By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Vallejo says Romero's biggest problem, besides lousy choice of friends, has been laziness.
"I love Joe, but he just don't like to work. He'll have a job for a little while, then he don't have it no more. He was the baby of the family -- always taken care of."
Romero is working loading trucks at St. Vincent de Paul. Like a lot of kids in the gang, he never finished high school. He says Vallejo was one of the few who put an arm around him and encouraged him to stick with his education. But that wasn't enough. "It was too easy to ditch. I wasn't bad at grades. I was out there having fun, so I just wanted to take off."
Romero paints a rosy picture of uniting with other gangs and turning the turf wars into weekend sports competitions and barbecues. "We should be uniting. We're all the same color, the same race. We should respect each other."
But that picture clouds when he returns to talking about his family and his future. Though he says he didn't mind growing up without a father, his father's absence dogs his conscience about his own children.
"Seeing a baby born is like the most beautiful thing you can see, seeing it coming out and hearing it cry and knowing you're going to be a dad. It opens your eyes, know what I mean? I don't want my kids to be like me, not knowing my father. I want them to know their father. I want them to know all the good things, that I'm there for them, that I'll take care of them and don't want to let them down."
The one thing he's sure of is he'd like them to know the security of the gang. "I don't want them to have the bad stuff. I want them to have the good.
"It toughens them up and lets them know what to look for on the street. You've got to tell them that this is going to happen and what to [do]. I guess it just comes with where you're raised up at. It comes with the neighborhood."
Beyond that, Romero is unsure about how to provide for his children and love them. He doesn't know what he wants to do with his life, or how to proceed. He talks vaguely of getting his GED, but he has no horizons in view -- no sense of how to become the provider he says he'd like to be for his children.
Maybe he would leave the neighborhood to give his children a better life, he says, but he isn't sure where he might take them. He simply repeats the desire to get "the best for them -- whatever I can do for them. But I don't really know. . . ."
The disconnection between his desires and deeds -- between wanting for his children and being with them -- is apparent the afternoon of the party.
While his children wait with their mother, Myra Rosales, on line to see Santa Claus, Romero is across the street, talking with one of his many friends -- man to man. When Santa finally gets the kids on his lap, Romero isn't there to see it. He arrives again only later, when it's time for them to leave.
The day after Christmas, Romero was arrested on outstanding traffic warrants. Serving 10 days in jail, he'll see in the new year from behind bars. "He needs to learn his damn lesson," says an aggravated Rosales.
And episodes such as the police department's bizarre handling of a supremely sensitive family matter only serve to heighten suspicions:
"They were laughing," says Phoenix Police Detective Steve Bailey of fellow gang-squad officers upon learning that a suspect targeted for arrest in a March 31 sweep of the Las Cuatro Milpas neighborhood had turned up dead in a west Phoenix alley.
The officers weren't laughing specifically about the March 20 shooting death of 26-year-old Norberto Rosales Davalos, Bailey implies. Rather, it was the timing of his murder, which meant one less search warrant having to be served, one less dangerous confrontation and arrest of a gang member.
"Had he not been killed, he would have been arrested," Bailey says.
While officers may have been amused about the timing of Davalos' death, his family members are outraged that it took police 11 days to identify his body and notify them. And, after police say they finally did identify Davalos, rather than immediately tell the family, they used his photograph -- covered by paper -- as a prop in a public-relations stunt.
"The point is they knew he was dead and didn't tell us," says Davalos' sister, Myra Rosales. "Oh God, this makes me so mad."
The incident has heightened the already considerable distrust of the police in the Milpas, which lies beneath the western approach to Sky Harbor International Airport in an area bounded by Seventh, 16th and Mohave streets and Buckeye Road. The neighborhood has a long and deep connection with LCM. Many adults in the neighborhood came of age as gang members.