the historic mission.

The juveniles charged in this month’s brawl were not named in the injunction.

Despite the fight, law enforcement officials say the injunction has been a success.

The latest available figures show that between November and January, gang-related calls to sheriff’s deputies in San Clemente dropped 33%.

In San Juan Capistrano, they fell 85%.

But Lugo said the figures were misleading.

Crimes are not being reported in San Juan Capistrano for fear of retaliation by gang members.

And, she said, some in the community do not understand the injunction’s purpose and get swept up in rumors that it applies to all Latinos.

And crime victims who are in the country illegally are afraid to call authorities for fear of being deported, a concern that gang members use to their advantage, Lugo said.

Since the injunction was made permanent in January, a task force of law enforcement, San Juan Capistrano city and school district officials and community leaders have met monthly with parents and students to talk about gang problems and ways to keep youths out of gangs.

Such outreach programs are important, Lugo said, because “merely arresting kids isn’t going to fix anything.”

“We want police to crack down, but enforcement is not enough. We also want prevention and education,” she said.

“The people on the injunction also need hope. They need to be blankured that there is light at the end of the tunnel for them.”

Luna, the San Clemente resident, also favors the injunction, noting that a law enforcement crackdown in the 1990s was effective for a while. But he said deputies also alienate the community by “coming down on kids who are just hanging out” and not affiliated with gangs.

“They have to be more selective,” he said.

The same complaint is heard in San Juan Capistrano, where Latino youths who are not gang members complain about harblankment, said Lugo, an office manager and columnist for the Capistrano Dispatch, a weekly newspaper.

Sheriff’s Lt. Paul D’Auria, chief in San Clemente, said crime in the city’s Latino neighborhoods is caused by a small number of gang members.

Gang activity can be curbed only if parents get involved in their kids’ lives, he said.

“Everyone looks at the police and asks, ‘What are you going to do?’ We’ve come to the point where we’ve done all we can. It’s up to the parents.”

Robert Marquez, 60, echoed the sentiment. He lives in San Clemente but has also called San Juan Capistrano home.

“The community has to bond and say, ‘We want our streets back,’ ” he said. “If the kids can get together to form a gang, why can’t the parents get together to stop them?” Sheriff’s Sgt. Nancy Gafner is working with San Clemente officials to establish parenting clblankes for families with problem teenagers. Clblankes will be offered in Spanish in September, she said.

“Compared to Los Angeles, our gang problem is minuscule,” D’Auria said.

“There are thousands of Hispanic kids who go to school and help Mom and Dad. They get pressured every day to join a gang and deserve our help.”

Apparently, Alejandro Hurtado, one of the teens charged in the death of Jonathan Mendez, succumbed to the pressure to join a gang.

Two former neighbors who had known him most of his life said they were shocked to learn of his alleged gang ties.

One believed that he was a boy who seemed likely to succeed in life.

The other lamented the loss of a boy she thought had great potential.

stef Posted by on Jun 30 2008. Filed under News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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