Gang, Bang, You're Dead

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

Even when dealing with documented gang members, Bailey takes a respectful tone of voice. The gangsters respond with forced-friendly bravado. It's a game, and both cops and gangbangers know the rules. It is from such encounters that Carolina Soto's name appears in police reports.

In an apartment complex parking lot off 29th Street, they encounter four boys in baggy pants and tank-top tee shirts. At first the boys deny any gang affiliation. Then they claim that they aren't doing anything wrong; one of them is on probation for graffiti violations. Then, as Bailey presses, they admit they're affiliated with K/13.

"The chicos and the peewees, they're the warriors in the streets," says Favela, referring to the youngest gang members, like these.

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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"They actually think they're protecting the streets."

Indeed, the boys swagger and exchange repartee with the officers. They are 12 and 13 years old and attend Greenway Middle School, they say in accented English.

They know all about Junior Soto: "His sister was in a gang, MBP," one of them offers. "But he wasn't in. And she got out."

One handsome young fellow with a bandanna on his head says that his gang name is Veneno, which means "poison."

"I usually don't fight, but when I get mad, nobody messes with me," he says, smiling.

"Remind me not to make you mad," Bailey counters without a trace of irony in his voice. Then he asks if they'll pose for Polaroid photographs. The boys comply, proudly throwing gang hand signs, seeming not to care that if they ever get in trouble and their lawyer tries to convince a jury that they are not gang members, these photos will suddenly reappear.

When asked in Spanish why he agrees to talk to the police, another of the youngsters, who goes by the gang name Tiny Chango, a slang word for "monkey," drops the cordial tone he'd used with the police in English. He knows what he can and can't say, and besides, he's not saying anything incriminating.

All four of the boys are Mexican nationals, and they seem perplexed by the social barriers between them and second- and third-generation Mexicans.

"I don't know why the gangs are fighting if we are all Mexicans," says Veneno.

Hours later, the officers encounter the same boys, along with some new friends, on a street corner several blocks away.

As the boys sit on the curb next to the cruiser, one of them looks up at Favela.

"Where you from?" the boy asks.

"From here," Favela answers.

"Phoenix?"

"No, California."

"You're Mexican, right?" the boy persists.

"Yeah."

"So where are you from in Mexico?"

The boy still doesn't get that Favela's family has been in the United States enough generations to have forgotten how to speak Spanish, let alone to still think of Mexico as home. But the youngster persists until Favela stops answering.

The boy spits on the street. Favela spits on the street.

A tiny Indian woman comes out of an apartment building and begins talking to the boys.

Veneno asks a favor: "Tell her in Spanish that we're not in trouble and the cops just want to talk to us."

The woman relates that Tiny Chango is her son and that one of the other kids is her nephew. Tiny Chango barks at her in Spanish and tells her not to say anything else.

Then, when asked in English why he didn't want a reporter to talk to his mother, he acts surprised.

"Does your mother know you run with the gang?"

"She don't care," he says, ignoring the fact that the woman had run out of her home to see if her son was in trouble.

But having caring, concerned parents is not foolproof protection against being caught up in a gang. And bilingual children often have an information advantage over parents who speak only Spanish; they use it as they see fit.

Bailey and Favela pull over a '63 Chevy Impala that is lacking a license-plate light. Its driver is a gangbanger they know well, and they handcuff him as he gets out of the car, because, as they claim, he sometimes comes out swinging.

But tonight, he's in a talkative mood, and when the detectives ask if he's got any tattoos, he displays an elegant depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe that he wears on his chest.

"Virgin Mary, she saved my life," he says without elaborating.

Then he pulls aside the straps of his tank top to show the two-inch-high letters that spell out "Mexican Brown Pride" on his back.

"What's it mean to me? It means that I'm Mexican, brown, and proud, because we got a lot of racist people around here. We got to keep la Raza together."

He's not really taking part in any gang activity, he says, whatever that might be. People are too busy taking care of business to be hanging out, he claims. Unless there's an emergency.

"Violence come down, well, you got to take care of 'em, I guess, so they don't bother us no more."

As for Junior Soto, he says, "Hey, it could have been anybody, man. They were shooting left and right."

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