Gang, Bang, You're Dead

Caught in the crossfire of a violent culture, a 16-year-old loses his life

Edwardo Soto knew his little brother was dead the moment he turned the corner and saw the police gathered by the ambulance. His sister Carolina was hysterical. She had called Edwardo from a pay phone and screamed that Junior had been shot.

Hector Soto Jr. was laid out on the sidewalk beneath a blue blanket. Even after his parents, Maria and Hector Sr., his cousins and a handful of close friends arrived, the police would not let them view his body until the crime-scene photographers had come and gone.

It was June 16. Carolina, 19, and Junior, 16, had been at Palomino Park, on 30th Street north of Greenway Road, in a predominantly Mexican north Phoenix neighborhood called The Square. A fight broke out between two gangs. According to some accounts, Junior ran over from the basketball court to defend a young woman he thought was Carolina. In the melee that followed, Junior took two bullets, one to the abdomen, the other to his head. He died in the back seat of his sister's car as she drove toward the hospital.

Hector Soto Jr., 16, was killed in somebody else's gang fight.
Hector Soto Jr., 16, was killed in somebody else's gang fight.
Hector Soto Jr., 16, was killed in somebody else's gang fight.
courtesy of Soto family
Hector Soto Jr., 16, was killed in somebody else's gang fight.

Related Stories

More About

Junior had been a dignified young man, but now his family gazed on the indignity of violent death. Hector Sr. breaks down when he tries to talk about what he saw when he finally lifted the blanket.

Edwardo, the older brother, has the words and the anger to describe it.

"He had ants all over his face, crawling, bro, crawling," he says. "Couldn't they put him on a cot or something?"

It's an all-too-familiar story: a regular kid thoughtlessly caught up in testosterone and territoriality, the victim of adolescent impulse.

It could happen in any neighborhood. But the reality is it happens more frequently in those economically starved, politically ignored neighborhoods where street gangs have rooted like Bermuda grass. And Junior was in one of those neighborhoods.

Regardless of socioeconomic standing, gang tragedy always seems to catch the family and friends completely by surprise.

Junior's friends, and he had many, call on the magic reality of adolescence to describe Junior.

"He was a laid-back dude," says his cousin Lupe Nieto.

"He was fatalistic, he knew he was going to die," says one girl who had known him since they were both 11 years old.

School teachers and neighbors who didn't know him soon linked him to every sad story that had ever been told in The Square. Wasn't that his cousin who died playing Russian roulette? Wasn't he related to that kid who left town because of gang threats?

No, on both accounts.

Junior Soto was an average kid who managed to stay out of a gang, but couldn't keep completely away. His sister, Carolina, had a long relationship with a gang called Mexican Brown Pride, though she apparently was never a full-fledged gang member. Junior barely hung out with other Hispanics, let alone gangbangers, but through his sister's friendships and acquaintances had safe passage at Palomino Park, which neighbors describe as MBP territory.

People in The Square know that Junior was not in MBP and that his sister used to be close to the gang. And though there were dozens of witnesses to his shooting, the story of how Junior died swelled and shrank and wavered, depending on whom those witnesses were talking to.

By some accounts, Carolina started the fight -- she denies it -- and Junior ran to her rescue. Others say the girl fighting was an MBP girl who resembles Carolina. Either way, according to neighborhood hearsay, a man from the other gang squared off against Junior, and he or his associates shot Junior. The police think Junior just got in the way of bullets intended for someone else.

But out of fear of gang retaliation or perhaps a general Mexican mistrust of the police, that hearsay doesn't reach police investigators, not even from Junior's siblings. Which is ironic, considering that Junior's father has put up a $1,000 Silent Witness reward for information leading to the arrest of the killers.

"No one talks to me," says Phoenix Police Detective Eleuterio Fragoso, who is handling the case. "I can never get a straight story on anything, and that's what becomes so frustrating for us.

"Maybe once these bad guys kill somebody else or hurt somebody else, or eventually a girlfriend decides to snitch him off," Fragoso continues, "that's about the only time we get these things to open up."

As grieving teenagers will, Junior's sister and his friends erected a small shrine next to the sidewalk where he died. "Hector Soto, Jr., RIP." It's got a picture of the Virgin Mary, a couple of votive candles, and a teddy bear wearing sunglasses. The property owners have left it there.

Junior's parents still break down when they talk about him. Hector Sr. sat in his backyard for days, drinking and weeping. Maria Soto couldn't get out of bed for a week and now spends much of her time at Mass praying for Junior's soul and the souls of her other children. The youngest child, 10-year-old Victor, who shared a room with Junior, now comes to his sister's room at night, afraid to sleep alone.

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 

Around The Web

Loading...