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Gangs Get a Grip on Latinos

Crime/Corruption News
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published: 12-26-99
Author: Yolanda Rodriguez
Posted on 12/27/1999 00:30:27 PST by jordan8

Gangs get a grip on Latinos

By Yolanda Rodriguez, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Problem intensifies in Atlanta's suburbs: Metro police departments say they're unable to break the hold criminal gangs seem to have on young Hispanic males. And those teens' parents say they don't know what else they can do to help their children find a better way of life.

After six years of hard work, Mario and Sara Lagunas have experienced a measure of success. The family jewelry store in Smyrna is beginning to pay for itself. They've saved enough to buy a first house.

But success has come at a great price. While the Lagunases have struggled for a better life, they've lost three sons to the streets and to jail.

One son, 20-year-old Abel, is in prison serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. Two other sons, 14-year-old Israel and 13-year-old Alejandro, are serving 90-day sentences in separate boot camps. Smyrna police say the teenagers ran with the Riverside gang, one of a half-dozen Hispanic gangs operating in the apartment complexes and houses of south Cobb County.

Comment from Forum........

The vast majority of Hispanics entering our nation today (legally and illegally) have no desire to assimulate, no desire to become an "American"; most have a deep, abiding distrust of the law, the courts and police. And many of them despise the "gringos" and absolutely hate "los negros". Therein lies the biggest of problems and we welcome them with their advanced copy of SSI and Welfare Manuals and allow our schools, governmental agencies, TV stations and the like to have bi-lingual choices. Press #1 for English, #2 for Spanish. Then we have Whorealdo on prime time last night boasting that the Latino community in the year 2005 will become the majority of immigrants in the U.S. and reminding us how hard they worked to get out of poverty. Guess all the immigrants that preceded them, who learned the customs and the LANGUAGE and didn't deplete the governmental freebies simply don't count.

Posted on 12/27/1999 04:26:42 PST by StarFanHF

The Lagunases' oldest son is in Mexico. And a daughter is happily married and living in Douglasville. But of the four Lagunas brothers in the United States, only Efrain remains free. He's 8 years old.

"We are going to try to control him," Mario Lagunas said in Spanish. "I take him to school. Sometimes I have breakfast with him at school. And two or three times, I have gone into his classes."

He and his wife have experienced firsthand what police in Smyrna, Norcross, Chamblee and other jurisdictions say is their most serious law enforcement problem: growing gang activity, riding atop an explosion in metro Atlanta's Spanish-speaking population. There is the Sur 13 gang, the 18th Street gang, the Brownside Locos, the Riversides, the Pachucos and the Malditos 13--to name a few.

For most police departments, the problem didn't exist five years ago.

In Smyrna alone, police now say they have documented 105 Hispanic teenagers as gang members, Israel and Alejandro Lagunas among them. Police visited one apartment complex so often that the manager gave officers an apartment.

In Gwinnett County, police have identified 700 gang members and associates in 13 gangs. Within those groups there are 34 subsets, said Investigator Marco A. Silva, a member of Gwinnett's gang intervention team. In Norcross, Hispanic gang members have been involved in three homicides this year, he said. In one of those cases, the April 24 slaying of Rogelio Guzman, one of the suspects was tracked down to a Smyrna mobile home park.

DeKalb County police have identified about 1,500 juveniles with ties to 15 gangs, said Detective Sharon Horn of the department's intelligence division. She has been studying the groups for five years.

"Most are Hispanic," said Horn. "It's sad, but that is the truth."

Upwardly mobile Mario Lagunas, 47, moved his family here from California in 1993. He's a legal U.S. resident. His children are U.S. citizens.

English and American courtrooms bewilder him. Asked if his teenage sons are involved in gangs, Lagunas said he didn't know--only that both had changed drastically this year.

His sons have an answer for him. At the Pelham Youth Detention Center in South Georgia, Alejandro told a prison official that he's involved with a gang, but didn't want to talk about it. He is serving time for violating the probation he was placed on when he was deemed an unruly child, police said.

One year older, Israel is serving a 90-day sentence at the Irwin Youth Detention Center near Tifton for stealing a car. While he was awaiting his transfer at the Marietta juvenile jail, he spent an hour with a reporter, describing the ins and outs of gang life. "I'm not a member," he said, shrugging off the obvious question. "I associate with them. I haven't gotten in yet. I'm thinking about it."

Mario and Sara Lagunas have been married 24 years. They moved from Acapulco, Mexico, to Fresno, Calif., in 1983.

There the couple were farm workers for a while. "We picked strawberries for $1 a pint. Working all day, we earned $10. I don't know if you know how strawberries grow. They grow low to the ground. You have to bend over to slice them off the vine," Mario Lagunas said.

For a few years he worked as an overseer on a farm, finding dozens of workers for the fields, a job that earned him about $70 a day. During another stint, he sold bread door-to-door.

"I always owed two months rent," he said. "I never had enough for the rent. When I paid the rent, I didn't have enough for food."

The move to Georgia in 1993 brought better pay. Lagunas worked two jobs--one at a seed factory, another at a hotel.

He admits that he wasn't able to spend enough time with his sons. But when the boys were in elementary school, his wife got out of work in time to meet them when they got home.

After working a job selling jewelry door-to-door, Lagunas bought his own shop on Windy Hill Road about two years ago. He named it La Guadalupana, after the Virgin of Guadalupe.

From behind his glass counter, he waits patiently on his customers. He sells rings, chains, bracelets and luggage. The luggage moves faster than the jewelry, but he gives every person who walks into the store a sad smile. "Come in, come in," he says. "How can I help you?"

The business takes up most of his day. And his wife's job no longer allows her to be home when the kids get home from school.

Still, for all Mario and Sara Lagunas knew, the boys were behaving themselves--until this year.

That's when Alejandro was in a car accident. It was while he was recovering at home that Mario Lagunas noticed for the first time who his son's friends were. He did not much like their slouching stances and baggy clothes.

By the time Alejandro recovered, his demeanor had changed. He started to skip classes at Campbell Middle School.

Fourteen-year-old Israel soon followed in his younger brother's footsteps, their father said.

"It started in school. That's where they started to get affiliated with the bad boys. We scolded them. We didn't let them go out. There was a time when I cut off the telephone so that they would not have that much communication with the boys," he said. "We did not have a telephone for three or four months. When you don't have a telephone, their pretext to go out is that they want to go talk to their friends.

"Then when you have a telephone, they are communicating with their friends, and while we are asleep, they go out through the window."

The incarceration of the two boys has hurt the Lagunas family, financially as well as emotionally. Lagunas is still learning the craft, and his English is limited. Before his arrest, Israel worked at his father's store and with a jeweler in Marietta. What he learned from the jeweler, he passed on to his father.

"How to make names, how to soldar (solder), how to pulir (polish), how to make (rings) different sizes, making (chains) different lengths, making bracelets," Israel said, ticking off the things he learned before he was picked up by police.

The hopes of the family are now pinned on Efrain, an energetic and inquisitive third-grader.

Efrain spends the afternoons in the jewelry store, answering the telephone when his father is taking care of customers or running to the back of the store to play Nintendo video games.

"All of my brothers are in jail," he said recently while he played around in the store. Israel, he said, is his best buddy. His older brother plays with him, takes him to the movies and watches "The Simpsons" with him.

When asked if he missed Israel, Efrain pouted. "He comes out in February. I want him to have a merry Christmas with me," he said.

'Different lives'

With a smattering of freckles across his face, Israel Lagunas is a handsome teen who slips easily between Spanish and English.

On a recent morning, he appeared before a reporter in orange jail pants and shirt that were just as baggy as the clothes he had worn outside.

Just a coincidence, he said. The clothes were the smallest issued at the youth jail.

At 14, Israel has learned to straddle two worlds. Spanish and English are only part of his divided life.

In the hourlong jailhouse interview, Israel transformed from one moment to the next--from a quiet young man sitting upright in a plastic office chair into a slouching homeboy proud of the exploits that got him in trouble.

"It was like I was living two different lives, for real," he said. "I had my family on one side. I was going to school. And the other one was my friends. At night I'd sneak out with no problem. Not thinking of anything, just hanging around. And the next day I would be with my family again and school and work and all that.

"In the day, I was like an angel," said Israel.

He said he and his father are close.

"I could talk to him about anything. . . . We'd be, like, friends. Talk about everything," he said. Israel ignored the fact that his father never knew that he sneaked out at night or that he drove around with a stolen Dodge Caravan for days.

"I didn't fight with my mom or dad. I loved my little brother. I bought my dad a pair of shoes. I gave him $100. Everything I could do, I'd do it," he said. "And then at night I would just let loose, just go hanging. I would waste my money on cigarettes. You know, beer. Anything I could I would waste my money on."

Outside the office where Israel spoke, the day-to-day existence of the jail went on. Bells rang and metal doors were buzzed open, then slammed shut. Muffled voices over the jail's loudspeakers interrupted the conversation.

Israel denied he is a gang member, but said only his 14-year-old girlfriend has kept him from joining. He termed himself "an associate."

"If you are an associate, you hang around with them so you can get to know them. They can get to know you. As an associate, you prove to them that you're down. You show that you will do anything for them and do anything with them. You are also taking a risk. But it is not the same (risk) as being a member. A member has to be with the homeboys, like, 24-7. "

An associate gets to walk away, he said.

"A member doesn't. He is with them. He gets his money by jacking (stealing) and by hustling or by working at nighttime or something that doesn't interfere with the time that you're hanging with the homeboys."

The first time Israel saw gang members was when his older brother was hanging out with them. But it was in middle school that Israel and his friends started hanging out with gang members.

"They are different vatos (homeboys) from different gangs that are together," he said, declining to mention any of the gangs by name.

Local gang activity, he said, started when some California gang members moved to Cobb County and started initiating boys.

In middle school, boys "started getting jumped," he said, meaning that the adolescents were brought into the gang by getting beaten up--a trial by ordeal. "One came banging and started pushing everyone around. He kept getting guys in at his level--in the eighth grade. Then they got the ninth-graders. It kept going up.

"They didn't want little kids. They didn't even look at us. But now that we got older, they got interested in us. That's why they started talking to us. That's when I started to get involved."

Smyrna police believe gang members use a point system to get teens to become members: Different deeds earn them a certain number of points toward getting in.

Israel scoffed at the notion.

"It depends on how much you want to get in," he said.

'In one ear . . .'

Smyrna police believe that teen gangs have been involved in dozens of vehicle break-ins over the last three years, because the incidents occurred in the same areas where the youths live.

It is the kind of offense that landed Israel in jail. He stole a Dodge Caravan that had been left with its keys in the ignition.

"I stole a car," he said. "I wanted to. Everybody was cruising. . . . I needed my own and I couldn't buy one. . . . I cleared out everything from my car. Changed the tags, took off all the rims. I wanted to tint the windows. But I didn't have time."

Police arrested Israel in November and a judge sentenced him to 90 days in detention. It will be followed by three months of house arrest and two years of probation.

Israel said he won't be back. "I'm gonna chill for a while," he said, slouching even more in his chair. "Go to work, go to school. . . . I want to go to the military after I get out of here."

Boot camp, he said, is a chance to find out what it's like to have to deal with a regimen.

"I want to go to the Marines. My sister wanted to be a Marine. What if I go and make her proud? That's what I'm gonna try to do, make my family proud of me. . . . I'd like to be the first guy in the family to graduate from school. The only one that has graduated is my sister."

Israel slipped into Spanish, the language of the happiest part of his life, when told that his dad wondered what he had done wrong in raising him.

"He has done everything he could do," he said. "Every day we would sit at the dinner table, and after we would eat, we would have a family talk. He would say, 'Look at your brothers. People look at them like if they are thieves.' . . . It was like it would come in one ear and out the other."

Few ways to turn

In Cobb County, only Smyrna police have officers dedicated to dealing with gangs. Police Sgt. Keith Zgonc supervises two officers, Bill Turner and Halley Alexander.

Turner began teaching a gang resistance course at Campbell Middle School last year. Police experts say the most fertile time for gang recruitment begins in middle school.

The program is part of the social studies curriculum and teaches children in the sixth and eighth grades how to handle conflicts. The classes are held once a week for an eight-week period. By the end of the school year, Turner hopes to reach about 1,000 youngsters.

"One of the things we teach is (if) you get a criminal record, it affects you through your entire life," Turner said.

Turner's lessons compete with on-site recruiters for local gangs. "They usually do the courting phase for about a year," Turner said. "They will teach them a little bit about the gang. Some guy will take him under his wing, be his best buddy."

At Smyrna police headquarters, Turner has a photograph of a dozen Cobb County teenage boys and girls flashing gang signs.

Other kinds of gangs "are not as visible as the Hispanic kids are. They don't hang out in the large numbers and they don't have a lot of confrontations with rivals," Zgonc said.

Law enforcement officials worry that the gang activity might grow in direct proportion to metro Atlanta's Hispanic population. In Cobb County schools, Hispanic enrollment has increased 545 percent in the last 10 years, from 688 students in 1989 to 4,439 in 1999.

Gang activity among Hispanic youths is real and something that adults should be concerned about, said Ruth Gonzalez, who is part of the Osborne Prevention Task Force, a group that's developing after-school and support activities for youth at Osborne High School and its feeder schools.

Hispanic teenagers "are wanting to belong to something," Gonzalez said.

She is hoping to start a tutoring program at one apartment complex on the Marietta/Smyrna border next year, to be followed by job and health fairs.

Gonzalez said parents who speak little English are reluctant to seek help from government agencies or community groups.

In fact, after his teenagers were arrested, Mario Lagunas attended several weekly parenting workshops at Juvenile Court. He came away with little more than common sense suggestions for dealing with his children.

It hasn't worked.

"I tell them something (about their behavior), and they go out through the window," he said. "I would need to buy a chain to tie them down. That's not good because the law does not let you do that."