Territorial conflicts between traditional youth gangs and an expanding illegal alien gang known as the Lopers have played a major role in the recent escalation of gang violence in Santa Ana, according to authorities and residents.
"The Lopers have been identified as a major contributor," Deputy Police Chief Eugene Hansen said. "But I don't want to lay the whole problem on their doorstep. We're also talking about . . . other gangs. The shootings are frequently related to a previous incident, but they're also often random retaliations."
Since January, there have been 90 gang-related crimes in Santa Ana, including 62 assault and battery incidents, 11 shootings into inhabited dwellings and three murders, according to police. Although much of the violence has been in southeastern Santa Ana, few areas of the city have been immune. Authorities estimate that as many as 10 of the city's 30 to 35 gangs have been involved.
In response, police on Friday announced a crackdown that will include the arrest of older gang members to de-fuse gang leadership. Police have also stepped up street patrols, and they are frequently stopping and questioning suspected gang members.
Residents and community workers say the relatively new Lopers, who once were bullied by old-line street gangs, have grown in number and are expanding their turf. But police say that the Lopers (the name is derived from similarly named street gangs in Tijuana and Mexicali) are paying a high price for their aggression.
A Police Department tally of 12 nonfatal gang shootings that wounded 16 people in June identified Lopers as victims more often than as suspects. Six members of the Lopers gang were wounded in June, taking more casualties than any other gang.
And, as inevitably is the case with gang violence, innocent bystanders were caught in the line of fire. Five times in June alone, non-gang members were struck by gunshots that probably were not intended for them.
"The illegals have always had their gangs and retaliated in the past, but not like now," said Frank Franklin, an Orange County deputy probation officer who has worked in the Santa Ana area for eight years.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard L. Fredrickson, gang prosecutor in Orange County Juvenile Court, said that "from time to time one gang becomes more active than another for various reason. Lopers are the primary agitators in the county right now."
The general escalation of gang violence has led to a climate of fear in many Santa Ana neighborhoods, residents say.
"Every night before I go to bed, there is shooting," said Cindy Hernandez, 25, who lives near the southeastern Santa Ana neighborhood of Delhi, where many of the recent shootings have occurred.
Her sister, Christina Juarez, 21, lives to the northwest, where for decades the F Troop gang has claimed the turf.
"It's awful every day," Juarez said. "You hear sirens and shooting. For some reason, it's getting worse."
Gang-related graffiti and vandalism have increased. And "for the first time ever we've had punched-out stained-glass windows," said Msgr. Wilbur Davis of St. Joseph's Catholic Church, 727 N. Mentor Ave., but the immediate neighborhood has been relatively free of violence.
Still, he said, "the people around here are afraid to go walking. There are people smoking (marijuana) and there are drug exchanges on the streets."
"I just anticipate there is going to be more and more gang" problems, Davis said. "When you have large families of people who are poor and living in poor economic conditions caught between cultures, they drop out of school; they don't have the skills or the confidence to better their situation; they get very bitter and feel very disenfranchised and turn to violence."
Now, the authorities say, it's time to take a hard line.
"They're not going to get away with anything," said Lt. David Salazar, who heads an anti-gang task force. "We want them to know they can't operate freely."
Councilman John Acosta said: "It's a serious situation, and it's gotten progressively worse. We had to do something before it got completely out of hand."
There are others, however, who are taking different approaches.
Several church groups have recently initiated or plan to establish counseling and outreach programs for parents as well as gang members. The county's first formal gang-diversion program has been established by Turning Point, a social services agency with offices in Garden Grove and Santa Ana. And residents, who for years have suffered the fear and danger of gang warfare, also are acting on their own to halt the bloodshed.
Mary Perez, the mother of Hernandez and Juarez, lives to the west, across Harbor Boulevard in what is known as the 17th Street gang's area.
Concerned by Violence
"There's always been danger out there," said Perez, who also has two teen-age sons. "The parents have to wake up and help their children."