Even though the injunction came later in the game, Groos says, he believes it can be a good thing for the community if it’s used right. “I think it’s only one spoke in a big wheel, and if you don’t take care of the whole wheel, it’s going to collapse eventually.” Programs that keep kids active are sorely needed in the neighborhood, along with more open communication with the sheriff’s department, he says, because people still fear the police.

The San Juan Capistrano injunction has helped get some drug dealers off the streets, Ronny says, but he and other Latinos in the city are now routinely stopped, questioned and often searched by officers.

“They’re judged by what they look like and where they live,” says “Connie,” a local business owner whose teenage son has been stopped by the police several times since the injunction was imposed, even though he is not named in the suit. “You should have been to the Swallows Day parade last year—talk about force that shouldn’t be used. We had a booth there, and we were watching [the police] stun people with stun guns. It was way excessive. They said, ‘Well, they’re not allowed here.’ I thought, ‘Why aren’t they? It’s a town event. They live here.’”

Sergio Farias
Jason Redmond
Sergio Farias

“Look at Manny,” says Ronny of Alma Ponce’s brother. “Does he look like a gangbanger to you? He’s like a surfer-slash-biker guy, always just riding his bike around town. The one problem Manny’s ever had is with weed—I will say that—but that’s it.”

*     *     *

Tracy Rinauro purses her lips and wrinkles her brow as she takes center-stage at the packed San Clemente Presbyterian Church in early October. The turnout for the city’s gang forum is sizable: Several hundred people, about one-third of them with Spanish-translation headsets on, stare at projected images of graffiti, gang “dress” and bald guys with tattoos decorating their backs.

Rinauro, the deputy DA in charge of prevention speaks quickly, punctuating her impassioned sermon about the perils of gang life with brief pauses and clenched fists. Her voice shakes as she talks quickly and with urgency.

“There’s no such thing as a child tagging or graffiti-ing and not having it be serious,” she tells the group. “Look at their belongings, their things, their room. Check their books; check their backpacks. If you see anything with gang writing, that’s a sign that they’re either in the gang or they’re headed there. Do something, something serious. It’s a sign that their lives can be at risk.”

As angry as she might get during her talk, her big, glistening eyes soften when she makes eye contact with a parent or child in the crowd. She regularly makes rounds in the five injunction zones, working with school principals, community leaders and local law enforcement to promote gang-prevention efforts. “I know what it’s like to look into a young mother’s eyes after she’s lost her baby to gang violence,” she says. “And that’s why we’re working so hard to try and stop this before it gets worse.”

Rinauro bristles when she hears that confusion may still be lingering in the community, or that some believe the injunction isn’t working—especially in San Juan Capistrano, where she and deputy DA Brian have had to do the most damage control, she says.

“There was a real effort by a number of groups apparently for some kind of political reason to mischaracterize what this was in San Juan Capistrano—anarchists from LA or somebody, whoever they were,” says assistant DA Anderson. “They have every right to say what they want, but unfortunately, it did create all sorts of confusion down there.”

*     *     *

A few weeks before Christmas, a wooden box holding the likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe bobs down Avenida de las Islas among a halo of faces for the annual posadas in the Villas.

As the crowd meanders through the streets, a black-and-white police car slices through the crowd with a sudden flash of red and blue lights. The faces shift to one side of the street; once the car disappears, the music starts up again.

Sergio Farias weaves through the group and is politely greeted by a few people. “This is what our protests looked like,” he says.

The stout, soft-spoken, lifelong resident of San Juan Capistrano became an unlikely rabble-rouser after the injunction was issued in 2007. “A friend mentioned the safety zone and that it went around all the Latino neighborhoods,” he says. “I looked at a map, and I thought, ‘This is really disgusting.’”

A friend of his brother’s taught him to be afraid of gangs early on, Farias says, so he never got personally involved. But 10 years ago, his brother was convicted of second-degree murder at the age of 15; he was in the car during a drive-by shooting in San Clemente with at least one known Varrio Viejo gang member. He wasn’t given a gang enhancement, which would have added eight years to his sentence, says Farias, but he is serving 15 years to life in prison.

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