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Brutal Ins and Outs of a Gang

Ventura County: Gabriel wants to build a new life, but street family would rather see him dead.

November 18, 2001|TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gabriel didn't flinch at firing shots at street gang rivals. He beat them bloody. He robbed his enemies, his neighbors, his own family.

But now he says he wants to walk away from the gang life in Ventura County, and that decision has turned him into a target in the neighborhood where he was raised.

After five beatings that have left the husky 18-year-old with a broken nose and bruised ribs, he is constantly looking over his shoulder. The attacks, his former friends tell him, are just a warning. They would rather see him dead.

Now, Gabriel, whose full name is not being used to protect him, is scared. And he has already learned a fearful lesson: The way out is even tougher than the way in.

His efforts to break old ties dramatize the dangers and the hardships that confront many young gang members struggling to build new lives.

Of an estimated 5,000 gang members and affiliates who live in Ventura County, experts say only a small percentage leave the gangs while in their teens or as young adults.

"I'm not sure what's more dangerous," said Juvenile Court Judge Brian Back, "being a gang member and facing a rival or getting out of a gang and facing your own friends."

In the face of such odds, Gabriel--once the toughened street soldier--breaks down.

"They have dark secrets that they don't want me to tell," he said, wiping tears with the white, long-sleeved shirt he wears to hide the gang tattoos covering his arms.

"People they've stabbed, their drug dealing, I know it all . . . I'm in too deep."

Gang members often talk of quitting the gang life, however. But, like drug addicts vowing to quit, they often fail. Gabriel? Only time will tell how serious he really is, experts say.

So how does someone such as Gabriel break free of gang life? The best option may simply be to move, officials say. But poverty, probation terms and concern for the safety of family members left behind can make that a difficult choice.

And what can the criminal justice system--which experts say is geared more toward punishment than protection--do to help?

"Legally speaking, there's not really much we can do to assist them," Back said. "We can't protect [someone] from his former associations and it's very sad and very scary for these guys."

Often it comes down to sheer determination on the part of the gang member.

Adds Deputy Probation Officer Tony Machuca, who manages gang cases:

"People say, 'Just walk away.' But what people don't understand is that the gang is his family. And they don't take kindly to someone just turning his back on them."

Gabriel was born in 1983 in one of Ventura County's toughest gang neighborhoods.

His parents, who had recently moved from Mexico, spoke little English and struggled to make ends meet. His father was restless and sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time. But he helped support the family by repairing and selling used cars.

His mother continues to work at a minimum-wage job in a restaurant kitchen. She was 18 when she gave birth to Gabriel, the first of five children.

When his father was away, Gabriel would stand in the doorway of the family's public housing apartment and wait for him to come home. From the front stoop, he could see the young men who regularly gathered on the street corner. They had new clothes, cool cars and money.

Gabriel was only 6 years old, but he knew he would be one of them.

By the fifth grade, he joined them on the street corner. He assumed the same look: baggy polo shirts, baggier pants, shaved head and brand-name tennis shoes. He went to their parties, smoked their marijuana and jumped into their fights. They called him "Little G," short for "Little Gangster."

"It was like a family," Gabriel said. "They were the friends I didn't have. Sometimes you just want to hang around with someone, and they let me."

As he slipped deeper into the gang culture, he began carrying a .38-caliber handgun. He was 14 years old.

But the bar to prove himself was constantly being raised.

His first drive-by occurred after a rival gang blew through his neighborhood and fired several shots. No one was hit, but the shooting demanded a response.

From the window of a friend's car, Gabriel closed his eyes and squeezed several rounds into the air. It was his 15th birthday.

He is evasive about whether anybody was hit that night--or the half a dozen times afterward. "All I know is, those bullets went out," he said, "and they had to land somewhere."

One of Gabriel's mentors was 17-year-old Nino, who had a reputation for violence. Nino once used his fists to nearly bludgeon to death a man rumored to have fatally shot a fellow gang member.

Another influence was the gentler 22-year-old Dog, who was growing tired of gang life and preferred hanging out and having a good time. Gabriel spent many nights watching TV at Dog's house and confiding problems he had with his father.

"You just stay here," Dog would tell him. "Any time you need a place, you have one."

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