Mystery Science 2000

Steven took his first punch on the playground at Mitchell Elementary School in west Phoenix. He was five. He didn't defend himself, because his assailant was a sixth-grade girl, and Steven was taught never to hit girls. So he lay bleeding while his older sister walloped the girl.

Growing up, fighting was a part of life, recalls Steven, who is now 21. He's a round-faced, handsome Latino with a wisp of a beard and mustache and the typical gang attire of a white tee shirt, jeans and black shoes.

But he's not in a gang -- at least, not right now. He's leaning back in a chair in an office at the Mesa Gang Intervention Project, an experimental federal anti-gang program that, unlike other similar programs, actually tries to convince kids to leave gangs rather than simply preventing them from joining. Steven is telling how he wound up needing intervention.

"I have a rowdy family, and fighting isn't a bad thing in my family. It was playing, you know? And it was just something that everybody wanted to do. Sometimes you get mad at this cousin or this brother, and you fight with them. It built a respect. If he called you an asshole and you fought him for it, he'd never call you that again. Whether or not you got your ass beat or whether or not you beat him up, it was just a respect thing . . . like we didn't know how to communicate with each other, and that's why we always ended up fighting."

And, he recalls, ". . . we attracted a different crowd, not the kind of friends you bring home to your mom, you know what I'm saying? We attracted more of a violent crowd, you know?"

A gang crowd.

Steven's dad had been in a gang before he had kids; some of Steven's uncles were in gangs. His older sister ran around with a gang, Westside Hollywood.

"I always thought it was cool. I always thought hanging out with the guys was something I wanted to do. . . . I didn't know that gangs were bullshit. I found out the hard way, believe me."

Steven was jumped into Westside Hollywood when he was 11.

"Everybody, all these guys that I'd seen my sister, my cousins, my brother go to school with . . . they had everybody in check, in control, you know? It was like this: 'You don't come around, you get beat up. You dis us for a girl, you get beat up. We're your family,' you see what I'm saying? 'You're gonna earn our respect. You're gonna do what you're told, you're gonna pay your dues, until you're like me. Then you don't have to do a damn thing -- you can tell everybody else what to do.' That is very important to them. If you come around and you don't do no dirt, you're gonna get beat up.

". . . You gotta break the law, period. If you see some guy walking on your street, you're gonna knock his ass out. . . . They're gonna help you, you know what I'm saying? You're a little guy. And 11 years old, hanging out with 17-, 18-, 20-year-old guys, they're gonna use you."

It was use or be used.

"You're trying to use every bit of a person -- we called it resource -- you know, it's like, that's a resource. We'd use a person for their car, we'd hustle people that were stupid. A lot of white guys would come down and want to be down. 'Yeah, all right, we'll be nice to you, let us use your car.' It was like that. We'd go do a beer run. Stuff like that.

". . . A lot of the wetbacks, the guys from Mexico who sell a lot of drugs, they had to pay. They all had to pay. You wanna sell here, you're gonna give us this, you're gonna give us that. It was all about money. It was. Respect and money. There was a lot of females in my neighborhood, too, and they would get pimped.

". . . It's taught to you. You have to be tough. Their way or no way, that's the way it is. And our way was, it was like this: Ain't No Gooder Than a Hollywooder, you know, and it's like, 'Wassup?' My barrio, that's it. We don't talk to no other gangs, we segregate ourselves."

They didn't talk, but they did fight.

"It was rough, man, because you're fighting all the time and these are guys that you played ball with. . . . And you're really not understanding why you're fighting these guys, but you fight 'em 'cause they're from that place, and that's it.

". . . You from the barrio? That's the way it is."

But when Steven was 12, his family moved to Tempe. He suddenly found himself in predominantly white schools.

"I experienced a lot of racism. I experienced a lot of neglect. It's like they look at you, they look down on you. I was used to going to school in some Converse, or just anything, rubber shoes, cut-offs. And everyone's wearing Jordans. And, God, I felt so out of place, I felt like I didn't belong there because I couldn't make no friends, you know, and then I couldn't bring nobody home because they thought everybody was mean and everything cause my family, they talk loud. . . . And when they see my dad smack me on the head" -- Steven smacks the table -- "they're like, 'Whoa!'"

Shortly after his arrival in Tempe, Steven shot a gun at a house in Chandler. He was sent to Adobe Mountain juvenile correction center.

"When we were in Phoenix, everyone gets away with everything. Over here, it's like, you know, the law, they got the shit down."

How did a 12-year-old get a gun?

"I was taught by the best. I was the biggest manipulator. . . . I took advantage of a lot of these kids out here, you see what I'm saying? I was a snake. I did everything for the cause, everything. It didn't matter if they got hurt, I didn't give a shit. It's all for the cause."

The cause?

"I was on a mission, you understand? I was trying to fight something that wasn't there. I was confused, but I really believed that if I got all these dudes to strong-arm these motherfuckers, we could run shit out here. I wanted it to be like the west side, I wanted it to be."

Getting locked up wasn't so bad. "I felt like I was somebody." And he was out soon. "The laws were not so tough as they are now. They would have locked me up and thrown away the key [today]."

Steven was kicked out of Marcos de Niza High School on his first day, for fighting.

"I got jumped and I still got kicked out. You know why? My mentality was like, 'Accept me for who I am. This is who I am.' It's a different mentality. Say you're a teacher. You don't have any clue why I'm like the way I am."

He was kicked out of the next school -- McClintock High School -- on the first day, too.

"As far as high school, it was a lot of anger and resentment toward the system, toward white people. I was really racist because I thought that every white person I ran into, they gave me shit. They all had glasses. It was a stereotype I had toward white people. I was always looked down on because I was different. . . . I started saying, 'Fuck you, white people!' I was angry. I was very angry."

Steven managed to stay at Corona del Sol High for six months. That's where he and his brother helped to set up a chapter of their gang, called Southeast Hollywood.

"The guys from the west side, they saw us as a useful tool, me and my brother. And they said, 'You know what? Start another chapter.' And that's what happened. . . . I don't wanna say I started it, but it just snowballed, you see what I'm saying? And Southeast Hollywood, it became known. I mean, we were our own men. We didn't have to answer to nobody. And it was just like something that fell into our hands. And I was jumping in guys older than me, guys that were like 23. . . . I'm knocking heads."

Around the same time, Steven fathered his first child. He was 14.

At 15, he was back at Adobe -- accused of a shooting, a charge of which he was later acquitted. Again, he enjoyed detention, hooking up with his homeboys, scaring the staff.

"I went in a toothpick. I came out with muscles, you know? Every day for nine months, come on man, you're gonna grow. Eating good, three meals a day."

After Adobe, Steven never went back to school. A dropout at 16.

The gang had dwindled while he was locked up -- from 60 to 20 members. "The true guys, the true Hollywooders out there, stayed. The pussies, the weak motherfuckers, they left. And we respect that, because we don't want you around us if you're gonna wuss out, okay?

"They supported themselves by selling drugs, mainly pot. Marijuana's a big thing out there. . . . A lot of people smoke weed -- even doctors and teachers."

Steven hadn't lived at home since his first child was born (he now has several; he and his girlfriend recently married), but his father convinced him to go through the Project Challenge, a boot-camp-like alternative to detention. He stayed clean for a while, but it was hard. His buddies didn't approve. "I started hearing questions -- 'Oh, [Steven] is weak. We gotta start doing something about him.'"

He started smoking pot again, hanging out with his homies.

He was locked up again by the time he was 18.

"My best buddy got shot by these guys from 48th Street. We're like, 'They did that to us. If we don't do something back, that's bad. We could lose everything.' . . . We didn't know how to get this guy, you know, 'cause he's surrounded by 10, 15 guys. We saw him at Kmart, it was just like, 'That's the guy.' We just ended up beating him up, my partner stabbed him, he almost died."

Right there in the pharmacy aisle.

"It was fucked up. You gotta remember, we were fucking stupid asses. We were dumb."

Steven hid out in his neighborhood but felt guilty, because his friends had been caught. He finally turned himself in, almost a year later.

He spent seven months in Madison Street Jail. The food wasn't as good as at Adobe; Steven wasn't happy. Because of his juvenile record, Steven was offered a plea bargain of a 12-year prison term. One of his friends who had a clean record convinced Steven to pin the crime on him, knowing the friend would never have to go to trial.

It worked. Both got probation.

Steven decided to give up gang life. Southeast Hollywood had fallen apart during Steven's last stint away, he says. Most of the leaders went to jail as a result of the Kmart stabbing. And then there was the threat of 12 years in prison, the fact that the cops knew who he was.

"You know what scared me, was the fact I'm not going to see my kids. I just realized what's important. . . . I grew up. You know what a lot of it was? That anger went away. I stopped feeling sorry for myself."

Even though Steven's dad had been in a gang, he had stopped banging when he had kids.

"My dad didn't do that bullshit to us. He didn't leave us hanging. . . . I ain't no punk. I'm a man now."

Steven admits, "I have had a hard time not being a gangster." For the first year he was out of jail, he says, he stayed home. He was depressed.

About a year and a half ago, Steven moved to Mesa. He meets with his probation officer once a week at the Mesa Gang Intervention Project (if he were in a normal probation program, it would only be once a month), and while he doesn't hang out at the project headquarters too much, he has attended group-therapy sessions hosted by outreach workers Kimo Souza and Tony Garcia.

"What I got was a lot of one-on-one with my probation officer and with Kimo. Just a lot of communication, you know what I'm saying? They broke that barrier that they couldn't be trusted. I had my guard up. I thought I was just set up in the system, set up for failure, they could do whatever they wanted with me and I've got nothing to say about it."

Something happened recently that solidified Steven's faith in the Mesa Gang Intervention Project. A couple of months ago, Steven was arrested after a friend was caught in a carjack. Steven and another friend were in a car nearby. Steven denies any involvement. He spent two-and-a-half weeks in jail, until his probation officer got him released.

"He gave me the benefit of the doubt. He didn't have to let me out," Steven says. "It's like this, man. My probation officer, I trust him a little bit. And that is a lot, 'cause no one trusts their probation officer."

Steven doesn't know if the Intervention Project would have helped him when he was 16. But it's helping now.

"A lot of events have turned my life around, but this definitely helps," he says. "I believe they're more patient here. I think that's all people really need, is a little more time. You know, they set up rules, regulations, you don't comply -- bam! You're gone. Sometimes people really want to be helped, but they just need a little more time."

". . . I don't for one second ever doubt their authority. Not for one second. I know who's in charge here. I am going to do what I have to do. I don't mistake their kindness for weakness. I respect their kindness, appreciate it and understand what I have to do. It took me a long time, but I believe I'm there. My attitude is there."

On a recent weeknight, Steven's younger brother dropped by the project to pick him up. While he was waiting, the outreach workers convinced him to enter the program, too.

The federal government's premier anti-gang program is housed in a Mesa strip mall.

The Mesa Gang Intervention Project suite is a maze of tiny offices holding police officers, probation officers and social workers. Project employees use high-minded terms such as "holistic," "integrated services" and "community mobilization," but the concept is as simple as a lesson on Sesame Street: cooperation. Put everyone at the table -- cops, teachers, outreach workers, probation officers -- and develop a comprehensive approach to helping a particular gang member, and his family.

The ultimate goal is reducing gang violence.

No gang members are required to participate. If an offender is assigned to one of the three probation officers at the project, he or she will go there to meet with him or her -- usually once a week. But offenders are not required to talk to the cops or the social workers housed at the project, or take part in the art classes, literacy training or other available services. With low-key encouragement, after a while, a kid like Steven might interact with someone besides his probation officer. And that might lead somebody away from a gang. Or at least away from gang violence.

"This isn't rocket science," admits Jim Burch, program director of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency in Washington, D.C., which oversees the project.

But in the past four years, enough money has been spent on this program to have actually trained more than a few gangbangers to be rocket scientists.

Nationwide, the federal government has spent more than $11 million on site operation and evaluation of five pilot gang-intervention programs. Communities are required to kick in with funds and staffing, so the figure is actually much higher.

So far, nearly $3 million in federal and local funds -- about evenly divided -- has been devoted directly to the Mesa Gang Intervention Project. Most of that money has gone for staffing: 14 employees work with about 120 program participants who live in a targeted area of the city. Of those 120, only 100 are identified as gang members or gang associates. The rest are classified as "at-risk."

More than a third of the program participants have been arrested in possession of a weapon; 65 percent are on probation; but of the 100 gang members and gang associates, program officials admit that as few as a half-dozen are "hard-core" gang members, gang leaders who are frequently involved in such violent activities as drive-by shootings.

Case management coordinator Dan Zorich cherishes his small successes. Many gang members have broken the law while in the program, but some come back for help when they get out of jail. Five program participants have obtained high school diplomas, and the program is paying for each to take a class at Mesa Community College. Zorich is proud of the East Valley tattoo removal program he started -- even though only a handful of the 60 who have had tattoos obliterated are actually a part of the Mesa Gang Intervention Project.

At times this summer, it seemed almost impossible to get a kid to come in the door. Zorich and his staff couldn't get a counseling group for girls up and running; they couldn't convince more than a couple kids to come to art class.

Although the Mesa Gang Intervention Project was designed as an academic model -- similar programs exist in Tucson; San Antonio; Bloomington, Illinois; and Riverside, California -- after four years of operation, the feds have little to report beyond a vague notion that crime and drug use are down and employment is up among project participants in Mesa. They don't know if the drop in crime they perceive is any higher than it is outside of the target area. Preliminary results may be available as early as next March, but final data likely won't be released for another two years -- at least.

Even then, it might never be as reliable as the evaluators would like. To get reliable results, 100 kids in the target area must be compared with 100 kids in a control area. That has been more difficult than anticipated, evaluators say. To date, they've only interviewed 50 of the 100 kids in the control group.

Further confusing evaluations of efficacy is the fact that Mesa's gang numbers continue to grow. Since 1990, the number of gangs identified in the city has increased from five to 25. Between 1994 and 1999, the number of identified gang members climbed from 518 to 1,035. (These figures are not adjusted for population growth, and could reflect the growing awareness of gangs by the Mesa Police Department.)

And yet, the Mesa Gang Intervention Project is recognized nationally as the best of its kind. The Justice Department had planned to pull out of the project at the end of 1999, but asked the five pilot sites to justify another year's funding. Authorities such as U.S. Senator Jon Kyl, Mesa Police Chief Jan Strauss and Maricopa County Juvenile Court Services director Cherlyn Townsend wrote rave reviews. Only Riverside and Mesa were successful in getting fifth-year federal funding; Mesa will continue next year with $500,000 from the feds and another $350,000 from local sources.

When asked to identify the best anti-gang program in the country, Jim Burch admits Mesa isn't perfect, but says it's about as close as it gets.

That begs some questions:

Is the Mesa Gang Intervention Project the Justice Department's equivalent to the Pentagon's $640 toilet? At these prices, it might be effective to simply pay kids -- and they could be paid very well -- to eschew the thug life.

Or will this experiment provide the elusive model for limiting gang violence?

Irving Spergel has been studying gangs -- usually in Chicago, he's a professor at the University of Chicago -- since the 1950s.

Spergel believes it takes a village to defeat gang violence. Part of the theory has to do with exchanging information. For example, the cop and the probation officer should share details about individual gang members, to better assess what's going on in the neighborhoods and stop violence before it starts. The educators who see the gang member at school should be consulted. Information must flow freely.

And, Spergel says, it's not enough to focus only on the gang member. Younger siblings are at high risk for gang involvement; they need outreach from positive sources. And because gang activity often takes place in poorer areas, families usually need economic assistance and counseling. The fact that so much gang activity takes place in first-generation immigrant neighborhoods -- metropolitan Phoenix is a good example of this -- presents an even greater challenge, Spergel says, because of issues surrounding illegal immigration. People who aren't supposed to be in this country are afraid to ask the authorities for help with a kid in a gang.

The feds took an interest in gangs in the '60s, then largely ignored the problem until the mid-'80s. In the '60s, gang suppression was considered the province of social-service agencies; in the '80s, the cops came to the fore. But no one came up with a comprehensive approach until 1987, when Justice Department officials began to work with Spergel and his team at the University of Chicago to develop a model anti-gang program for midsize cities. It had been decades since anyone had done a comprehensive evaluation of an anti-gang program -- a key component of Spergel's model. The plan was finished in 1991, but sat on a shelf for two years before Justice officials announced a search for cities to implement the model.

Mesa was a natural. Civic leaders had formed a gang prevention committee in 1992. Composed of educators, agencies such as the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club, elected officials and representatives of law enforcement and the justice system, the committee offered the kind of approach Spergel supports.

In 1994, Dan Zorich -- a longtime Maricopa County adult probation officer with a social-work background and experience working in prisons -- was assigned to head up case management. Unlike the other four model programs, Mesa decided to house all services under one roof -- a strip mall near Broadway and Country Club. Zorich hired staff, including Mary Jane Perry, who had run former U.S. senator Dennis DeConcini's east Valley offices for more than a decade; Perry knew her way around the federal bureaucracy and Mesa government. Probation officers -- both adult and juvenile -- and outreach workers were added to the mix. The Mesa Police Department, the lead local agency, devoted three officers.

Before they could start working with gang members, project employees had to develop an evaluation process. A target area -- from Main Street south to the Superstition Freeway and Mesa Drive west to the city limits -- was identified. A control area was also established. The idea is to maintain a test group of 100 program participants whose behavior could be compared with 100 gang members/associates in the control area over three years.

Data is collected in two ways: from police records, and one-on-one interviews with project participants. It's not easy, Spergel says. It's hard to know when a kid is telling the truth about what's going on on the streets, and with the Valley's transient population, kids move in and out of the area, which muddles data collection.

"It's difficult in the evaluation, and it's expensive, and you get a lot of resistance," he says. But he insists that the expenses and the effort are worth it. "Everyone thinks they've got the answer, but we've gotta have hard data."

The Mesa Gang Intervention Project began accepting gang members in 1995.

As the program ends its third year of working with kids, everyone involved -- including Spergel, the Justice Department and Zorich and his staff -- agrees that outreach has been the biggest challenge.

There are two reasons for this. First, this program is primarily an academic model. Data collection is the goal, and that means extensive paperwork as well as the fact that some candidates for the program must be turned away.

Zorich says he supports the project's goals, but admits the paperwork has been a frustration.

"It's costly," he says. "We're working with 120-plus youth, and I have 14 staff members. You look at that ratio, that's pretty expensive. . . . We could [involve] more kids than we're doing. The reason the number's so small is because we have a lot of paperwork associated with the evaluation process. With the staff we have we could easily double -- or triple" the number of kids involved.

The rigidly enforced target area has also been a source of frustration.

"It's difficult when we get a call from a parent who lives across the street from our boundary, and we can't do anything for that kid. All we can do is tell them what other resources are out there. That's literally happened," Zorich says. ". . . It's not only hard to explain to families, it's hard to explain to other professionals. Probation officers that need our services are real frustrated working with a gang member, would love to send a kid, transfer their case over to us, but because they live in another area, we won't take the case. Well, you think that officer's going to transfer another kid that he gets, who does live in our area, a few months later? No. The fact that we refused to assist them with their client is probably going to be a reason for them to forget about our program later."

Justice's Jim Burch admits, "It is difficult, and a lot of communities, as a matter of fact, are now saying that they can't force themselves to accept a program" that's not open to everyone.

Outreach worker Kimo Souza says the frustrations are necessary to assure reliable data: "We're a research model. I fully understand that. We've got a control group outside, so the more that we help the control group, the less difference that we're going to see. But on the other side, I think we have to balance the ethical responsibilities that we have within ourselves. So although we don't count these people as numbers [in the program], we do refer them to places that can help them."

Chuck Katz, a professor at ASU West who is one of the local evaluators, says this is simply science. "It's analogous to a medical trial. You give 100 patients a particular drug, you give 100 patients a placebo, and you see which is more effective."

"For all we know," he adds, the Mesa project "could increase the gang problem."

The second impediment to outreach has been staffing. Zorich says he went through eight outreach workers before hiring the current pair. Part of the problem, Irving Spergel says, is that Mesa was slow to accept one of the tenets of his project: Outreach workers must be former gang members who can speak the kids' language. One of the closest they have had is Mary Ruiz, a middle-aged woman who grew up on one of the tougher blocks of the target area. Ruiz (who is still on staff) relates well to younger kids and girls, but she wasn't quite what Spergel had in mind for impressing hard-core gang youth.

Six months ago -- three and a half years into the program -- Mesa finally hired Tony Garcia, once a truly hard-core banger. With him came a dramatic improvement in outreach.

Dan Zorich met Tony Garcia at the tattoo removal program. Garcia, 25, had just spent two years in prison for burglary. As with many former gang members, it was a combination of things -- his three kids, a religious conversion, a dread of prison -- that made Garcia leave gang life.

Getting gang tattoos removed is the ultimate commitment to clean living, Zorich says, so he knew Garcia was serious about forsaking his gang. But although he had the approval of Spergel and the feds, Zorich had trouble convincing the Mesa cops to let him hire Garcia.

"This went up the chain, believe me," says Steve Toland, the Mesa police lieutenant who directs the project.

"Our gang detectives were all very aware of Tony. If you look years back, Tony was out there -- and now we actually have our detectives working with him."

Toland credits Police Chief Jan Strauss -- who has been involved with the project from its inception -- for granting approval to hire Garcia.

"That was a hard choice," Strauss says. " . . . It took a long, long time for me to feel comfortable with it -- I'm still a bit edgy about it -- but I think what Dr. Spergel's thesis is is that if you don't have someone who's been there, how effective is your program? It's an uneasy feeling, but then again, if this man is capable of turning his life around and can help kids to stay away from it, then that's a good preventative move."

So far, so good. Garcia works in tandem with Kimo Souza, a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University who has a background in counseling. Souza, who is short and stocky, and Garcia, tall and lean, are Laurel and Hardy, constantly exchanging wisecracks with each other and the kids.

"I know the kids really connect with him," Souza says of Garcia. "We're a little unorthodox in the way that we go out there, we kind of tag-team out there, and people kind of look at us. Although we're part of the system, we're not part of the system. We're viewed kind of in the middle ground."

It's hard to imagine, looking at the sweet-faced young man with the pink scars -- vestiges of his tattoos -- that Tony Garcia was a devoted gangbanger.

He won't reveal his gang name, or even his neighborhood.

"I grew up here in Arizona, and got in trouble while I was young, did all that number, did some time in prison and now I'm just out. I've changed my life," he says.

Garcia says he grew up wanting to be macho. He loved the movie Scarface.

Having his children visit him in prison was a humbling experience, and now Garcia, whose résumé lacks anything more substantial than a few months doing custom woodworking, is a social worker.

He says he's gotten some grief from his former homies, but nothing he can't handle.

"Like I told them, I did my dirt and I did my time, and they know all that, and no one can say anything bad about me, can't say nothing ever bad about me. And I say to them, 'If I want to better my life, and that means have a good job and support my kids or whatever, and you have a problem with that, then you're the one with the problem.' A lot of 'em, they're backing me, man. Because you gotta understand, when I was growing up . . . we had this pack that we would be down for each other. And they see me and they encourage me, you know?"

Have they grown out of the gang life, too?

"I don't wanna say."

Souza admits some have asked for help.

When a client is signed up with the Mesa Gang Intervention Project, a home visit is the first order of business.

Maria and her children illustrate how important such a visit -- and follow-ups -- can be. Maria, a single mom, has five teenage kids: four sons and her youngest, a daughter. They live in the project's target area. Maria's second son, Marcos, 18, was sentenced to probation last August, which prompted a home visit by project outreach workers.

They found Maria at her wit's end. Three of her sons belonged to Wetback Power; the fourth associated with the gang. Her daughter was having social troubles of her own. Maria was depressed; she'd attempted suicide three times. Her job at a dry cleaner barely allowed her to pay rent and put food on the table.

Outreach workers helped Maria get treatment for her depression. They counseled her on how to set up ground rules at home to deal with her kids, who often came home at 3 a.m. or not at all.

When Maria lost her housing, outreach worker Carol Reed helped her find a one-bedroom apartment that barely fit her family but did fit her budget -- Maria is not here legally, so she didn't qualify for housing assistance -- and outfitted it with everything from clothes for the kids to curtains for the windows.

Since that time, 16-year-old Jesus was put into detention on a burglary charge. If it hadn't been for Marcos' involvement, project employees wouldn't have known about Jesus. Souza and Garcia helped get him released early, on the condition that he works or goes to school. They're helping with that, too.

His brothers aren't so sure, but Jesus says the experience has made him decide to give up gang life. He can call Kimo and Tony anytime his homeboys give him trouble, Jesus says, and they'll come and get him.

"They've been there for me," he says. "They're pretty cool. I like them a lot."

Not everyone is so receptive. Sometimes a family refuses to meet with staff. If that happens, says Dan Zorich, "We keep the door open. We've had families come back to us months later that initially didn't want to work with us, and then we told them that if you do need us call us, and they show up at our doorstep."

Same with the gang members. "A lot of the kids we work with would blow us off for six months and then turn up again, need our help."

The program has actually busted participants who violate their probation. "Two guys in particular went to prison," Zorich says. "They got released from prison, then a couple months after they were out they were back at our door, asking for help. There was no animosity. How many people could you violate, send to prison, and they would come back and ask for your assistance?"

The reason, Zorich maintains, is the program's light touch. Often a kid will visit his probation officer for months before he begins to talk to anyone else.

But if a kid does want to visit the project, he or she is catered to. A 15-passenger van shuttles back and forth to the neighborhoods, although Zorich insists he doesn't run a taxi service.

Another difference between Mesa's project and other intervention programs: Mesa does not have a zero-tolerance approach.

"Even if we don't get the kids totally disengaged from their gang lifestyle, if we can get them engaged in other things, other opportunities, maybe they won't be participating in the violence. Because a lot of the associations that these kids have with their gang friends are normal peer relationships -- normal for them," Zorich says.

"Maybe for these kids, being a gang member still holds some value for them. And who am I to say that your relationships are inappropriate? It's aspects of those relationships that are probably inappropriate."

Zorich and his staff try to stay patient.

Kimo Souza: "A lot of people come in and the next day you won't see them. You won't see them for a month, two months. And when they come in, it's not like, 'Where were you? I dropped 10 messages off.' It's, 'Hey, good to see you! What's up? How's your mom, how's your family?'

". . . We know how it is. We know how the system works. We don't make any of those judgments. We're looking for more of the quality of the relationship, and it's an ongoing one. I have a lot of respect for anybody that walks in here. I'm not quite sure if I'm that strong. I'm not quite sure if I could ever walk in here."

Two years ago, Todd's father tracked him down in Los Angeles and asked if he wanted to come live with him in Mesa. Todd had never known his dad -- "the only thing I ever knew about him was that he had a big-ass beard" -- but he agreed to move to Arizona.

Why did his father surface, after 17 years?

"I guess my dad had a dream or something that I had got killed, and it fucked him up a little bit," Todd says.

It wasn't a far-fetched notion. Todd had been deeply involved in a gang called Gangster Disciples for years.

"All my life, growing up, being good hasn't been no fun. It's always been easy to just say, 'Fuck it,' and do your own thing." Despite his tough talk, Todd's a personable kid with gray eyes that match his tee shirt, a shaved head and tattoos on his hands.

Todd's parents split when he was young, and not long thereafter his mom left Todd and his brother, who's a year younger, to the State of California.

"I don't really know her. All I know about her is I don't want to know her," says Todd.

The brothers lived all over -- "foster home to foster home, placement to placement, boys home to boys home, too many places," Todd recalls.

They started making trouble when Todd was 12, sneaking out of the house.

"We'd terrorize the neighborhood all night long. We were destructive kids, just run around breaking shit, throwing rocks through windows. Stupid shit. We got in a lot of trouble."

So what? "My foster mom didn't really have no say over me. She wasn't my mom anyway, how could she tell me what to do?"

The boys fought, broke things, started fires. "We wouldn't light anyone's house on fire or anything, we'd just light a dumpster to watch the cops come and put it out. It started out little."

He landed in a juvenile detention center at 14. That's when he joined a gang.

Todd didn't know about the rivalry between the Vice Lords and the Gangster Disciples. The Gangster Disciples originated in Chicago, an offshoot of the Black Panthers.

Some Vice Lords tried to jump him, and Todd stood up to them.

"Some guys from another clique seen how I didn't back down, you know, and I was down for my shit. So they came up to me later on and said, 'Yeah, why don't you join this gang? You won't be getting jumped no more and this and that.' At the time it seemed like a good idea. I didn't even realize how deep it all was."

He was jumped in. "What they do is they blindfold you, and you learn a prayer that you have to say before you do it. . . . And then everybody commences to kicking your ass. What they do is they put six pennies down in front of you and they don't stop until you've got all six of those pennies in your hand."

He doesn't recall how long it took him to pick up the pennies. Then his new homeboys -- or, in the Gangster Disciples vernacular, GDs -- branded his back.

Todd is white; most GDs are black or Hispanic. It was never an issue, he says.

"I was a down-ass crazy little fucker. I had my enemies and all, of course, but I can't say that I ever got picked on."

Gang life wasn't so intense while he was locked up, Todd says. Not so much could happen. He had terminology and rules to memorize. But once he was out of jail, a lot was expected of him.

The gang has an intricate hierarchy, and his superiors gave Todd orders: rob crack houses, jump people. He wasn't scared. He liked it.

"I kind of got out of hand myself, 'cause I was going up in my rank. I was so into it. . . . GD, that's all I was about."

When Todd was 15, his mom resurfaced and moved him and his brother -- who had joined GD as well -- to Memphis. "The judge asked us if we wanted to go with her, and the only reason why we said yes was we just wanted out of the place we were in." But it didn't matter.

"They're [GD] in every state you go to. It's not like a little local gang, you know. If you just want to get out of that gang, you just leave the neighborhood, you know what I mean? But with this, it's not even considered a gang. It's like an organization."

How did he meet other Gangster Disciples?

"Just walking down the street. The way it works, like, I would have a blue bandana hanging out of my right back pocket, folded a certain way, and if another GD sees that, they'll just right off the go, they'll be like, 'What's up, folk?' Or, 'GD.' They'll say that to you, and if someone says that to you, you're automatically supposed to test each other. The first thing you do is you walk up and you have your handshake, you feel each other out. You find out if this person is real or not, and then you go from there."

And from there, Todd ended up in detention again. Soon, he was back in L.A. with his old friends, selling drugs and gangbanging. (His brother stayed in Memphis; Todd's not sure where he is now.)

Did Todd consider the GDs his family?

"I don't really call myself having any family, you know? It wasn't really about the family or the love. I mean, the way I was going in my life, shit was so fucked up in the beginning that I don't want to say it turned me bad, but I was just a bad kid. I started out on that foot, and when I got older, I thought it was the thing to be doing, to be out there making money, easy money, sitting on your ass, getting high."

Then his dad tracked him down, and Todd figured what the hell, he'd move to Mesa. The GDs weren't hard to find.

"I was walking down the street over there by the [Fiesta] mall, one day, and I heard someone say, 'What's up, folk?'"

He walked up, did the handshake, spread the knowledge. "It's weird, because after you meet each other, it's like you've known each other your whole life. . . . You'd be surprised how many Gangster Disciples are out here."

But maybe not Todd, anymore.

He was recently charged with theft and possession of liquor and marijuana, and was assigned to probation -- and the Mesa Gang Intervention Project. In lieu of drug treatment, he can attend Kimo Souza and Tony Garcia's group counseling sessions.

Group is good, Todd says. It lets him vent.

"Kimo's cool, man. He's a good guy. Tony, too."

Will Todd gangbang again? "I'm not really gangbanging no more. I'm not running around doing the shit I was doing, but it wouldn't be hard for me to get back."

So many of Todd's friends have died, it's made him reflect.

"I really don't get joy out of beating somebody up anymore. I'm different now. I guess I'm just growing up."

Can a program like this one make someone stop banging?

"I think it all depends on what's inside that person, if they really, deep down inside, they want to get out of it, get away from this shit. But I've got the brands and all the tattoos. Tattoos, I guess, can be worked with, but you can't take a brand off."

He looks sad. He has a girlfriend, and she's not into gangs at all.

"I don't want that shit around her. She really, she didn't grow up anything like I did, she comes from a good family background, and I'd hate to bring that type of thing around her or put her life in jeopardy."

Todd dropped out of the 11th grade. He hangs out at home a lot; Kimo and Tony are trying to help him find a job. What does he want to do?

"I don't know. Definitely not no fast food or selling crack or heroin or none of that."

Federal funding for the Mesa Gang Intervention Project will almost certainly dry up by the end of 2000, but that does not necessarily mean the end of the program. In fact, city officials like Police Chief Strauss hope to expand the project city-wide. Without the evaluation component, costs will be lower, although there will need to be a commitment from a number of local social-service agencies to keep it up and running.

But Strauss does warn that the project would be among the first to be trashed in the event of an economic crisis.

"You know, it's one of those programs that when times are good, it's a great program," she says, "and if times ever get really bad, then we're gonna have to cut back on it."

Read more of our Hard Core stories.

Contact Amy Silverman at 602-229-8443 or at her online address:


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