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Latino homicides on sharp increase
Gangs in Oakland, San Francisco cited as reason for growth

- Jim Herron Zamora, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, January 22, 2006

Changing demographics and rising gang violence have brought a dramatic increase in the number of homicides among Latinos in Oakland and San Francisco, even as the number of African American victims has fallen, police and community leaders say.

Oakland saw twice as many Latinos slain last year as in 2004, while San Francisco saw an increase of 50 percent during the same period. Authorities in both cities say the problem largely sneaked up on them because they were focused on the larger -- and still more prevalent -- problem of African Americans killing others of their own race.

"We know why it happened -- we let things get out of hand in the Fruitvale (district) because police were so busy in other parts of East Oakland and West Oakland," said City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who represents the Fruitvale neighborhood where teenagers Alberto Salvador Villarreal and Ever Ramos were killed last weekend in separate shootings.

The vast majority of homicide victims remain African American, and that's where police continue putting most of their resources. But even as Oakland and San Francisco saw the number of homicides among blacks dwindle last year, the number among Latinos climbed enough to push the overall number of homicides higher than in 2004, police said.

Of the 96 homicides in San Francisco last year, 15 victims were Latino, compared with 10 Latino victims out of 88 slayings in 2004. Oakland recorded 94 homicides last year with 25 Latino victims, compared with 12 out of 88 killings in 2004.

Authorities attribute the trend to changing demographics as Latinos move into neighborhoods once composed largely of African Americans. That, too, has brought an increase in violence among Latino gangs, which were once dominated by the Norteños but have seen other groups increasingly vie for turf, police said.

"We have seen a spike in crime in our neighborhood over the past couple of years and it has gotten progressively worse," said Lillian Lopez, an activist with Oakland Community Organizations. "I have a 15-year-old son, and I don't let him walk down the street because I'm so concerned about him being shot. It's horrible to have to live this way."

The trend shows no signs of abating. Two of the four homicides recorded in Oakland so far this year have involved Latino victims.

Oakland gang rivalries

Some of the killings are crimes of passion, such as barroom fights that turn deadly. But what troubles police and community leaders is the rising number of slayings stemming from gang rivalries or instances where the victim was either mistaken for a gang member or an innocent bystander, police said.

"These Hispanic gangs call it checking," Oakland homicide Sgt. Brian Medeiros said. "They walk up or drive up and want to know what gang you're in. If you don't answer, they sometimes open fire. Or sometimes they don't bother to ask."

That was apparently the case with Ever Ramos, 17, who was killed last Sunday night just blocks from De La Fuente's home.

Ramos and two friends were walking to a convenience store near his home on Coolidge Avenue when someone in a white minivan opened fire. Ramos, who arrived from Honduras in 2004, was working as a day laborer and going to school part time to improve his English, his family said, and police said he had no gang ties.

"He appears to be a completely innocent victim," Medeiros said.

Still, his death may have been misguided retribution for the death of Alberto Salvador Villarreal, 15, of Berkeley, who was killed less than 24 hours earlier about a mile away on East 15th Street, police said. Villarreal was not a gang member, but friends said he had buddies among the Norteños.

Just before Villarreal was shot Saturday night, a passing car sprayed gunfire at two other nearby corners known as Norteño hangouts.

Historically, Norteños were the largest gang in Fruitvale. Police and community activists said other Hispanic gangs, such as the rival Sureños, have gained a foothold as Latino families have moved into East Oakland neighborhoods once predominantly African American.

"It's not just the Sureños, but there are Southside Locos and all kinds of smaller, splinter groups," De La Fuente said. "Police used to do a pretty good job of tracking these groups. But we dropped the ball."

The gang activity has grown fastest in a part of East Oakland roughly bounded by Hegenberger Road, Interstates 580 and 880 and the San Leandro border. The Latino population in this area doubled between 1990 and 2000, while the black population has dropped by one-third to one-half, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.

In 2002, Oakland police disbanded the unit dedicated to tracking Latino gangs to focus attention on killings in the African American community, which spiked sharply that same year, De La Fuente said. The five-officer gang unit was re-formed last fall and may get more officers this month.

"It's very important to stop the killing in other parts of the city," he said. "But because we moved those officers away, we are now seeing other problems."

Beyond the Mission

In San Francisco, the issue is less about changing demographics than gang violence moving beyond the Mission District into once-peaceful areas.

San Francisco Police spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens said Saturday that the department didn't recognize the trend until late last year because five of the 15 Latino killings came in November and December. Gittens said the department is planning to devote more officers to reduce violent crime among Latino gangs.

"We're planning some targeted enforcement in the Mission and other areas, similar to what we've been doing to stem the black gang violence in the Bayview," Gittens said. "We're trying to take some people off the street before they get involved in homicides."

Gittens said the San Francisco slayings were mostly in the Mission but have spread to other parts of the city.

"Even outside the Mission, it's mostly red- and blue-related," said Gittens, referring to the colors preferred by Sureños and Norteños. "Even if the victim is not in a gang, these things happen because someone thinks he's in a gang."

Some San Francisco police officers said Norteños centered at 22nd and Bryant streets and Sureños based at 19th and Mission streets have spread their long-standing rivalry into other areas, including the Ingleside and Excelsior neighborhoods and even Bayview-Hunters Point.

"We've seen more established gang members move from the Mission into other neighborhoods," said Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who represents the Ingleside, Excelsior and Ocean View areas. "The main focus of the gang is still the Mission, but we've seen members -- and leaders -- move to other parts of town.

"I don't blame the cops, but I think the city is doing next to nothing about gangs outside the Mission and the Bayview."

Devastated family

The rise in homicides among Oakland's Latinos has decimated Martha Palacios' family. She lost a brother, Eduardo, 38, and a husband, Sergio Rodriguez, 32, last year in separate but similar unsolved killings on International Boulevard.

"I feel like there is death all around me," she said, sobbing as she cuddled her sleeping baby to her chest. "All my family is here in Oakland. But when my girl is bigger, I've got to leave. I can't stay here. It's just hurts too much."

But perhaps nowhere is the trend better exemplified than in the case of Salvador "Lucky" Moreno, who dodged death twice and is now a suspect in a homicide.

Moreno, whom investigators said is a member of the Southside Locos gang, was wounded July 24 outside a coin laundry where his friend Andres Mendoza, 17, was killed. Then on Oct. 19, Moreno was wounded again, and pal Jose L. Umanzor, 21, was killed when someone opened fire on them at Bancroft and Seminary avenues.

Then in November, police said, Moreno fatally stabbed Oscar "Dash" Avina, 17, outside a party on 98th Avenue for motives that remain unclear.

"We'd like to get Mr. Moreno in custody before someone else gets him," Medeiros said.

Chronicle staff writer Henry K. Lee contributed to this report. E-mail Jim Zamora at