Under siege: Santa Ana gang violence jumps to an average of a shooting a day

Children on their way home from school stare as Santa Ana police place yellow cones next to shell casings, the aftermath from the latest shootout in a city whose heart has been torn by gunfire in the last two months.

Before low-slung apartment buildings, women hold babies, men talk quietly. Word is the shooters are from rival gangs and hit up – challenged – one another while riding bicycles. Officers quickly catch the suspects. They are 17 and 16 years old.

Gunshots once were common here, before relative quiet took hold several years ago. But since the start of the year there has been an average of a shooting a day. It’s nothing like the 1990s, when there were 78 homicides in a single year. Still, five people have been killed, an unknown number injured and an officer wounded. Some call it a spasm. Police call it an anomaly, one they are determined to snuff out.

A Register examination found no single reason for the bloodshed and no simple solution. Interviews with law enforcement, academics, public officials and residents suggest some shared theories: More relaxed laws put more criminals on the streets, while a recession-reduced city budget put higher pressure on a smaller police force.

The review also points to a rise in intergang tensions, more young guns wanting to prove themselves and citizens dropping their guard after years of declining crime in an area where an estimated 4,500 gang members live mean peace is hard won and can be fleeting.

Police Chief Carlos Rojas calls it “an almost perfect storm.”

Gang life is woven into the tapestry of this 150-year-old city. Most of the the recent shootings have been deemed gang-related by police. Some gangs go back generations. Too many adolescents consider it a rite of passage to be jumped into a gang. One suspect in the bicycle drive-by has an older relative who spent time in prison on a gang-related charge, police say.

But deeper economic and social currents run through Santa Ana. Nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. To make rent, several families may crowd into a one-room apartment.

Santa Ana also is something of a cultural island, more so as the demographics of surrounding cities shift, with growing numbers of Asians replacing declining numbers of whites. In Santa Ana, more than three-fourths of the population is Latino. About the same percentage don’t speak English at home. Many are undocumented. Almost half the residents, according to the U.S. census, have parents born outside the U.S.

Alienation, misunderstanding and fear from within as well as from without contribute to the isolation of some poorer neighborhoods, even as hundreds of thousands of people live, work, dine in the county seat and never have a problem.

It was like that for Jose Gonzalez. He moved to South Harmon Street eight years ago. But three weeks ago, the 45-year-old father’s life changed forever.

His 24-year-old son, Francisco, was cleaning out his car in the driveway when he got a phone call. Moments later, a car sped by. Gunshots.

Gonzalez leaped. He caught his son before he touched earth. In Spanish, Gonzalez recalls, “I heard his last breath. In my arms, my son could no longer speak, not a single word.”

Santa Ana police say Francisco had no gang affiliations.

“What hurts me the most as a father,” Gonzalez says, “is the mistrust, that something else could happen.”


Three blocks from Monte Vista Elementary School on Tuesday, Cpl. Jason Garcia gazes past the trees that line Raitt Street. He watches investigators check out fresh bullet holes in a food truck from the afternoon shootout. A 16-year cop who worked gangs for several years, Garcia knows the area.

The week before and a half-mile west on McFadden Avenue, a gang enforcement officer fought a gunbattle with a suspected gang member. A bullet grazed the officer’s chest. The suspect was wounded.

Garcia, a father of two young children, is among the officers working their 10th consecutive 12-hour day. “My head’s on a swivel all the time looking for activity.”

When he joined the force, the Santa Ana Police Department had about 375 officers. Today, the city, still recovering from recession-driven cuts, has 305 cops and openings for 67.

With an official population of nearly 350,000 – and many in the city believe it is much higher – those numbers matter.

As Garcia pulls away from the shooting scene, the computer in his squad car lights up. It is 5:23 p.m. There are two dozen outstanding calls from citizens asking for help. For the next six hours, the overload of calls is nonstop.

The city is recruiting cops, has won grants to help defray costs and currently has 25 new officers in the pipeline. But it takes up to a year to get a new officer fully trained and prepared for the street. Plus, seasoned officers are retiring and those who remain are getting training on newly purchased AR-15 military-style rifles, which chews up time.

The chief estimates the department won’t be fully staffed for five years.

When the city ran into budget deficit six years ago, one casualty was a 10-member Strike Force. The elite team served as the department’s full-time SWAT and helped put pressure on gangs. A gang task force remains. But with reduced staffing, Rojas – who joined the department in 1990 at the height of the gang wars – says it was necessary to make the tough call to kill the Strike Force.

With the current staffing, he says it is more efficient to deploy gang experts on overtime, as the department did during a three-day sweep last weekend that resulted in 31 arrests of suspected gang members. Seven guns, ranging from a .25-caliber handgun to an AR-15 rifle were seized.

The department says the operation was a success. But on the streets, many officers are frustrated about recent changes in the criminal justice system, designed to reduce prison populations and emphasize community rehabilitation over incarceration for those convicted of nonviolent or so-called low-level crimes.

In 2014, voters approved Proposition 47, which downgraded many drug felonies to misdemeanors. It also reduced felony burglary to a misdemeanor if the value stolen is less than $950.

The police chief stresses he can’t yet make a cause-and-effect connection; more study is needed. But he says there has been a 31 percent spike in crime since Prop. 47 took effect after approval in 2014. Burglaries are up 26 percent, larcenies and thefts are up 26 percent, robberies are up 18 percent.

The first night of the gang sweep, at 11 p.m. while on patrol, Garcia spotted a known gang member. Earlier in the day, the same man was arrested for possession of methamphetamine. Police put him in a squad car, took him to jail. The gang member was cited and released almost as soon as he entered jail.

Two years ago, police say the suspect would have been booked on felony possession of drugs. He likely would have spent the weekend in jail and seen a judge on Monday. It’s also likely, officers say, he wouldn’t have posted bail and would have stayed in jail even longer.

Jesus Magaña, 41, lives near the 400 block of Eastwood Avenue where police officers shot and killed two of four burglary suspects on Feb. 18. He knew one of those killed. He had been bringing the younger man to 12-step Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which Magaña said helped him step away from gangs after he was released from prison several years ago.

“He was actually doing good for a little bit, but maybe about three months ago he went back (to the streets),” Magaña said. “Then he started hanging around the same crowd again, and now he’s gone.”

When he ran the streets, Magaña said, he faced longer sentences. The state’s tough three-strikes law, in particular, “set everyone straight, pretty much.”

“I understand the government is trying to make it to where people get rehabilitated more. But I think at the same time, it’s not allowing people or giving them the time to clear up their mind.”

Garcia roars off to new call. Almost hidden by the dark of night, a man on a cruiser bicycle darts across the street, careens across a vacant lot. Garcia slams on the brakes. The man stops. His pocket bulges. The shape turns out to be a meth pipe.

Garcia frisks the man. He discovers two meth pipes and a rock of crystal meth that would make Heisenberg from “Breaking Bad” proud. There’s also a glove, Vise-Grippliers that can pop out a car door lock and a set of shaved keys that allow car thieves to jiggle ignition tumblers.

A squad car arrives to take the man to jail. Garcia climbs back in his patrol car. “He’ll be out by morning.”

That’s what cops like Garcia say they’re seeing day after day. A churn of suspects being cited and released, which adds to the workload on the streets.

Residents in the shooting and gang-terrirory hot spots declined to talk with reporters unless they were assured their names and addresses would be kept secret.

One mother says she and her children have been staying indoors and laying low – during the day.

“It’s really ugly in this neighborhood,” the mother says in Spanish. “It’s been a long time since it’s gotten like this.”

She doesn’t know why there’s been an increase in violence. She just knows everybody is being more careful. Where they walk. How they walk.

“If they know you, they’ll keep looking at you and let you pass,” she says of gang members. “If they don’t recognize you, they won’t let you in.”


Cmdr. Eric Paulson runs Santa Ana’s gang unit. Some days, he drives home after sunset and is back on the job 90 minutes before sunrise.

As he sees it, the convulsion of violence can be at least partially traced to a precursor to Prop. 47, the state’s Public Safety Realignment Act. Signed into law five years ago, AB109 was intended to reduce prison populations by reassigning inmates with lower-level nonviolent and nonsexual criminal convictions to local jails and community treatment programs.

A recent county report on the program’s first four years found that, despite nearly 8,000 former and would-be state prisoners being released to county supervision, re-conviction rates were roughly the same.

Paulson says he sees something different. More criminals on the streets. “AB109’s release of prisoners was the first major crack in the dam where we started to see a leak,” he says. “Then Prop. 47 came along. That was the steroid.”

More ex-inmates at large, coinciding with a reduction in Santa Ana’s police force, make his unit’s work especially challenging, he says.

Also, public support for men and women in uniform is down throughout the nation, he says, quickly acknowledging law enforcement must shoulder much of the blame. Bad apples have made it more difficult for all officers, he says.

Paulson is blunt about the ripple or “Ferguson effect.” “Officers become more guarded, less assertive because they don’t have the public support,” he says.

A lot of Orange County cops bristle at any suggestion they have become more complacent, even as they agree morale is down because of the contentious national debate, fueled by graphic online videos of policing shootings and treatment of suspects.

Jose Contreras is a 42-year-old former gang member who grew up in Santa Ana. He believes boys and young men get sucked into gangs because of problems at home. He was in and out of 13 prisons from 1992 to 2011. Then he went through a 12-step Narcotics Anonymous program and married.

“A lot of people are coming out of prison right now,” Contreras says. There’s a mentality with the younger gangbangers, “‘You’re doing this wrong. I’m taking over. Why are we writing in my neighborhood? We should be writing in other people’s neighborhood.’ It’s reclaiming turf.

“Believe me, I can go back to that in a blink of an eye, or I can be a better person,” Contreras said. “My kids, my job, my peace, my freedom, my sanity – I’ve got a lot to lose. I’m at peace with myself.”

Like others, Contreras says gang violence is cyclical. It dies down, then flares.

He has no idea how to stop the current violence. “It’s like, ‘Is there a cure for cancer right now?’ There isn’t.”

Adrian Nava left the thug life behind after a nine-year prison stint for conspiracy. Today he works for Victory Outreach, a ministry on 17th Street. His take on the recent bloodshed is bleak.

“If you pay attention, the shootings are by young people,” Nava says, echoing Contreras and other former gangbangers. “They are trying to prove themselves or trying to fit in.”

Nava says gang violence is now mixed with the local drug trade. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Gregory Chris Brown, associate professor of criminology at Cal State Fullerton, agrees with the reformed gang members. “You may be able to slow them down, you may be able to get them to migrate elsewhere. But you’ll never stop them.”

Gangs proliferate because some young people view them as role models, Brown says. “They see that gang members have cars, money, girls, dope and are here to protect them. Police are viewed as the enemy by some in the community because of heavy-handed tactics.”

Communities must dedicate more resources toward prevention, such as after-school programs, to successfully tackle gangs, Brown says. “When you include shareholders such as businesses and churches, you have much more success.”

Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos is hopeful. He says that along with hiring more officers, the city has programs to help curtail gang recruitment and activity. He says the city last year was awarded $417,398 to help nonprofits that help keep kids from joining gangs. They include KidWorks and the Boys & Girls Club.

The Rev. Ed Poettgen of Immaculate Heart of Mary parish on McFadden Avenue also has programs that try to guide young people to a positive path. The church is about a block from the scene of back-to-back shootings a day apart. Last Sunday, Poettgen began Mass with a eulogy for the week’s victims of gun violence.

Poettgen, 61, grew up nearby on Townsend Street, a high-density, low-income neighborhood mostly of apartment complexes where law enforcement has been trying to impose a gang injunction.

“When you have lots of people living close together who are low-income, who don’t have a lot of power, people take advantage of taking a space in the area and using it for their purposes,” Poettgen says.

“We teach the Fifth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” he adds. “Then we say, ‘What part of that don’t you understand?’

“I’ve done more funerals than I care to.”

Garcia’s shift wraps up at 2 a.m. His footsteps echo through the halls of the police station. He’s eager to hit the sack. He’ll be back in 13 hours.

Staff writer Louis Casiano Jr. contributed to this report

Contact the writer: dwhiting@ocregister.com

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