Questions about why and how the DA decided the most urgent targets for the sweeping injunctions would be areas with significantly lower violent-crime rates than Santa Ana or Anaheim began flying around South County as soon as the daunting stack of court papers was served to hundreds of people during the predawn hours of Oct. 17, 2007.

Part of the reason the DA’s office chose to focus on San Juan Capistrano, says Schroeder, is that the city’s gang had the highest number of criminal filings (felonies and misdemeanors) among all the gangs in the county in 2006. It was decided to sue San Clemente’s gang simultaneously because of the vehement rivalry. According to expert testimony from sheriff’s deputy Craig Lang, 910 incidents, ranging from two attempted murders to 305 occurrences of gang association in public were reported between June 2005 and 2007 for Varrio Viejo. Although both gangs are described as participating in burglaries, weapons exchanges, drug sales and graffiti, the primary nuisance, according to the suit, is a persistent, intimidating physical presence along certain streets or in certain parks that has kept residents from notifying the police when crimes occur.

“We had to take guidance from the DA because this was their investigation,” says San Juan Capistrano Mayor Mark Nielsen. “It’s not something we initiated.”

Sergio Farias (far right, holding banner) organized the only two protests against the San Juan Capistrano injunction
Courtesy Jonathan Volzke/The Capistrano Dispatch
Sergio Farias (far right, holding banner) organized the only two protests against the San Juan Capistrano injunction

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When you grow up in a tight-knit community, everyone knows everyone, says “Ronny,” a local resident in his early twenties who grew up in the Villas and a smaller neighborhood, the Carolinas. There are the old-school gangbangers, but “a lot of them are locked up already or have grown out of it,” he says. And there are the youngsters, “who run around acting stupid, like they’re in the gang.”

Then there are those like him who have acquaintances, maybe even family members, who were in a gang, but who were never involved themselves. “Everyone knows who is and isn’t in the gang, and a lot of the people in the injunction have never actually been in the gang,” he says. “Yeah, maybe they knew people in it—we all do. We all grew up in the same neighborhood.”

The injunction deemed the Villas, two other smaller neighborhoods (the Carolinas and San Juan Village) and Capistrano Valley High School (which, while technically in Mission Viejo, is near the border of one of the neighborhoods) ground zero for gang-nuisance activity and worthy of restrictions against purported gang members. The same was said and done for a 2.3-square-mile area in San Clemente.

The DA’s office says the injunctions they issue are unique in that they name and serve individual defendants rather than an entire gang; the ACLU has been critical of the latter approach in the past because it allows police officers to serve people indefinitely.

Both the DA’s office and the Orange County Sheriff’s Department’s (OCSD) gang-enforcement unit say deciding who gets included in the lawsuit is part of an exhaustive process, which takes “about 10 months to put together,” according to deputy DA Brett Brian.

It can be a tricky undertaking in a community such as the Villas, says Mike Males, senior researcher at the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. “It’s pretty hard not to associate with gang members in the same neighborhood. You’re in the same families, peer groups.”

According to a sheriff’s department source who works in the undercover gang unit and asked to remain anonymous, the OCSD submitted close to 400 names for the South County injunction—a big number considering that in 2003, sheriff’s spokesman Jim Amormino declared San Juan Capistrano “one of the safest cities in the state.” “That number was whittled down,” he says. “There was very little room for error.”

A little more than a third of those named in the injunctions for San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente have prior gang-related convictions. But the majority were selected by police and undercover gang officers, who took notes on whom they were seeing, pulling over, arresting and interviewing—and whether they saw signs (clothing, tattoos, bald heads, photographs, graffiti) that indicated gang involvement. More than 160 officer affidavits and 10 sealed affidavits from residents who “are known to police” and who “own businesses, work and have kids in the community,” according to Schroeder, make up the composite profiles for each neighborhood and person named in the injunction, which was vetted by a team of district attorneys.

The “safety zone” neighborhoods are described in the suits as hotbeds of terror where residents routinely hide in their homes and cower at the sight of gang members. “The violent acts of these gang members have endangered residents’ lives and shattered their sense of peace and security,” each lawsuit reads.

The last time things were like that in San Juan Capistrano, according to Ronny, was back in the late 1990s. Eric Groos, a former lifeguard who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and who runs a nonprofit organization that teaches kids to swim and surf, agrees. “It used to be a lot worse. At one point, nobody used any of the parks,” and drugs were being sold throughout the neighborhood, he says. “All of a sudden, people started using the parks again. This was long before the gang injunction. The neighborhood didn’t cure itself; it morphed.”

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