Following the March 14 State Street stabbing that led to 15-year-old Luis Angel Linares’s death, Santa Barbara has seen a rise in reports concerning gang violence: In July, 16-year-old Lorenzo Valentin Carachure was found stabbed to death; in August, Santa Barbara police arrested 40 individuals who were allegedly tied to gangs; in November, three alleged gang members and another accomplice were arrested on charges of a Mesa robbery; and in January, an alleged gang stabbing occurred near Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens. While some residents worry about a growing epidemic, other local organizers and prosecutors are committing themselves to decreasing gang violence in Santa Barbara and its surrounding areas.
According to District Attorney Hilary Dozer, the southern region of Santa Barbara County is home to about five to seven major gangs and 1,200 gang members. He also said that while many gang members in the area are of Latino descent, the county also has its few white supremacist and black gangs. He also said that an all-female gang exists and is known as the Nightowls.
“We do have women that affiliate with gangs, but in terms of committing crimes, they’re less likely to do that,” Dozer said. “But I have been in court with some women [who committed crimes] that I would not want to be on the receiving end of.”
The two largest gangs in the area are the Eastside Gangsters and Westside Destroyers that claim separate divisions of the city. Dozer said Goleta is mostly claimed by the G-13 (Goleta-13) and it has many subsets called groupings.
He said, generally, the gangs get along except when they “slip” into each other’s territories.
“Gangs between Eastside and Westside Goleta are relatively even, but it could change six months from now,” Dozer said.
Dan McSkimming, a senior deputy for the County Sheriff’s Dept. Gang Unit, said that other incidents occur when one gang feels injured or insulted by another.
“It’s almost always gang versus gang, or if not, someone’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, or it’s an associate that crosses them,” McSkimming said.
Dozer said that while most gang violence is gang on gang, civilians can also get injured. The G-13 grouping called the Lakotes claim Isla Vista and are responsible for some of the gang violence near the university.
“Students need to be aware that crime takes place everywhere,” Dozer said. “Including the ivory towers of UCSB.”
Crime and Punishment
Dozer said that three prosecutors, himself included, focus on gang crime.
“The D.A. targets gang crime with the highest prosecution,” Dozer said.
He said gang-related crimes receive harsher punishments as the result of the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act. The S.T.E.P. Act was developed in the late 1980s in an attempt to deal with the tremendous amount of inter-gang war in Los Angeles County. Dozer said that in 1992, L.A. County had about 1,000 gang-related murders. S.T.E.P. made it criminal and prosecutable to be in a gang for a person who knows the gang is committing crimes.
Dozer said that while he believes gang violence is at a high right now, it will lessen with the help of community members who report crime.
“In my 15 years of experience, gang activity ebbs and flows until it gets to a high point, which I think is now, but it goes away,” Dozer said.
Matt Sanchez, leader for the after-school youth program All For One, said he is a former gang member and that while most people think gang violence is an escalating problem, in Santa Barbara it is actually a small part of reported crime, with many of the offenders being minors.
“I call it youth violence because gang violence makes people think the public is in harm’s way, but it’s not against civilians, it’s gang on gang,” he said.
Sanchez also said he first joined a gang when he was 16 and eventually became a leader of a gang called the Hoods. He said a lot of his family was also involved in gangs.
“It cost my brother his life and after that, hopelessness made me push the envelope. What was the point of going on?” Sanchez said.
He said he served time for armed robbery, drugs, firearms and three times for attempted murder, though, he said, none of these crimes were gang-related. He said the only thing that made him stop was the fear that his children would follow in his footsteps.
“I saw my kids growing up and starting to emulate me, and I said no,” Sanchez said.
The average age of gang members is between 14 and 15, and it is not unusual for kids to start associating with gangs in elementary school, Dozer said.
“When you’re young, you’re put to work or do things for other gang members,” Dozer said. “But it’s not surprising to find gang members in their 20s. Longtime members are called veteranos.”
McSkimming said the gang unit tries to influence kids in grammar school the most, since they are the most likely to join and are actually the most violent.
“The younger ones are often the most violent because they are trying to make a name for themselves,” McSkimming said. “The older ones are the shot callers, and the younger ones are doing violence to make names for themselves.”
Vincent Castro, a first-year Santa Barbara City College student, said a great deal of his extended family was involved in gangs. He said he had trouble in his immediate family and was 10 when he first became involved with a gang.
“The gang was really my family because my family was not there,” Castro said. “I was 10 years old when a gang member got me high for the first time.”
He said he was 14 when he started committing crimes for the gang and about 16 when he first met Matt Sanchez at All For One, formerly Hoods in the Woods. He said the workshops with Sanchez helped him the most.
Young detainees charged with intense gang-related offenses are sent to the Santa Barbara Juvenile Hall. Facility Manager Karen Wheeler said the juvenile hall has 19 detainees filling the 20 single bedrooms available. She said while many detainees associate with gangs, only a few are actually in juvenile hall due to gang-related crime.
“Approximately 20 percent or less of the total number of minors on probation … are there for crimes that are gang related,” Wheeler said. “And a percentage of those in custody that claim a gang are higher than 20 percent.”
She said the typical day in the life of a detainee involves going to school at the juvenile facility that teaches traditional high school subjects, participating in supervised physical education, having supervised showers and attending programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Wheeler said S.T.E.P. applies to juveniles as well.
“We have a zero-gang-tolerance policy,” Wheeler said. “The penalties are court approved, and the detainees know if they’re engaged [in gang activity] there’s a penalty.”
Former gang members Matt Sanchez and Vincent Castro are working together at the program All For One to keep kids out of gangs and out of juvenile hall. Co-created by Sanchez in 1992, All For One has about 50 members that meet every week, discuss their problems and participate in activities.
“We try to teach them responsibility. … We help them with their homework, find a school; we look for their gift, their special talent, and capitalize on that through education or working,” Sanchez said.
The group consists of mainly high school-aged boys. Castro said he joined the group when he was 16 and now is the project coordinator. He said he thinks more programs like All For One would reduce gang numbers and that Sanchez helped him quit.
“When I went to juvi, I was just thinking, ‘Oh man, I let Matt down,'” Castro said. “He really motivated me to do right.”
Castro said he mentors a lot of the boys, going to the neighborhoods to recruit and educate. He said there is some hostility between kids from different parts of town when they first join the group, but the main rule in the program is to have respect for everyone, so they get over it fast. Castro said even he had a beef with a student at SBCC because he was from the other side of town, but they made amends when Castro became a leader for All For One.
“I told him, ‘We helped start it, homes, why can’t we stop it?'” Castro said.
Sanchez said he has high hopes for the club and cares most about making the club sustainable so future generations can benefit from its programs.
“It’s easier to swim down current, but it takes somebody with real courage to swim against the current,” Sanchez said. “Sometimes it’s harder to do the right thing.”