Josue Rojas

The Killing Game

San Francisco's Mission District is a swath of palm trees, weathered Victorian houses and shops ablaze in tropical colors. On 24th Street, youngsters dressed in red lounge on the steps of McDonald’s, unmindful of wandering mariachis, Christians proselytizing in Spanish and old women selling roses and tamales. But on the back streets and alleys of this neighborhood, kids are dying.

The crime rate in California’s largest cities and counties is up 11 percent from last year. In San Francisco, a spike in gang violence in the past month, a dozen shootings, has led to six deaths. The victims are typically young -- 19, 21, 17 years old. Community workers say they've never seen anything like it. Mothers are afraid to let their sons leave the house.

But to the young people who live here, the drama is just a backdrop to a lifestyle that won't let them sleep. Here are the stories of three young men of the street who have made three different, fateful choices.

Animal Thug

"I'm an animal, bro... Animal Thug. That's me," he laughs, flashing twenty-dollar smiles at every girl who passes. Animal sits in Balompie's, a Salvadoran restaurant on 18th Street, eating chips and telling stories, stopping every few minutes to pop at a waitress who flirts back, giggling. He tells murder tales as if they were punch lines.

At 21, it's a wonder that Animal has made it this far. "I’ve been through a lot of sh--, man. I've been shot at hella times. I just come back at 'em -- pop back. We used to get in shootouts every day. Broad daylight, nighttime, whatever. There'd be hella people in the streets, throwing bottles at each other, shooting back and forth."

Animal is from 19th Street, with a well-known local crew of Sureños, a Mission gang. He has lived in the Mission most of his life and he got into the game early. The recent rise in shooting deaths barely registers with him. "It's been like this. It's nothing. You come around, you might get shot. That's just how it is."

But Animal knows the block is hot right now, especially for him. Not only is he a target for rivals, but the police know him -- he's a registered gang member. He’s already served time for attempted murder and he's still on probation. For now he’s given up selling drugs, but his pockets aren't hurting. "All my females pay me. I don't have to worry about money." He's considered moving to San Jose, to live with his girl and baby, but has a hard time seeing himself outside the Mission or tied to one woman.

His cell phone rings -- it does every few minutes. This call seems important, and he stands up to leave, blowing kisses to the waitress.

"A while back, some kid got shot by my house and people thought it was me. Someone told me they heard I was dead. I said, 'Yeah? I don't feel dead.' F--- it. Let them think that. Now I'm back. They call me Machiavelli."

Jose

Jose tried to live right, but the street was too strong. Now his older sister Gloria has to tell his story for him. Gloria’s little brother was killed two weeks ago. He was 21.

Gloria has been busy planning the funeral, helping her mom, begging the police for information and talking to Jose’s friends. "It's very painful." She pauses, glancing down. "There's nobody to blame. Even though he made bad choices, he wasn't a bad person."

Gloria and José's mom brought three kids to San Francisco from Nicaragua years ago, alone. She made a home for them in the Mission. They never knew their father.

When Gloria was 13 and Jose 10, their baby sister died from a brain tumor. That same year their grandmother, who lived with them, also passed. "Things weren't the same after that," Gloria remembers. "My mom started drinking a lot and kind of forgot about us. I was old enough to figure things out for myself, but I think José was kind of lost."

A few years later, José started at Mission High School. Soon he came home worried because some kids were pressuring him to join their gang. His mom tried to transfer him to another school, but the district said no. For a while, Jose wouldn't go to school because he was afraid. Eventually, he gave in to the pressure.

Jose wouldn't come home most nights because the block his family lived on was a rival gang’s turf. And then he got into drugs.

"It was really bad,” Gloria says. “He was gone for two or three months and we would drive around looking for him. My mom rode the bus looking for him. When we finally saw him again, he was so skinny -- oh my God. That's when we really tried to help him out, but there was only so much we could have done."

Eventually, he was arrested and spent some time in jail. When he got out, he went to go live with his brother in San Jose. Things got better. He gained his weight back, was spending a lot of time at home with his two kids, one 3 years old, the other 7 months.

"You could tell he was really starting to change. He was working out and everything and he was really excited not to have to worry about gang stuff. He would have the kids over at the house and play with them all day.” But one night, Gloria’s mother got a call from someone at the county hospital, which she couldn’t understand because she didn’t speak English. “Two minutes later,” Gloria says, “the police showed up at the door. 'Your son got shot. He's dead.'"

Gloria and her mother attend a vigil for Jose a few days later. José's friends from the gang are there, and everyone takes turns speaking. When José's mom gets up, she pleads with his friends not to seek retaliation: "My son is dead. I want you to live."

Miguel

On a hot day Miguel, 19, is one of the guys you look for, whose bells bring summertime, sugar and ice. He's a paletero, one of many who walk the streets of the Mission pushing wheeled iceboxes filled with ice cream and popsicles, a buck a pop.

Miguel came from the coast of Oaxaca, Mexico. He's seen the district deteriorate. Walking the neighborhood every day, he meets all sorts of people and sees all that happens. He has chosen a path different from Animal Thug's and Jose's.

"I’ve been a paletero since I was 15," he says. There are lots of paleteros. They're all his friends, and rivals. "I’ve seen gang violence, sure. They fight, the cops come, they run. They've never robbed me or messed with me. Their violence is all about drugs; they have their turfs."

Miguel came here with an uncle. It took them 10 days, three days alone to cross the desert. "It was hot. The distance was never-ending. It was cold at night. There was only cactus, rocks, snakes -- desert stuff."

He misses Mexico. "But I came here to work, do right, send money home. It's not bad here. I make about $700 to $800 a month in the hot season. Bad days, about five bucks. Parks are the best. Music is important to me. I play the keyboards, you know. I sing corridos, cumbias, rancheas -- all kinds of Mexican music."

All he wants to do is "work, save money, go back home and live."

Russell Morse, 22, is associate editor of YO! Youth Outlook, a journal of youth life in the San Francisco Bay Area published by Pacific News Service. Josue Rojas, 21, is a graffiti artist and YO! staff writer and illustrator.

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