Is a Popular Legal Weapon Ending a South County Gang Rivalry, or Catching Bystanders in Its Net?

South Side Story
Is a popular legal weapon putting an end to a 30-year-old gang rivalry in South County, or catching innocent bystanders in its net?

Alma Ponce’s daughter is too young to know how her mom is different from some of the other moms in town. On a misty December day at a neighborhood park that sits in the middle of a knot of condos in San Juan Capistrano, the almond-eyed Ponce pulls wood chips from little Evette’s mouth and laughs. “She looks just like her dad,” Ponce says wistfully. As she adjusts her daughter’s tiny coat, the 1-year-old turns a bundled-up face up toward her mom and smiles. Ponce is 22, but she looks more like a high-school student in her baggy sweat shirt and jeans, her long hair pulled back into a loose ponytail.

Along with 132 other people in town, Ponce was sued by the Orange County district attorney for her alleged gang activity. Her name and details about her recent past are part of the extensive lawsuit filed just a little more than a year ago against her and other alleged members of Varrio Viejo, the city’s oldest—and now only—gang, for creating a “public nuisance” in certain neighborhoods.

Alma Ponce is considered by the DA's office an active participant in the Varrio Viejo gang
Jason Redmond
Alma Ponce is considered by the DA's office an active participant in the Varrio Viejo gang
Alma's brother Manuel Ponce, 19, is listed in the injunction. They live in one of the San Juan Capistrano safety zones.
Jason Redmond
Alma's brother Manuel Ponce, 19, is listed in the injunction. They live in one of the San Juan Capistrano safety zones.

The heart of the lawsuit is a restraining-order-like injunction prohibiting those others named in the suit from hanging out together, wearing gang clothing, throwing gang signs and a string of other behaviors, some of them criminal (like drug possession), but most of them not (staying out past 10 p.m.). Violating the terms could land her in jail for a minimum of six months or put Ponce on probation, a scary prospect for someone who has never been in jail or convicted of a violent crime.

Neighbors, school friends, even her brother are named in the injunction, so on days like today, when she’s out in the park, Ponce keeps vigilant. “Sometimes I just stay inside until I see that my neighbor and his kids are gone, and then I go to the park,” she says.

Ponce doesn’t have a lawyer or even a working phone, so she has done little to fight the lawsuit, which she remains confounded by. “It doesn’t say I went and did a drive-by; it doesn’t say they caught me tagging. It doesn’t say any of that stuff,” she says of her file. “It makes no sense.” She may have gotten busted for weed when she was a teenager, she says, but she never considered herself one of the real gang members in the neighborhood, some of whom she knows because they all grew up together in the Villas neighborhood.

“I didn’t even think this was possible here. I could understand in Anaheim and Santa Ana—it’s all over the news. But San Juan? Come on,” she says. “If people were so scared, they wouldn’t even bother coming outside. They’re all neighbors; they all know each other. These parents and families all know these bald heads, but I don’t see the fear there.”

Ponce’s neighborhood is only blocks from the Mission San Juan Capistrano, which greets tourists and children on field trips, all eager to get a whiff of a historic and glorified California. Rambling houses line leafy Los Rios, one of the state’s oldest streets; French and Italian restaurants have settled into Spanish-tiled abodes, and residents regularly ride horses along the dried-up Trabuco Creek.

Even though the Villas butts up against Los Rios and the idyllic downtown scene, Ponce’s neighborhood is separated from the multimillion-dollar homes in the hills by railroad tracks, seemingly placed there for maximum cinematic irony. The close-knit, almost entirely Latino community is a maze of 767 condo units connected by small side streets, alleys, two parks and a swimming pool in the city’s flatlands. On any given day, produce trucks plump with fresh avocados, papayas and bags of treats for the children jostle from one street to another.

David Perez, a lanky friend of Ponce’s, makes his way toward the little park. He stops suddenly and waves at his friend. His 6-year-old son runs ahead of him to the jungle gym. Perez then continues walking toward Ponce.

“Ten feet away, remember?” Ponce reminds him, half-smiling. “They’re going to think we’re doing drugs or something, beating up the kids together.”

Perez, who has also been sued, laughs, then stops a good distance away and leans against a tree.

The pair, who have known each other since they were teenagers, holler back and forth, refusing to violate an invisible line, while their kids play in the park. Ponce’s brother, Manuel, who is also named in the injunction, has been stopped by officers several times; he was arrested twice, once for standing with Perez at a friend’s house and another for being too close to someone named in the injunction at the neighborhood produce truck.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Perez says. “All my friends are gang-affiliated, so they can’t separate me from that group. But the only things I’ve ever been busted for are a few weed tickets, nothing major.”

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