Skip to comments.Latino gang activity surges (North Carolina)
Posted on 08/24/2003 8:23:43 AM PDT by Gritty
Joshua "Jason" Paz was a funny, hard-working teenager. After he joined a gang, he was shot and killed during a robbery. His death at 16 represents a growing problem in the Triangle
Ramon Rodriguez, 8, paces after a memorial service for Joshua Paz, his brother, who was killed at this lot in Raleigh.
Courtesy of the Paz Family
Joshua "Jason" Paz was described by his friends as a funny and hard-working teenager. But it was clear to anyone who entered his small and organized bedroom in Raleigh's Northside neighborhood that he also was fascinated with gang culture.
The 16-year-old had pasted gang symbols on his bedroom walls, and had drawn them in notebooks and on the walls outside his mother's apartment. And he died a gangster's death -- grasping a chrome Mac-90 assault weapon during a robbery near Capital Boulevard in Raleigh on May 31, accidentally shot by his partner, police say.
The robbery and Paz's death are part of a growing list of violent crimes across the Triangle -- robberies, assaults and home invasions -- that law-enforcement authorities blame on young Hispanics involved with gangs. The incidents have come in cities such as Raleigh and Durham as well as rural areas of Wake County and small towns such as Selma and Angier.
At Fox Ridge Manor Apartments in Raleigh, Maria Pannese shows Mariela Delvalle, 15, and Apolinar Oliva, 15, what are considered gang identifying marks and clothing. Pannese works for Weed & Seed , a federal crime prevention program. The teens said many Latino youth wear or display gang-affiliated symbols.
The Hispanic population in the Triangle has grown about fourfold in the past 10 years. Experts say the ingredients are here for gangs to grow, too: Disaffected teenagers lost in a new society and more hard-core gang members from other states seeking new opportunities.
Law officers are learning to recognize gang graffiti after spray-painted "tags" -- gang names marking territory -- started appearing on road signs, barns and mobile homes celebrating the names of criminal organizations normally associated with big cities in the Southwest: Los Surenos, Mara Salvatrucha, Latin Kings , 18th Street , Orphans and Vatos Locos .
Many law officers and activists are hesitant to discuss gangs; they stress that young people from all ethnic groups join gangs and commit crime. An Asian gang in Wake Forest, white supremacist groups and well-established traditionally black gangs that now accept all races have been implicated in several recent acts of violence in the region.
Help for immigrants from government and nonprofit agencies hasn't kept pace with the rapid growth of the Hispanic population. Officials worry that without more intervention from law enforcement, social service agencies and churches, gang activity among Hispanics could grow.
"I just hope we can tackle this before it explodes," said Consuelo Kwee , program director of Centro Para Familias Hispanas , who counsels several families with children involved in gangs.
A learning curve
The job of tackling gang crime among Latinos falls to police, and many are just beginning to try. Raleigh has been tracking Hispanic gangs for only about a year, and Raleigh police would not release their tally of members. School resource officers have documented nine Hispanic gangs in Durham County public schools and at least four in Wake County public schools .
Some law officers acknowledge that they do not know how pervasive the problem is.
"We don't have a handle on it," said Lt. Walt Martin of the Wake County Sheriff's Office. "And we don't know what effect talking about it has on it."
In Durham, the city's gang unit counted 75 to 100 suspected Hispanic gang members when it started tracking them three or four years ago, "and we've seen that number increase by 75 to 100 each year thereafter," said Lt. Norman Blake, a spokesman for the Durham Police. Of those, about 50 gang members were confirmed each year through photographs, graffiti and interviews, he said.
Three years ago, Wake prosecutors did not see cases involving Hispanic gangs, but this year they have handled several. "We don't have a sophisticated way to quantify the extent of the problem," District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.
Law enforcement officials worry that criminal activity among Hispanic adults will trickle down to teenagers . Mexican organizations are already dominating drug trafficking in North Carolina, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center .
Gang growth in North Carolina has followed a familiar pattern, said Louis Casale, an intelligence analyst with the drug intelligence center. "When a population migrates, the criminal element is going to tag along eventually," he said. "It happens with any ethnic group."
In Wake County, where Hispanics are 5.4 percent of the total population, they accounted for 46 percent of drug-trafficking arrests in 2002, according to the Wake Sheriff's Office.
And gang members and informants have told police that hard-core Hispanic gang members from the West Coast, Texas, New York and Virginia have arrived in the Triangle to recruit, said Mark Bridgeman , president of the N.C. Gang Investigators Association. The group offers gang training and seminars to officers, provides a forum for sharing intelligence and lobbies the state legislature on gang-related issues.
Because of the rapid growth of the Hispanic community in North Carolina, Bridgeman said, the state is seen as fresh territory where drugs and sex can be marketed to the new population, and where gang "soldiers" can protect illicit businesses.
Already, there have been a few drug-trafficking cases involving gang members in Eastern North Carolina. Charlotte police have attributed four recent murders to the Mara Salvatrucha-13 gang. And Bridgeman said several hard-core gang members from out of state have been spotted in the Triangle.
Signs of gang culture
Police and school officials described Joshua Paz as a gang member. But from the way friends and family describe him, the 16-year-old may have been what police call a "wannabe" -- a youngster who wants to join a gang and will do almost anything to reach that goal.
Paz was born in Houston and moved to the Triangle in 1996. His fascination with gang culture was clear to anyone who entered his bedroom in Northside, near Wake Forest and Whitaker Mill roads. Like many teenagers' rooms, Paz's was plastered with CD covers for such bands as Mun-E and Fat Pats , posters of low-rider cars and pinups of scantily clad models. But mixed in were images he drew of gang symbols: the words "Sur 13," a crown and the number "187," the section number of the California penal code that refers to murder.
At Fox Ridge Manor Apartments in Raleigh, this graffito is scrawled across a wall. "Sur 13" is identified as a gang that has emerged in the Latino community in Raleigh in the past year.
Family snapshots showed Paz looking older than his 16 years, posing in a blue bandanna, baggy pants and a white tank top, flashing hand signals. He told a school resource officer at Broughton High School that he was in the Latin Kings, according to Raleigh Detective Tom Howard, a gang investigator.
And school officials pegged him as a gang member, according to Corey Duber , director of security for Wake County schools.
His sister, girlfriend and mother, however, all say it wasn't true. School officials and police discriminated against him because of his clothes and drawings, they said.
"He would say 'Just because I dress like this doesn't mean I'm doing bad things,' " said his sister, Maria Villasana . "That's what they would believe, and that would make him angry."
Paz's problems in school were not unusual. The Hispanic dropout rate in North Carolina surpasses that of all groups except Native Americans.
Some Hispanic teenagers complain of discrimination at school -- name-calling and physical abuse by their peers, and lack of understanding from teachers. Some feel obligated to help support the family instead of studying. And some cannot continue to college because they are not here legally, Kwee said, so they see little reason to finish high school.
As a juvenile, Paz got into trouble with the law, along with his older brother, Sergio, 17 . Eventually, Sergio was locked up for possession of stolen goods. Villasana said their mother, Maricela Guerrero, tried to enroll Joshua Paz in a juvenile boot camp but was told his delinquency was not serious enough for the state to pick up the bill.
Last fall, Paz dropped out of school and went to work in construction. Paz's girlfriend, Yarneli Molina, 22, of Benson, said Paz made good money. He planned to take her and her son to Texas to visit her mother.
But police say he had another, illicit source of income. Police say Paz carried a chrome Mac-90, a cheap copy of an AK-47, at the robbery where he died; it was later recovered by police from his alleged partner's car. Police said Paz and the distinctive gun also matched descriptions provided by victims at several robberies at convenience stores in the Triangle, including a Crown gas station on Six Forks Road in Raleigh, a Kangaroo Smoker's Express in Wake Forest, and another convenience store in Durham.
Police believe Paz's partner in the robbery shot a seafood vendor named Tony Lee Luft in the back, killed his dog , and then mistook Paz for the vendor and put two bullets in his head. Luft, a former Marine from Onslow County, survived. David Torres, 20, a member of the Folks gang alliance before he moved to the Triangle from New Jersey, was charged with murder and attempted murder.
Paz was buried in Houston and his family moved out of state last month for reasons unrelated to his death.
Paz's story illustrates the relationship between some immigrant parents and their children. Some immigrants lose control of their children once they come to this country, said Kwee of Centro Para Familias Hispanas.
Many Hispanic immigrants come from traditional rural villages in Mexico or Central America, where an entire extended family is enlisted to raise each child, where there is little debate between parents and children, and where discipline is sometimes physical.
In the United States, children learn early to be independent and outspoken. They learn that authorities sometimes investigate parents when children complain about abuse. They also learn English faster than the adults.
"They become interpreters for the parents," Kwee said, "and they tell the parents they can't punish them because they'll call 911."
For some, gangs are an attractive option, said Ivan Parra , executive director of the Latino Community Development Center, which is based in Durham.
"They feel protected, like they belong in a group,'' Parra said. "Little by little they get more involved, and then it's really difficult to get out."
Some Hispanics fear the issue will draw an overreaction from English-speaking neighbors. Hispanic children already report discrimination such as being followed around stores while shopping, said Marco Zárate , president of the N.C. Society of Hispanic Professionals.
"It is going to be a stigma for the good students," he said. People "will say, 'If you're Hispanic, you are a gang member.' "
In cases where Hispanics are involved, an entire family can become trapped by gang culture .
Until about a year ago, Oscar Hernandez Gutierrez, now 15, lived on a ranch in Mexico, where he tended cattle in his father's home state of Guerrero . But the baby-faced youth wanted to join his father's family in Raleigh.
Now he's in jail, charged with a shotgun shooting at the Watson's Flea Market in South Raleigh. Gutierrez's father, Fernando Pacheco, said members of the Orphans gang provoked his son's group, Sur 13, and now threaten his family.
After crossing the border about a year ago, Gutierrez moved in with his parents and three younger siblings at Fox Ridge Manor Apartments off Rock Quarry Road in South Raleigh in a musty unit where the hallway carpet curls up in the corners.
Gangs for protection
Like Hispanics across the Triangle, Hispanics at Fox Ridge had been robbed and assaulted by other ethnic groups and had already started to form gangs last summer for protection. Now Hispanics there are a majority, and gang graffiti on exterior walls and speed bumps marks the territory as belonging to VDM (Very Dangerous Mexicans) and Sur 13. The most recent violence has been between rival Hispanic gangs. Since spring, several gang-related shootings and stabbings involving Hispanic victims and assailants occurred in the parking lots near their apartment.
Gutierrez immediately began working full time for a painter. Pacheco, 32, said that between supporting his wife, two other sons and a daughter and recovering from open-heart surgery, he didn't realize his son had become involved with a gang.
Police say Gutierrez, his cousin and another 15-year-old confronted three other youngsters at the market and were answered with hand signals pertaining to a rival gang -- a sign of disrespect. After a short car chase, Gutierrez's group shot at them multiple times with a shotgun, injuring two in the head and face, police said.
Accused of pulling the trigger, Gutierrez was mistakenly charged as an adult, then sent to juvenile court.
Fox Ridge management sent Pacheco's family an eviction notice because of his son's arrest, he said. When Pacheco attended a court proceeding for his son at the Wake County Courthouse, a friend passed along a more alarming message -- "that something might happen to me or my family," Pacheco said.
"I don't know them, but they know where I live," he said. "If they come, what can I do to defend myself? I don't have anything and I'll be dead by the time the police come."
Pacheco has moved away.
"I have to go somewhere, I don't know where," he said before he left. "Maybe back to Mexico."
A Spanish-language version of this report will appear in the Sept. 4 edition of Que Pasa.
Staff writer Oren Dorell can be reached at 829-8963 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How isolationist of you. Our corrupt ruling families (like the Bushes and Clintons) need these immigrants to elect them and their family members in the years to come.
Please remember that your quaint culture will be right with you no matter where you go.
Thanks, I needed a good laugh!
No, but I know here in Henderson County it can't be much different. There are large numbers of Mexicans here for farm labor, more every year, and Hispanic names seem to be heavily involved in the drug arrests on the Police Log. Usually they catch them, take bail and let them go. No sense wasting time calling the INS.
Damn good riddance I say....and after we taxpayers already paid for this house painter's heart surgery.