*     *     *

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.

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.

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.

Soon after the injunction was issued, Farias says, he figured out that many of the men on it were too afraid to do anything about it, “so it was really the women from the neighborhood who brought out all the family members” and helped to coordinate two protests in town, one just before the preliminary injunction was approved by a judge in November 2007 and another before the permanent injunction was approved in January 2008.

Farias’ budding activism soon translated into a run for a seat on the San Juan Capistrano City Council. “I was trying to get out opposition to the gang injunction,” he says. “I was trying to talk for the immigrant community and explain what was going on. You know, if you ask our community what they need, I doubt they ever said, ‘More cops.’”

His run for office was enough to force the DA’s office to work overtime in San Juan Capistrano. What, to the DA’s office, seemed like a myth-filled smear campaign was a call to action for those who supported Farias, many of whom were defendants and the families of defendants named in the injunction who felt they had been wrongly sued.

But Farias didn’t find much support for his position among members of CREER, the formal, well-established Latino organization led by former mayor Joe Soto (who supported the injunction), with some in the neighborhood saying Farias was a bit too militant.

Rinauro and Brian met with CREER more than half a dozen times, they say, in an effort to clarify what the injunction really meant for the community. “We have had forums that the DA’s money has paid for without grant money on our own. We have been out to the community,” Rinauro says. “We’ve gone to any organization that wants us, including mothers of people who are in the injunction, over and over again, in English and Spanish.”

The result, she says, has been overwhelmingly positive. “They have thanked us. . . . They won’t say it publicly at a forum, but they’ll say it quietly to Brett and I afterward: ‘I like the injunction. Crime is down. I feel safer. I can go to the park.’”

Though he won an overwhelming majority of the Latino vote, Farias lost his bid for city council. He says he may run again, and he still wants the injunction permanently removed.

Despite all the outreach Farias and Rinauro have done in the community, the two have never sat down and discussed the injunction together.

*     *     *

Alma Ponce sits in the bed of a pickup truck with her dad one evening in late December. The garage door is open, and they’re talking softly as kids and old men meander through the neighborhood. “It was a long day today, with everyone running around for the birthday party.” She looks tired and satisfied.

“She had fun today,” she says of Evette.

Ponce doesn’t know if she’ll stay in the neighborhood or move in with her boyfriend; maybe she’ll go back to school. “Kids these days, they just see what’s going on. But if they were around back then, I don’t think they’d be able to hang. It was worse back then. Everybody was into drugs,” she says remembering a neighborhood that scared even her. “Now it’s just calm. But cops decided to do this after everything was calming down. It’s too late.”

She doesn’t want to be a part of the injunction, and Ponce is ready, she says, to start trying to get her name off it.

daltan@ocweekly.com

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