Gang, Bang, You're Dead

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

Cindy Nieves recalls the night her son ran into the house and threw himself on the floor and screamed, "Junior's dead, Junior's dead!"

When the news of Junior's death first hit the newspapers, her son and Junior's other friends sat in her backyard weeping uncontrollably about the scant article they felt insinuated that Junior was just another Mexican gangbanger who got what he deserved.

Even Carolina, whose friendship with gangsters contributed to Junior's death, cringes at the suggestion that her brother was connected to any gang.

Carolina Soto holds a photograph of Junior, her younger brother.
Paolo Vescia
Carolina Soto holds a photograph of Junior, her younger brother.
Junior's parents: Hector Soto Sr. and Maria.
Paolo Vescia
Junior's parents: Hector Soto Sr. and Maria.

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They all knew Junior as the kid they'd seek out for heavy heartfelt conversation, the kid they'd talk to when their parents were driving them to despair. He was the kind of kid who would run to his sister's rescue.

But he was laid out on the sidewalk, his face frozen in the surprised and embarrassed half smile of sudden death. As Edwardo gazed at his little brother's body that night in The Square, he couldn't help but notice a resemblance to a photograph of Junior taken on a happier day, after a friend's wedding. Junior had his shirt off, his loosened tie hung over his tee shirt.

His eyes were half open, his mouth half smiling.

"He was always smiling," Edwardo says.


Junior Soto died in The Square, but he did not live there. The Soto home is a mile north in a predominantly white working-class neighborhood. But many of the Hispanic kids who went to school with the Soto kids do live there, and Carolina and Junior's names are well-known there.

The Square is a square mile of close-packed trailer parks and apartment complexes between Cave Creek Road and 32nd Street, and between Greenway and Bell roads. It's a low-rent island, surrounded by lily-white enclaves and pricey, red-tiled-roof developments.

It also has one of the highest rates of juvenile crime in the Valley, according to Maricopa County juvenile-probation records. Probation officers say the crime rate is primarily a reflection of gang activity.

If the elementary school in The Square is any indicator, at least half of The Square's population is Hispanic.

And at night it seems like all of it is. Folks sit on lawn chairs along the sidewalks in front of their apartments. Dark-windowed cars cruise past bands of baggy-pantsed youths, spanned side-by-side as they walk the streets.

Evenings, Palomino Park is a sea of humanity, nearly all of it Hispanic, hundreds of people playing basketball or volleyball or foosball or picnicking. The white faces of the park's workers stick out like Iraqis at a bar mitzvah.

Palomino Park is Mexican Brown Pride territory, according to street wisdom, though MBP is only one of the neighborhood's gangs. According to police documents, MBP was the dominant gang until it began splintering in 1992 into gangs with names like Sur/13 and K/13; trece, the number 13, stands for the 13th letter of the alphabet: M for Mexico. Another of the MBP offshoots, Vatos Locos Sinaloenses, which means "crazy guys from Sinaloa," tends to be made up of Mexican nationals, while MBP is a mix of Chicanos and younger, more assimilated Mexicans.

According to police intelligence, MBP stands against all of those rival newcomers.

Public perception paints gangs as roving and faceless bands of Goths and Visigoths pillaging neighborhoods; in reality, they may be more like the Viet Cong.

But instead of VC black pajamas, that charming fellow or gal who sits next to your son or daughter in history class may put on gang colors at night to kick it with his or her homies, whether or not he or she actually does anything criminal.

"What you don't find at home, you're going to find on the street," says Manny Tarango, a former social worker at North Canyon High School who now works for the Phoenix Parks Department.

The kids who get involved in the gangs are "the ones who want things but are naive and limited in their scope of thinking about how to get them," echoes Barbara Harp, social worker at Palomino Elementary School, across the street from the park. Her kids get recruited by older kids, who themselves are only 12 and 13 years old.

"A lot of times, the kids from Greenway Middle School come home early and come through our community because some of them live here, and they're trying to threaten the students in our population, saying Greenway is so bad, you really need to affiliate yourself for protection," Harp continues. "And these kids are so naive that they often fall into that trap."

Then all those kids come together at North Canyon High School, with the rich kids from the upscale developments.

For the most part, the schools themselves are spared from gang violence and even graffiti. Palomino, Greenway and North Canyon all have zero-tolerance policies and pounce on gang behaviors as soon as they are identified. And besides, the community regards the schools as havens that provide much-needed resources and services -- breakfast and lunch and outreach programs at Palomino, for example, and a Boys and Girls Club at Greenway. So gang graffiti more likely turn up on property across the street from the schools than on the schools themselves.

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