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Judge to Consider Permanent Gang Ban

Prosecutor urges injunction against the Colonia Chiques. Foes say it isn't needed.

March 26, 2005|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Chronicling a history of violence, a prosecutor called Friday for a permanent court order aimed at curtailing the activities of an Oxnard street gang accused by authorities of terrorizing the beachside community.

Ending a three-week hearing on the validity and scope of a preliminary injunction against the Colonia Chiques, Deputy Dist. Atty. Karen Wold told Ventura County Superior Court Judge Frederick H. Bysshe that the temporary order, issued June 1, had curbed gang activity and cut crime in Oxnard.

"This is the largest and most violent organization in Ventura County," Wold told Bysshe, who will decide in coming weeks whether the injunction should be made permanent, altered or scrapped.

"This is not the solution to the gang problem, it's just a tool," she said. "I'm asking the court to give the Police Department this tool to assist in the war on gang violence."

But defense attorneys argued that Wold had failed to prove the need for the injunction and urged that it be rescinded. The injunction established a 6.6-square-mile "safety zone" in which members of the gang are prohibited from assembling in public, staying out after 10 p.m. and wearing gang colors.

Attorney Gabriella Navarro-Busch and Chief Deputy Public Defender Neil Quinn said police and prosecutors had exaggerated problems in the community, noting that several residents testified that they were "offended" at characterizations that their city was under siege.

The defense attorneys also suggested that crime statistics, offered by authorities as evidence that the injunction was working, had been skewed in an effort to secure a permanent order.

Quinn said that if the injunction were made permanent, it should be subject to annual court review. And Navarro-Busch asked for a provision that would allow affected gang members a way out from the injunction by completing a court-ordered program.

"Being labeled a gang member is a tattoo that stays with them forever," she said. "I believe Oxnard as a community ... can do better."

Declaring a crisis sparked by unprecedented gang violence, the Ventura County district attorney and the Oxnard Police Department announced last year that they would seek an injunction against the Chiques. The anti-gang injunction was the first issued in the county, known as one of the safest in the country, and could be used as a model for future gang crackdowns, authorities have said.

Authorities said Colonia Chiques gang members had been involved as suspects or victims in 40 homicides since 1992. Members of the gang also were tied in recent years to 122 robberies, more than 140 assaults and 116 incidents of drug activity.

Police have served 71 Chiques members with papers notifying them of the injunction, and only those people are subject to the court order.

Opponents have criticized the injunction as too restrictive and have urged authorities to scrap the crackdown in favor of broader, more effective solutions to youth violence. Some community members and residents said they had faced harassment since the temporary order was issued.

In concluding the trial Friday, Bysshe promised to consider both viewpoints before making his ruling in two to three weeks.

"I will continue to be concerned about the safety of the community as well as protecting the rights of our citizenry," he said. "It is a difficult balance."

Indeed, the trial in many ways was about competing images of Ventura County's largest city.

On one hand, Oxnard police officers and city leaders depicted through their testimony a community terrorized by the Chiques, which has an estimated 1,000 members.

Oxnard City Councilman John Zaragoza, who testified earlier this week in support of the injunction, said he and others lived in constant fear of random gang violence. Zaragoza, who grew up in Oxnard's La Colonia neighborhood, said he conducted an informal poll while campaigning for office last fall and found that more than 90% of residents he talked to favored the crackdown.

He also said he believed that the city had become much safer since the temporary order went into effect. But he said more work was needed to ensure residents' safety, noting that he recently attended the funeral of a young man cut down by gang violence.

Others described Oxnard in almost idyllic terms, a community where parents take their children to parks and walk them to and from school without fear or intimidation. Several told Bysshe there was no merit to claims that residents were under siege. And they said that as a law enforcement tool, the injunction was overly broad and unfairly targeted a large group of people for the violent actions of a few.

"We live in a beautiful community," testified high school teacher Guillermo Terrazas, who is part of a grass-roots movement to steer troubled youth in a positive direction. "We know the answers to [helping] our own children, but no one asks for our opinion."

Lifelong Oxnard resident Jesus Rocha also grew up in La Colonia, started an after-school tutoring center there and continues to work with youngsters in the community. He said he worried that a permanent injunction would allow police to cast too wide a net, ensnaring innocent residents. And he bristled at suggestions that his community was unsafe.

"Living in the safety zone, every day I go into the neighborhood and I walk the streets and alleys," said Rocha, a father of four and part-time community college instructor. "That's where I feel safest. That's where I feel like I'm home."

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