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East Side Story 

The mindless, endless Mission gang war doesn't have Bernstein music or Sondheim lyrics. Just Surenos, Nortenos, and dead kids.

Wednesday, Mar 3 1999
Between a little church and a nursing home with a bright, happy mural painted on its side is a residential section of Capp Street that looks idyllic. At 3 o'clock on ordinary weekday afternoons, you might see kids walking home from school past nicely kept Victorian flats, as the mail carrier chats with customers at the corner dry cleaner.

On this Monday in January, however, Roberto Ortega turns his Toyota Corolla onto Capp Street and sees three young men in red and black jackets walking down the middle of the road. Roberto knows red and black are gang colors, because he's in a gang. But he's wearing blue and white -- Sureno colors -- and the guys in the street are Nortenos.

Roberto slows his car, rolls down the window, and drives alongside the three Nortenos.

"Chapetes!" he taunts, using a word that means "red-faced" or "scared" in Spanish. It is the Surenos' favorite slur against Nortenos.

"Scrapas!" the Nortenos shout back. For them, Surenos are "scraps" at the bottom of the human barrel.

Roberto continues to drive slowly next to the Nortenos, keeping to their walking pace as they head down Capp, past the Seventh-day Adventist church and toward 21st Street. Roberto's girlfriend, Anna, is riding with him, but he continues to engage the Nortenos. He reaches for a metal pipe under his seat and waves it at them.

One of the Nortenos pulls a gun.
Just as Roberto begins to flinch and turn toward Anna, the Norteno fires five shots. At least one hits the back of Roberto's head.

Anna screams. Roberto slumps over the steering wheel. The blue Toyota lurches forward, crosses the street, and crashes into a Datsun parked on the other side.

Neighbors chatting on the sidewalk are stunned by what just happened in front of them. Others hear the gunfire, run to their bay windows, then call 911. As the Nortenos scatter, Roberto's seat belt holds his bloody, seemingly lifeless 19-year-old body in place in his car, and sirens begin to wail across the Mission District.

Roberto's best friend, Danny, is on his way to the Sureno hangout in front of Taqueria Can-Cun near Mission and 19th streets when he learns of the shooting. Some are claiming Roberto didn't die instantly, but is clinging to life-support. There's no way to confirm whether this is true. So Danny and the crew simultaneously pray for Roberto, and plot revenge.

About the same time, Paulo, one of the Mission District's top gang leaders, gets a page and is told about the attack. The date -- Jan. 4 -- is significant: Exactly one year ago to the day, a Norteno gunned down one of Paulo's closest friends, Marvin Garcia. On this anniversary, the Nortenos have fatally struck again. Something must be done.

"If they snatch one dog from us, we snatch 10 cats from them," is how Paulo describes the gang code. "They kill one of us, we kill 10 of them."

There is a no man's land in the war between the Mission District's two reigning Latin gangs. In what seems to be a linguistic anomaly, the Surenos -- "Southerners," or those who are recent Mexican and Central American immigrants -- claim the northern area of the Mission. And the Nortenos -- "Northerners," or young Latinos born in this country -- hold the southern segment.

Only a few blocks separate established turf: 19th Street is firmly held by the Surenos, while 24th Street is deep in Norteno territory. And then there are the unclaimed streets between the two gangs, including 21st, where Roberto and his rivals clashed.

These two gangs are actually alliances of many gangs. They fight not so much over pride of their claimed neighborhoods, but to protect the drug deals and clientele at each street corner they annex. While the intensity of the war goes in cycles, the fight has been almost perpetual. Right now, there is an escalation, aggravated by incidents that include the Capp Street shooting.

In the week following Roberto Ortega's death, no man's land is not a good place to be.

At Roberto Ortega's wake, dozens and dozens of Surenos file past his casket, all wearing their blue and white colors. Roberto's father finds nothing touching about their presence; it is an ugly reminder of what killed his son.

"You learn from this!" he lashes out, yelling at the gangsters in Spanish. The father is alone in a room filled with Surenos. His wife remained at home, beside herself. His other son, Roberto's older brother, is at the wake.

But he's a Sureno, too.
Many of the gangsters -- just teenagers -- openly cry when they approach Roberto's casket. His best friend, Danny, is just 16, and still very much a boy; despite the hint of shadowy peach fuzz over his upper lip, he hasn't quite lost all his baby fat. Danny's cherubic smile, tussled locks of dark, curly hair, and wide brown eyes have yet to give way to the hardened look of many of his gangster friends who are just a few years older. Danny can't believe what he sees in Roberto's casket is real.

"I've never seen him that way, with his eyes closed," Danny says. "I've only seen him happy; smoking weed and cruising around."

The young Surenos are sad, but they also seethe with anger. The rebuke from Roberto's father goes unheeded. "He was cool. He was a nice guy. I was hanging with him every day, and now he won't be with us anymore," Danny says. "They killed one of ours. We can't just let that go."

The days following Roberto's death are ugly.
Mourning Surenos lay flowers, light candles, and leave notes at the spot on Capp Street where Roberto was shot. But it isn't long before Nortenos destroy the makeshift memorial, stomping and then urinating on the display. Nothing remains but cooled streams of candle wax on the sidewalk.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio


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