Gang, Bang, You're Dead

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

But what happens to the students when they leave school property is another question altogether.

Junior Soto managed to steer clear of gang troubles, respected as much for his good nature as his don't-mess-with-me physique.


Junior's friends and family built a shrine at the site of his death.
Paolo Vescia
Junior's friends and family built a shrine at the site of his death.
Phoenix police detective Sam Favela questions a driver while on gang patrol in The Square.
Paolo Vescia
Phoenix police detective Sam Favela questions a driver while on gang patrol in The Square.

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In life, Hector Soto Jr. was no angel. Like many teenage boys, he smoked the occasional joint, drank the occasional underage beer, snuck his girlfriend into the house when his parents were away.

But he was well-liked by teachers and teenagers and their parents.

His high school principal remembers him as a nice, quiet boy with a wide range of friends.

"I loved the kid," says Cindy Nieves, whose son Nick was Junior's close friend. "He was here every day after school. They played basketball in front of the house with Lupe every day. And they're the only kids that ever showed me any respect."

Basketball was Junior's main passion. At 5-foot, 6-inches, he was too short to play organized ball, but he and his friends played nearly every day in driveways or at the middle school at the end of the block. On the day he died, he'd gone to Palomino Park for a pickup game because his usual ball-playing friends were all busy doing other things.

When Junior wasn't playing ball, he was lifting weights. He'd built himself up to a taut 180 pounds and could bench press a hundred pounds more than his weight.

He had a steady girlfriend. And he had a steady job working a cash register at the Kyoto Bowl at 32nd Street and Greenway Road; despite a fondness for water fights with the kitchen staff, the manager says he was a well-liked hard worker.

He'd intended to work there long enough to save up for a car and then get a job at the nursing home where his mother works.

He told his closest friends that he wanted to go into the military after high school and then become a police officer.

"When he was 10 years old, he said to me, 'Mami, yo quiero trabajar. I want to work,'" Maria Soto remembers.

She took him to a store in their south-side Chicago neighborhood to see if he could get a job there, but the shop owner told them he was too young. So then Junior asked if he could push an ice cream cart and sell popsicles. Maria dutifully tracked down the owner of such carts, who told her that her son could only sell popsicles if she accompanied him.

Junior was 11 when the family moved to Phoenix, "Para buscar una mejor vida para ellos" -- to find a better life for them, his father says.

Hector Soto Sr., 48, is a slight man with sad, light-colored eyes and a full dark mustache. His wife, Maria, 49, has dark Indian features. Hector calls her by the nickname Lucha, which means "struggle."

Hector Sr. was born in Puerto Rico, and moved to New York when he was 13.

As a young man, he migrated to Chicago, where he met and married Maria.

Maria was born in Durango, Mexico. It was a slightly unusual union -- in Chicago, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans comprise distinct communities that share a mutual distrust -- but they have been married for 25 years. They lived in a Mexican community called Little Village in southwest Chicago, near Midway Airport.

They came to Phoenix in 1994 and moved into an integrated, lower-middle-class neighborhood near 28th Street and Union Hills, next door to Maria's sister and her family, the Nietos. Edwardo was already there.

Because Hector Sr. and Maria speak little English, Edwardo, at 22 the oldest son, has served as a third parent for his younger brothers and sister. It was Edwardo who would kick Junior's butt and drag him to school when he caught him ditching, Edwardo who stopped by Kyoto Bowl to ask the manager to find more hours for Junior to work so that he'd have less time to smoke dope with his buddies. It was Edwardo who put Carolina in a gang-prevention group at the local teen center, Edwardo who would appear at school on behalf of both siblings if they got in trouble -- as he did the time Junior called out a youth who had bad-mouthed his sister.

And when Edwardo sees his sister's gang friends, he fixes a disapproving gaze on them to let them know that he holds them responsible for Junior's death.

Edwardo goes by the nickname Lalo. He is a small man like his father, but he has a big walk that he learned as a gangbanger in Chicago, where gang membership is mandatory. If you're born into the neighborhood, you're born into the neighborhood gang.

He speaks with flat Midwestern vowels, overlaid with a rasp and a quarter-time cadence peculiar to Chicago Hispanics. But his voice is always dead-on sincere. He won't say much about his own gang life in Chicago except that the gang "was like my family," and that when he became a father at age 16, he realized he "was in deep," and needed to get out. So when he finished high school, he moved his young family to Phoenix.

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