Gang, Bang, You're Dead

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

He and his cousin would walk the streets of The Square without being bothered, because they were "the guys from Chicago." Edwardo told the local gangsters that he couldn't join their sets because where he came from, gang membership was for life. It was an excuse that was good enough for Phoenix, though it wouldn't have passed muster back home.

Edwardo now has four children and a tire business in north Phoenix.

Junior had come to Phoenix at a young enough age to assimilate into his integrated neighborhood. Carolina joked that he was becoming a white boy, "because he started saying 'dude' and stuff."

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.

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"He was always on the jock highway, and I was by Little Mexico in school," she says. "I don't have anything against white people, but I'm from Chicago, and there's hardly any white people there."

Her adaptation to Anglo north Phoenix was more difficult because she came at the uneasy, identity-seeking age of 14.

Her Mexican friends in Chicago spoke mostly in English and even danced to English-language music. In Phoenix, the Mexicans were more likely to speak Spanish and dance to Mexican music. And though that was strange to her, it was less strange than Anglo Arizona.

She fell in with kids from the Mexican Brown Pride gang.

"They were the first people I met in high school," she says. "I started kicking with them at school, and then a couple, two, three years ago, I started kicking with them [after school] and going to parties."

They would go dancing or to the amusement park or cruising in low riders or partying in The Square.

Carolina claims she was never "jumped in" to the gang -- the ritual beating one endures to become a full-fledged gang member -- and she has no criminal record. To Edwardo's dismay, her name does turn up in police records as a "documented gang member" or an "MBP associate," meaning that she associates with Mexican Brown Pride members.

She has taken a long time to get through high school -- she is now a senior at age 19 -- and school staffers remember her alternately as a troublemaker or a peacemaker.

In fact, she could talk to the gang members and calm them, and occasionally was called upon to do so. She admits that when her gang friends were looking for mischief, she would say, "'That's stupid. Why do you want to steal a car, get arrested for fucking joy riding?' I would make them see things differently, and they would say, 'Gato [her nickname], that's true!'"

And yet she remains loyal enough to them that she won't reveal whereabouts of friends who could substantiate her account of Junior's death.

Social worker Manny Tarango remembers Carolina from North Canyon High School and from a gang-prevention group that she attended at a teen center. He describes her as "a good-kid, gone bad-kid, gone trying-to-be-a-good-kid."

"Although Carolina may have been one of the deepest involved in the gang, she was my biggest ally in getting other kids before they got into a gang," says Tarango.

On the night of Junior's death, Carolina was hanging out with a friend who goes by the gang name of Puppet. In fact, it was Puppet who heroically carried Junior to Carolina's car after he was shot. Although Puppet could not be located for this story, police and court records quoted him as saying that he was jumped into MBP and later jumped out -- which entails another beating -- and that he was on probation for attempting to sell stolen cars to undercover officers. Then, while awaiting trial, he had found religion and left the gang life.

Carolina, likewise, swears that her own days as a gang associate are past.

"It's over," she says. "I'm not trying to give my parents any more grief."

And that's also the word in The Square.


On a recent Thursday night, Phoenix gang squad detectives Steve Bailey and Sam Favela motor through The Square in their unmarked cruiser, gathering intelligence.

At first blush, their technique seems heavy-handed. They follow the bands of youths and stop suspicious-looking cars on any pretext they can spot -- high beams up, taillight out. Nearly every time they stop, two marked patrol cars pull up to make sure the detectives are not in any trouble. They approach each car cautiously; about twice a year, Bailey says, they pull over someone who starts shooting.

Neighborhood residents come out of homes and apartment buildings to thank them for being there, and the officers respond with good-natured appreciation of their own.

On this night, one car they pull over turns out to be full of undocumented teenagers, and since the Phoenix Police Department has no jurisdiction over immigration, Bailey lets them go -- but not before he tries to tell the driver that his faked credentials are truly dismal.

"No es bueno," he says, straining his command of Spanish and pointing at the card.

When he gets back in the car, Bailey explains that he feels sympathy for those otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who have come to Phoenix looking for a better life.

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