Ponce says old gang problems were fading from the neighborhood long before the injunction. “I think people were already changing when this just hit them out of nowhere,” she says. “With or without the gang injunction, a lot of people were going to jail. Everybody is paying for their own stuff. The last time I got in trouble was in 2005.” Her major crimes, according to court documents, seem to be two incidents in which she was in possession of a “teaspoon” and then a “tablespoon” of marijuana. Before the injunction, “I had stopped everything, you know? I was working, had two jobs for this nonprofit organization. I was doing okay.”

*     *     *

In 2006, DA Tony Rackaukas’ office issued its first injunction against 130 alleged members of the Santa Nita gang in Santa Ana (see Nick Schou’s “Tony’s Bizarro World,” July 28, 2006) following a spate of crime in the area; the city’s crime rate hit an all-time high in the mid-1990s with 46 murders. A second injunction was issued a few months later against 76 members of Anaheim’s Boys In the Hood gang.

Alma Ponce, 22, is listed in the injunction. She and her brother live in one of the San Juan Capistrano safety zones.
Jason Redmond
Alma Ponce, 22, is listed in the injunction. She and her brother live in one of the San Juan Capistrano safety zones.

Some in Santa Ana immediately protested what they said was their mistaken inclusion in the injunction and hired lawyers to fight the lawsuit. The DA’s office, says spokeswoman Susan Schroeder, offers a way for people who believe they’ve been mistakenly put on the list to petition the DA directly, without an attorney. Perez and the Ponces have had the opportunity to petition their cases, she says, but they haven’t.

“That’s also an admission of guilt, if you ask me,” says assistant DA John Anderson.

According to Anderson, Perez is documented as having self-identified as a gang member and having gang tattoos, while Ponce was documented on multiple occasions with gang members in gang territory, which would be her neighborhood of the Villas. Both have been caught with illegal drugs. Ponce’s brother’s records have been sealed because he was a juvenile at the time. But since the injunction, Manuel has pleaded guilty to three counts of violating its terms. To date, only a handful of people have directly petitioned the DA’s office, and no one has been removed from any of the injunctions.

Ponce admits she was intimidated by the 6-inch-thick lawsuit and never read the whole thing. Had she made it to the second-to-last page, she may have read a curt paragraph explaining the petition option.

It’s no secret that Rackauckas has made curbing crime among the county’s 300-plus gangs a priority, and injunctions are quickly becoming his favorite legal weapon. Last year, the DA’s office spent a little more than half a million dollars hiring four prosecutors “to develop and implement three to five additional gang injunctions on Orange County gangs,” according to county budget records. Two state grants totaling $600,000 as well as a handful of smaller grants have gone toward gang-prevention and -intervention efforts in Anaheim, Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. Permanent gang injunctions are now in place in five cities (including Orange), and more are planned for the future.

Statistically, the DA’s office can point to a drop in crime in the neighborhoods where injunctions are in effect. But the reactions from those in an affected community—whether positive or negative—are often anecdotal and harder to measure.

The effectiveness of gang injunctions has been debated ever since Los Angeles issued its first in 1987. By the late 1990s, a new injunction was being issued in the city about every two months, according to Cheryl Maxson, a UC Irvine criminology professor and one of the few scholars looking at the short- and long-term effects of such measures. Today, more than 30 injunctions have been issued against 11,000 alleged members in 55 LA gangs. The injunctions’ “safety zone” areas cover 20 percent of LA.

Maxson’s research has so far yielded mixed results.

“It’s been 20 years, and LA still has gang problems,” says Peter Bibring, an attorney with the ACLU in Southern California who specializes in gang cases. “There’s very little research out there . . . and you can see some weird effects. One of Maxson’s studies showed that people’s apprehension increased in gang-injunction zones. The injunction seemed to spread out and move gang activity to other parts of the city.”

By 2007, the Santa Nita gang injunction had reduced crime in Santa Ana’s “safety zone”; in other neighborhoods, violent-crime rates have held steady. Half of the county’s 31 gang-related homicides were committed in Santa Ana, which is home to a reported 92 gangs. (No gang-related homicides were committed in San Juan Capistrano or San Clemente that year.)

After the Santa Ana and Anaheim injunctions, the next large-scale action the DA issued was against the Varrio Viejo and Varrio Chico rival South County gangs, whose territories are a 10-minute highway drive away from each other. Local lore varies about how the rivalry started some three decades ago; some talk about a fight over a woman by members of an old-car club, while others say San Clemente members broke off from the “old town” club to start their own.

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