Alma Ponce is considered by the DA's office an active participant in the Varrio Viejo gang
Alma Ponce is considered by the DA's office an active participant in the Varrio Viejo gang
Jason Redmond

Is a Popular Legal Weapon Ending a South County Gang Rivalry, or Catching Bystanders in Its Net?

South Side Story
Is a popular legal weapon putting an end to a 30-year-old gang rivalry in South County, or catching innocent bystanders in its net?

Alma Ponce’s daughter is too young to know how her mom is different from some of the other moms in town. On a misty December day at a neighborhood park that sits in the middle of a knot of condos in San Juan Capistrano, the almond-eyed Ponce pulls wood chips from little Evette’s mouth and laughs. “She looks just like her dad,” Ponce says wistfully. As she adjusts her daughter’s tiny coat, the 1-year-old turns a bundled-up face up toward her mom and smiles. Ponce is 22, but she looks more like a high-school student in her baggy sweat shirt and jeans, her long hair pulled back into a loose ponytail.

Along with 132 other people in town, Ponce was sued by the Orange County district attorney for her alleged gang activity. Her name and details about her recent past are part of the extensive lawsuit filed just a little more than a year ago against her and other alleged members of Varrio Viejo, the city’s oldest—and now only—gang, for creating a “public nuisance” in certain neighborhoods.

The heart of the lawsuit is a restraining-order-like injunction prohibiting those others named in the suit from hanging out together, wearing gang clothing, throwing gang signs and a string of other behaviors, some of them criminal (like drug possession), but most of them not (staying out past 10 p.m.). Violating the terms could land her in jail for a minimum of six months or put Ponce on probation, a scary prospect for someone who has never been in jail or convicted of a violent crime.

Neighbors, school friends, even her brother are named in the injunction, so on days like today, when she’s out in the park, Ponce keeps vigilant. “Sometimes I just stay inside until I see that my neighbor and his kids are gone, and then I go to the park,” she says.

Ponce doesn’t have a lawyer or even a working phone, so she has done little to fight the lawsuit, which she remains confounded by. “It doesn’t say I went and did a drive-by; it doesn’t say they caught me tagging. It doesn’t say any of that stuff,” she says of her file. “It makes no sense.” She may have gotten busted for weed when she was a teenager, she says, but she never considered herself one of the real gang members in the neighborhood, some of whom she knows because they all grew up together in the Villas neighborhood.

“I didn’t even think this was possible here. I could understand in Anaheim and Santa Ana—it’s all over the news. But San Juan? Come on,” she says. “If people were so scared, they wouldn’t even bother coming outside. They’re all neighbors; they all know each other. These parents and families all know these bald heads, but I don’t see the fear there.”

Ponce’s neighborhood is only blocks from the Mission San Juan Capistrano, which greets tourists and children on field trips, all eager to get a whiff of a historic and glorified California. Rambling houses line leafy Los Rios, one of the state’s oldest streets; French and Italian restaurants have settled into Spanish-tiled abodes, and residents regularly ride horses along the dried-up Trabuco Creek.

Even though the Villas butts up against Los Rios and the idyllic downtown scene, Ponce’s neighborhood is separated from the multimillion-dollar homes in the hills by railroad tracks, seemingly placed there for maximum cinematic irony. The close-knit, almost entirely Latino community is a maze of 767 condo units connected by small side streets, alleys, two parks and a swimming pool in the city’s flatlands. On any given day, produce trucks plump with fresh avocados, papayas and bags of treats for the children jostle from one street to another.

David Perez, a lanky friend of Ponce’s, makes his way toward the little park. He stops suddenly and waves at his friend. His 6-year-old son runs ahead of him to the jungle gym. Perez then continues walking toward Ponce.

“Ten feet away, remember?” Ponce reminds him, half-smiling. “They’re going to think we’re doing drugs or something, beating up the kids together.”

Perez, who has also been sued, laughs, then stops a good distance away and leans against a tree.

The pair, who have known each other since they were teenagers, holler back and forth, refusing to violate an invisible line, while their kids play in the park. Ponce’s brother, Manuel, who is also named in the injunction, has been stopped by officers several times; he was arrested twice, once for standing with Perez at a friend’s house and another for being too close to someone named in the injunction at the neighborhood produce truck.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” Perez says. “All my friends are gang-affiliated, so they can’t separate me from that group. But the only things I’ve ever been busted for are a few weed tickets, nothing major.”

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.

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.

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.”

*     *     *

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.”

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.”

*     *     *

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.

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.


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