He had heard the warning over and over again, each time more dire, from his family, from his teachers, from the clergy: Get out of the gangs.
John Briseno didn't listen; if anything, he says now, the somber message only drove him more resolutely than ever into the angry life style of a Santa Ana gang member.
After all, he figured, he had already survived nearly a decade of gang life--knifings, drugs, drunken binges, assaults and robberies. He had worked his way up the gang hierarchy with each criminal notch on his belt. He would be all right.
"These people, they tell you about how bad the gangs are and you know they're right, but you can't admit it. So you play the macho part and ignore them," said Briseno, now 25. "That's the way it is on the streets."
So it was, too, when he was directed by court order a few years ago to meet with members of the Victory Outreach Church of Orange in a last-ditch attempt at rehabilitation. But after talking with the one-time gang members at Victory Outreach, Briseno discovered that when they said "we know what you're going through," they really meant it.
"I saw them and I saw me," Briseno said.
Formed in Orange County a decade ago, Victory Outreach relies on a core group of gang members-turned-devout Christians, now numbering about 300 in various stages of rehabilitation, to try to lure people such as Briseno from the permanent entrapment of gangs through face-to-face contact on the streets, religious training and in-house rehabilitation.
The countywide church program received Monday what organizers described as a key boost when Santa Ana Mayor Daniel H. Young met with them and offered the city's support in what has become a critical fight against burgeoning gang activity.
"It's clear that this issue cuts close to the mayor's heart, and the city's support is very important to us," said Pastor Bruce Bernal, head of the local Victory Outreach Church. "We're up against an epidemic, and we have to do something now unless we want another South-Central Los Angeles on our hands."
Though the meeting had been planned months in advance, the high stakes of the talks took on added poignancy coming less than 48 hours after one of the worst gang attacks in county history. A Saturday drive-by shooting in Garden Grove, believed to be the work of Santa Ana gang members, left a 17-year-old rival and a 4-year-old boy dead and six others injured.
The deadly assault "illustrates the need to have this kind of cooperation and to look at better long-range solutions," said Santa Ana Police Capt. Jim Dittman, who attended the morning session. Victory Outreach "members give us a perspective on the gang problems that we could never have." Young made no promises of funding, and organizers of Victory Outreach, financed entirely through the church's international fellowship, asked for none.
But the mayor did pledge such services as free city facilities and vehicles for Victory Outreach's use in their anti-gang rallies in Santa Ana, a county hub of gang activity. And he directed city police to work with the program's organizers, give them access to gang information and trouble spots and perhaps take them along on gang patrols to help ease tensions.
"These are the guys who are going to make a difference out there," Young said of the former gang members involved in Victory Outreach. "There are a lot of people out there in the community trying to do good things but they don't have the rapport with these kids. They're not there for the long haul."
City leaders, church organizers and the young members alike said it is the ex-gang members' unique access to crime-ridden communities and their ability to relate to current gang members that gives them a better chance than others to steer young people away from the gangs.
"We go into gang alleys where even the cops won't go," said Jesse Saucedo, a former Orange Vario Cypress gang member who now takes part in thrice-weekly Victory Outreach visits to gang-infested parts of the county.
Added Vince Moreno, head of one of the several rehabilitation homes that Victory Outreach runs around the county: "Gang members can reach out to gang members. Drug addicts can reach out to drug addicts. That's why we're effective."