SANTA ANA — There he sat in an Orange County courtroom last week, his head in his hands, behind the wire mesh separating the accused from the accusers.
Dressed in mustard-colored jail clothing, the slender man with a slight mustache did not stand out among other prisoners.
But Uciel T. Murgo, 19, is different.
Accused of being the gunman in the April 15 murder of a father of three in a Santa Ana schoolyard, the onetime gang member's alleged actions became the spark that ignited a citywide debate about how to attack the growing problem of gang-related violence.
Shocked by the killing of Mauro V. Meza, 31, and the wounding of three of his relatives after a pickup game at an outdoor Santa Ana High School basketball court, citizens as never before are demanding that their elected leaders try harder to curb or rechannel gang activity, while also seeking ways to become involved themselves.
But for all of the public's resolve, there are those who wonder whether the issue will become a political football--whether a rare opportunity to unite the community behind proposed solutions will be lost in the divisive bickering that has often characterized City Council debates.
In a city with a 65.2% Latino population, the gang issue is a complex and frustrating problem.
Mayor Daniel H. Young, City Council members and other community activists last week said they hope that the issue does not fall victim to political rivalries and gamesmanship. If citizens are serious about developing a gang prevention program, leaders should be equally intent on working together, they said.
But the political give-and-take toward a unified front did not get off to an auspicious start.
"At the outset, the Latinos did not trust the Anglos, the Anglos did not trust the Latinos, the gangs do not trust any of them, and the one thing all three have in common is that none of them seem to trust the politicians," observed John M. Raya, a member of the Rancho Santiago Community College Board of Trustees.
City Councilman John Acosta ignited the council debate three days after the shooting when he declared that white council members neither understand nor care about the problems facing minorities in Santa Ana.
The mayor responded by sternly calling for an end to allegations of ethnic bias, then appointed Mayor Pro Tem Miguel A. Pulido Jr. to head City Hall's study of the issue.
By attacking the white council members, Acosta--who is usually on the losing side of a 5-2 split on major council votes and who hopes to challenge Young in the November mayoral election--deepened the mayor's mistrust of his motives, and perhaps made other whites mistrust him too.
"John is trying very hard to turn this tragedy into racial strife in hopes that he can become mayor, and I think that's a horrible, tragic thing," Young said.
But Acosta defended his allegations of ethnic insensitivity, saying they pressure the city to make the gang issue a top priority.
Acosta also attacked the mayor for appointing Pulido, another Latino, to head the city's search for proposals on the gang problem.
Pulido, Acosta said, "is not a spokesperson for (the Latino community), and he refuses to stand up and represent them in a time of need."
Acosta added that a more "acceptable" action would have been for the mayor to lead the effort, with both Acosta and Pulido at his side.
But Pulido said if Young had done that, the effort "would become nothing but a battle between John Acosta and Dan Young."
Instead, Pulido said, he is committed to winning the trust of everyone while ignoring criticism leveled against him. And he promised to consider all proposed solutions, regardless of who offers them.
"A lot of folks like me, a lot of folks don't," Pulido said. "But even those that don't have to admit that I am bicultural, that I am bilingual."
Despite the political friction, community leaders point to hopeful signs. A week after Meza's death, an unusual collection of about 100 citizens--including neighborhood association leaders, Latino activists, Councilmen Robert L. Richardson, Pulido and gang members--gathered for a brainstorming session in a local YWCA gymnasium.
Some participants said they could not remember a time when white neighborhood leaders had been in the same room with gang members, or when Nativo V. Lopez, director of an immigrant rights group, had participated in a meeting sponsored by residents whose stand on code enforcement his group has fought in court.
Names and telephone numbers were exchanged and relationships begun.
Guy Ball, a Wilshire Square neighborhood leader who publishes the city's community newspaper, Eye on Santa Ana, said he invited Lopez to write an article about his organization, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional.
If the Latino community does not buy into any proposed program, Ball said, the plan will be doomed to failure.
The mayor also said the gang issue may present "the first real opportunity" the Latino community has to join forces with neighborhood groups.