Monday, October 18, 2010

Making Of A Gangster

A Smile, A War, 
A Boy Named Bobby
By Mark Young
Caution: This is not an uplifting article. It is a story about a war I witnessed on the streets of California, a gang war in one small part of the Golden State that still rages today. A story of regret and sadness. A story of lost opportunities. I can’t possibly give readers a full perspective of that struggle—just a few sketches of one face and one battle. The cost—more than dollars and cents— is staggering.

Splotches of darkening blood marked a grisly trail into the hospital. A car—windows shattered, doors pox-marked with bullet holes—blocked the driveway leading into Kaiser Hospital’s emergency room in Santa Rosa, California. I followed the trail of blood inside the hospital and saw several young boys writhing in pain. Doctors labored over one teenager’s leg, a tibia bone shattered by a through-and-through AK47 round. Later, physicians wondered if the boy might ever use that leg again.

It was 1997. Thousands of gang members continued to wage a war that began years ago in California, a war handed down from father to son, from one generation to the next. Battlegrounds scarred this state, from streets of Los Angeles to the Central Valley of Northern California. The war broadened in scope to seep into every pour of our nation, from one ocean to the other.  Beginning in the early nineties, gangsters deemed illegal aliens were deported to their mother country only to return with international connections, bringing with them drugs, weapons, and human slaves.

I supervised Santa Rosa Police Department’s gang intelligence unit at the time, working with other officers to find a way to mange this chaos. We had to find a way to turn this tide. Our gang officers could not keep up with the violence, quickly reaching burn out. We took to the street, targeting gang problem areas and eliminating the influence of gang leaders by returning them to prison. We thought if we cut the head off this monster, the tentacles would dry up and die.

The shooting on this particular night led us to the doorstep of a young boy living in the midst of all this violence. I’ll call him  “Bobby”  in order to protect his true identity. Bobby’s smile made angels sit up and take notice, a smile that worked its way into the hearts of more than one gang officer. Bobby—on his tip-toes—may have been slightly higher than my gun belt. He seemed to admire police officers, although given his family history I could never figure out why.

Bobby’s natural father was history, and the current ‘man of the house’was a gang leader from Southern California, who migrated north to extend Surenos gang influence in our city among other goals. Nortenos—Northerners—felt they ruled everything north of the Tehachapi mountains. Bobby and his family—because his stepdad claimed Sureno allegiance—became natural targets for all Nortenos in Sonoma County. In retaliation, Bobby’s stepdad and other Surenos plotted to attack these Nortenos and the war escalated.

We began to untangle this shooting case, uncovering layer upon layer of lies, until we learned that a young girl smuggled the murder weapon right under the noses of a couple of officers patrolling a project earlier that night. She looked young and innocent, which is why Sureno gangsters had her smuggle the weapons to where they needed it. They ambushed a car coming out of a housing project, catching all four Norteno victims trapped inside at a stop sign. Miraculously, no one died.

This attack led to retribution and retaliation, over and over again. This war continued throughout  the summer, barely abating until I left law enforcement.

It continues today.

Each battle spilled out onto the street over the slightest provocation.  One youngster “mad dogging” another was sufficient reason to attack—even kill—another gang member. Damaged pride—“because he dissed me"—gave the injured party a legitimate excuse to fan more flames of violence. It became like the ocean driven by a major storm, each wave crashing on the shore with more force than the last.

We never had enough resources or manpower to handle this turmoil, let alone a little boy named “Bobby” caught up in the generational conflict between gangs. The department tried to muster up what we needed, but it never was enough. Changing priorities, changing budgets, and political infighting always seemed to stand in the way.

Looking back, I wished we could have made a difference in just that one boy’s life. It might have made everything else easier to stomach. Bobby seemed to lose the day I met him. We tried alerting school contacts, youth workers, and other groups to no avail. Everyone found themselves  in the same position we were in—trying to bail out a sinking ship.

Years slipped away. I ran into Bobby from time to time as he grew up. Frustrated, I watched as this boy was chased from school to school, neighborhood to neighborhood, because of family gang ties. The only protection he seemed to find was aligning himself with other gang members.

Meanwhile, the gang war took all our attention. The county in which we worked looked peaceful. Nestled amidst wine vineyards, pastureland, and the beautiful Pacific Ocean, Sonoma County looked the ideal place to live to tourists and visitors traveling through. And, for many people, it was a great place to live.

But if one looked closer, they’d see the footprints of trouble. Gang graffiti going up faster than workers could cover it up. Sirens howling thorough the night as patrol units knifed through the darkness to another gang call. Emergency rooms routinely filled with wounded as doctors and nurses tried to patch up  the wounded and dying.

In all this, I lost track of Bobby. The community tried to rally together, creating coalitions targeting the gang violence, trying to work at the root causes of the problem—dysfunctional families, unsafe neighborhoods, poor housing, rising living costs, and rising unemployment.

Meanwhile, the gang unit launched a successful operation, dubbed Operation Black Widow, to attack at least one side of the gang problem—Norteno gang leadership developing throughout Northern California. In a county like Sonoma—with a little less than a half million population—police indentified and targeted more than 1,500 certified gang members in our county alone. The problem became much worse in other areas of Northern California. And, of course, Southern California suffered under an even larger gang problem.

Operation Black Widow and other successful gang efforts brought a short reprieve to the violence, but I saw political interest wane towards gang enforcement as violence lessened. Resources began to trickle in more politically-correct directions.

I was reassigned to work patrol as a supervisor, following calls, helping officers when possible, and watching the gang problem worsen. It seemed unrelenting.

Gang violence returned with a vengeance.

Bobby’s picture floated across my desk just before I left the department, his face scarred from violence. I saw the hardened eyes of a gang leader looking back, a young man bound for prison, the next stop in a gangster’s higher education. The streets finally won. Another young man destined for a life in prison—or worse.

I look back on those years working gangs with a certain sense of loss. Early on we had the potential to make things right, to effectively target gang leadership, to bring a community together, to save some of these young people from the gangs. However, politics and the economy got in the way.The cost of that war sickens me. More than the money, we wasted opportunities to offer a future to these youth.

Most of all, I remember Bobby’s smile, lost somewhere along the road to adulthood.

Today, the best I can do is to weave Bobby’s story into a novel that tries to make sense of of this mess. To somehow make the characters come alive with the reality of Bobby’s world. To help others understand why something must to be done. Before more smiles are lost. Before more kids like Bobby are lost to the streets.


  1. So very sad. I guess I was lucky living comfortably in Sonoma County (in the countryside) away from these influences. I wish that more children were able to have such comfortable childhoods and keep their smiles. Great message.