Police and neighborhoods are wary as brazen youth appear ready to take their disputes west of their Rockwood/Gresham turf
Joseph Rose, The Oregonian, OregonLive.com, Jun. 23
Slouching on a shabby sofa in his parents’ East Portland apartment, Juan smirks and rubs his shaved head, but refuses to say how he got his street name.
He’s 15. When he walks with the gangsters of Sureno Trece, or Southside 13, he goes by “Sniper.” Oddly, his only known crimes of violence involved a knife and a set of jumper cables. Nothing with a gun.
On the eastern edge of Portland, where Latino gangs are increasingly leaving their mark with spray paint and blood, teens are finding a lot of ways to earn ruthless-sounding nicknames, Juan says.
Asked to elaborate, Juan just mutters an expletive and says, “watch the streets this summer.”
Police, neighbors and business owners are watching, and worrying.
Latino gangs known for brazen attacks against rivals for even the smallest slight, are growing more dominant in Portland. And more violent.
Between the last Thursday of April and the first Sunday of June, two teenagers and a 23-year-old man were killed in violence linked to Latino gangs.
“In Portland, I can’t say that we’ve ever had three Latino gang homicides in one year, much less in 33 days,” says Rafe Cancio, a longtime Portland gang enforcement officer.
In the past five years, most of the blood shed by Latino groups has fallen within the confines of Rockwood and other areas of Gresham. So, it’s easy to understand why three straight killings in Portland, including one as far west as Portland International Raceway, have rattled the city’s police force.
Traditionally turf-oriented, Latino gangs now appear willing to take their disputes out of the suburbs to “the west side,” Cancio says.
One victim, a 14-year-old boy shot at a barbecue, wasn’t the target of the gangbangers who allegedly killed him. The other two, however, had ties to 13th Street gangs. Retaliation is coming, police warn.
Some street cops say the resulting cycle of payback could lead to violence not seen since the African American gang battles over North and Northeast Portland a decade ago.
After five consecutive years of budget cuts, however, Portland police feel at a disadvantage.
Staffing reductions have forced the Gang Enforcement Unit into a more reactive role.
A unit once considered a crystal ball now admits that its officers often just shrug their shoulders when asked about the rise of Latino gangs. Gang enforcement officers say the last two shooting victims were “relative unknowns.”
Fighting African American gangs, and the drug dealing that keeps them alive, is still the unit’s priority. “We made a tough choice,” said gang enforcement Lt. Eric Hendricks. “We needed to put our people where most of the violence is.”
The choice could get even tougher. It’s no secret that Latino gangs are aggressively recruiting in East Portland, going after teenagers drawn to promises of friendship, girls, marijuana and, perhaps most importantly, status.
In the past 18 months, more than 80 percent of the 75 names added to the Police Bureau’s list of documented gang members belong to Latino groups such as Sureno Trece, Compton Vario Segundo, East Side Locos and Pine Street Click.
All total, 50 percent of the city’s more than 400 designated gang members now “claim” allegiance to Latino groups, police say.
Anyone looking for more evidence of the growth needs only to drive down one of East Portland’s main drags, which have been invaded by black and blue gang graffiti in the past two years.
It’s hard to find a fence, bus shelter, park bench, trash bin or fast-food restaurant wall that isn’t marked up with painted numbers and letters symbolizing gang names.
Jim Lawrence, one of four officers assigned nine months ago to a special anti-gang patrol in East Precinct, says the markings are intended to do more than claim turf.
“They’re challenging each other,” Lawrence says, pointing to collapsing fence in the Parkrose neighborhood, where someone has crossed out a “CVS” tag.
Residents of East Portland’s neighborhoods can’t avoid noticing the tags. Despite their best attempts to fight back by painting over the graffiti and experimenting with prevention programs, many say the surge in gang activity has left them scared and confused.
“Average people are pretty clueless about where this is coming from,” said Mark Gardner, co-chairman of the Parkrose Neighborhood Association.
According to law enforcement officials, Latino gangs began moving from California to Oregon in the late 1980s. Indeed, it was Ernesto Ysasaga, a Latino youth identified by police as a gang member, who sued Portland police in 1993, alleging their system of identifying gang members was too vague.
A judge agreed. In 1995, the Police Bureau was forced to trash its list of 2,800 alleged gang members and start anew, leading to the current, evidence-based system.
The original leaders ran their gangs like families. But eventually, they went to prison or simply fled the state, giving rise to groups with little structure and a greater appetite for violence, police say.
They say the new crop of Latino gang members are boys moving to Portland from California with their parents. They bring their gang cultures with them.
Cheap rent, family connections and anonymous apartment buildings bring them to East Portland and Gresham.
Unlike African American gangs, which revolve around the drug trade, “Latino gangs are not moneymaking machines,” Cancio said.
“It’s about pride, machismo,” he says. “They see themselves as street soldiers of neighborhoods, fighting against enemies, perceived or otherwise.”
The guiding philosophy? “No challenge goes unanswered,” Cancio says.
Before sunset on April 29, Enrique Rodriguez Borja answered the challenge at a bus stop at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 125th Place. He was stabbed to death.
Two Saturdays later, 14-year-old Andre Andaur was shot in the chest as he stood around a barbecue with a group of friends at a birthday party. Police say the bullet wasn’t meant for the boy, who had no known gang ties.
Less than two hours before the 10 p.m. shooting, Officer Lawrence had been at the same house in the 4700 block of 106th Avenue. He reminded Andaur and six other teenagers gathered outside that tensions were high after Borja’s stabbing. He urged them to take their party inside.
“I don’t know what else we could have done, “ Lawrence says.
Andre’s mother, Vivian, feels the same way. She made her son carry a cell phone to the party. At 9:30 p.m., she called him and told him to come home. “OK, mom,” he said. At 10:30, unaware that Andre had been dead for nearly a half-hour, she called again.
The phone kept ringing.
“I was so naive,” Vivian Andaur says. “I knew nothing of these gangs. I knew nothing of the danger to my children. Now, I know more than a mother should know.”
On the afternoon of June 6, an argument between 13th Street and 18th Street Latino gang members erupted outside a lowrider car show at the Expo Center. Minutes later, down the road and near the Portland International Raceway, someone shot 16-year-old Alexx Alexander in the head.
During Alexander’s autopsy, the medical examiner noted the “13” on the boy’s belt buckle. Even in death, he claimed allegiance to the 13th Street gang.
When Vivian Andaur heard about Alexander’s death, just two weeks after her son’s, she cried again. “I feel like these kids are killing people like they are flies,” she says. “I feel like all I can do is beg the parents of these kids to keep an eye on their children. Get involved with them. Don’t let other innocent victims die.”
Slouching deeper into his parents’ sofa, Juan nods at his mother as she walks past the Jesus clock keeping time in the living room. She only speaks Spanish. His father “works at a factory or something like that,” the boy says.
They haven’t tried to stop him from “kicking it,” or hanging out, with gangsters, he says. He isn’t an official member yet. He hasn’t gone through the brutal beating it takes to get initiated, but the new “South Side 13” tattoos on his biceps leave no doubt about his loyalty.
“They take care of me like a family,” Sniper says. “I like the way they walk and talk. I feel like I’m someone . . . and I’m ready to prove myself to any fool who wants to challenge me.”