By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
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.”
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.’”
“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.”