Until he was 15, Victor Sanchez lived on 35th Avenue in East Oakland. He played football, and he enjoyed school. He had nothing to do with gangs. Then, one day, his mother moved him to 98th Avenue. Sanchez didn't know anyone in the new neighborhood. Worse, he couldn't leave his apartment or walk on the streets around his house without running into thuggish young men from the gang that roamed the neighborhood -- the Border Brothers.
"I was always getting into trouble with them, always chased," said Sanchez, not his real name. "I'd get jumped all the time, and one day they pulled a gun on me. They showed me death in the face."
It was a rough time for Sanchez in other ways, too. That year, his father was killed by his own brother during a family quarrel in Mexico. Sanchez's mother, meanwhile, could not protect her son from the thugs on the streets outside their house on 98th. "I couldn't even go to the store," he said. "So I started to stand up for myself."
While everything else in his life was falling apart, Sanchez found protection, and some degree of solace, in a rival gang, the Norteños. "It was too much for one little head to handle," he said. "I learned how to move with it, how to hide it."
Seven months later, on the Day of the Dead, the Norteños initiated Sanchez in a process known as getting "jumped in," whereby he was severely beaten until the others were satisfied. "I got dropped a couple of times," he said, "but I got back up. I got heart." That was when he took the street name "Bloody." He was 16.
Sometime this month, Alameda Superior Court Judge Robert Friedman is expected to deliver a verdict on a proposed gang injunction targeting 40 suspected members of the Norteño gang. The injunction, proposed by City Attorney John Russo in 2010, has dominated headlines for more than half a year and helped foster a sense that Oakland's Latino gang members number in the thousands. That's not the case.
Oakland police estimate there are roughly 700 Latino gang members in the city -- 400 Norteños, 150 Border Brothers and 150 Sureños. Those numbers appear to have remained relatively steady over the past 10 years, despite a 13 percent increase in Oakland's Latino population since 2000, according to census figures.
Latinos now make up 25 percent of Oakland's population, on par with the African-American and white numbers. Yet the topic of Latino gang violence has remained front and center. On Tuesday, the Oakland City Council voted 4-3 to support the injunction after several hours of testimony from supporters and opponents.
Opponents say the injunction unfairly maligns innocent young people who they fear will be victims of racial profiling by police. But others, including store owners and concerned parents, support efforts to crack down on gangs, saying they are responsible for wrecking young lives and destroying communities.
The Norteños, or Northerners, form the oldest and largest of the three big Latino street gangs in the East Bay. Norteños identify with the color red and by "N," the 14th letter of the alphabet, which they often tattoo on their chests and arms in Roman numerals as XIV. Norteños have a broad but loosely defined relationship with the Nuestra Familia prison gang, whose members, according to law enforcement officials, are involved in drug trafficking, prostitution and gunrunning.
But while Nuestra Familia is highly organized, the Norteño street gang is less so.
"If a Norteño was to go to prison, they'd hang out and congregate with similar people, but that doesn't make them a member of Nuestra Familia," said Lt. Fred Mestas, who directed the Oakland Police Gang Unit from 1991 to 1998 and is considered a local expert on the subject. Equally powerful in prisons are members of the Mexican Mafia, or MM, a criminal organization with roots in Southern California.
On the streets, these southerners, or Sureños, identify with the color blue and the letter M. With the exception of a few small groups, Sureños are recent arrivals to Oakland.
Lucy Toscano, a former rival gang member, recalls the moment she first saw them. It was a September day in 2003, and she was at a funeral for a friend killed in the streets. A car convoy pulled into the cemetery and a group of men started shooting at the funeral procession. About a dozen people were shot.
"It was Sureños doing the shooting," she said. "It was all a show by Sureños to tell the world they had arrived here."
The arrival of the Sureños made a bad situation worse, according to Mestas. "Before then it was hard to find a Sureño," he said. "But when migration people started moving here, and finding other people up here, and they started claiming blue, and they became Sureño."
Into this already volatile mix, Oakland was hit with another gang development that sprang out of the vast prison gang structure. Straddling the line between the Norteños and the Sureños are the Border Brothers.
A 23-year-old from East Oakland who goes by the street name of "Drips" -- "because I make people drip blood" -- is one of them.
Drips has bled, too. The scars of past conflicts -- at least two gun shots and multiple stab wounds -- can be seen all over his back. Like the Norteños and Sureños who identify with a specific color, the Border Brothers typically wear all black.
According to Mestas, the Border Brothers sprang to life when "mules" -- poor young men from Mexico or other Central American countries coerced into smuggling drugs across the border for money -- were caught and sent to prison. With no one to defend them, and facing possible death at the hands of the much more established gangs, these young men began to band together. To ease the pressure on their precarious position in prison, they became mercenaries. These killers for hire operated first within and later on without the prisons' brutal hierarchy.
"They started doing mercenary work, hits for other gangs to keep the heat off them and to make money," Mestas said. More than the other two gangs, Border Brothers accept people of all races and backgrounds, including undocumented migrants from Mexico and other Central American countries, provided they abide by the gang's set of rules.
Police and community activists say gang violence in Oakland isn't usually related to drug trafficking or gunrunning. More often, violence erupts when young men "flash" the colors of their own gang in a neighborhood where a rival gang usually lingers. If a gang member paints graffiti on a wall in a rival neighborhood, it can provoke retaliation in the form of shootings, stabbings or severe beatings. Sometimes, fights break out over girls.
"The violence in Oakland is usually some form of disrespect or inferred disrespect," Mestas said.
"It's not money; it's really kind of sad," according to Axel, a 33-year old Sureño from San Francisco. "When you really break it down, it's just (the) colors (we wear)," he said recently, at the tattoo parlor where he works. "When you break it down, we're all brown, we're all Latinos."
But that sense of shared experience and cultural affinity is often lost to ignorance, fear and impetuous decision-making. Those factors are made worse when the environmental and neighborhood conditions become intolerable, said Jeff Duncan-Andrade, a sociologist and expert on youth behavior at San Francisco State. "For a young person to join a gang is a significant decision, a high-risk decision, one that will result in some kind of bodily harm, some sets of psychological attacks and, not uncommonly, death," Duncan-Andrade said. "That begs the question -- why would anybody make that decision?"
The gang members interviewed for this report all had different reasons for their decision. Joining a gang gave Bloody a short-term sense of safety and security in the face of a constant barrage of assaults by the Border Brothers who ruled the streets in his new neighborhood. As his family fell apart, the gang stepped in with support and protection.
For Drips, the Border Brother, becoming a gang member felt almost like a family obligation. His mother had been a Border Sister. His father and grandfather had both been in the gang. The sense of belonging it offered reached deep into his own family.
"It's about respect," said Drips, pacing back and forth near his East Oakland home.
The night before, a rival gang had sped by and fired shots, though nobody could say why exactly. The drive-by had left him extra cautious. "We come from the ground, we're Mexicans. We have to be somebody. I consider myself a paisa, brown pride. We came, and we were like nobody, but now we're big. Everybody knows us; (the gang) comes from our backgrounds."
The gangs' staying power is directly related to the environments from which they spring, Duncan-Andrade said. Where poverty, substance abuse and a violent street culture already exist, gangs are more likely to thrive as kids drop out of the institutions meant to protect them.
"You're much less safe by joining a gang, but under conditions these kids face, where you feel bodily threat, you'll make decisions that aren't always logical," Duncan-Andrade said. He argues that environment plays a much greater role in the creation of gangs -- and the seeming inability of police to dismantle them -- than people are comfortable admitting.
The combination of rough streets, pervasive substance abuse in the community and violence in neighborhoods will break down the protectors that elsewhere keep kids safe from gangs, Duncan-Andrade said. Those most susceptible to joining gangs are teenagers, and the brains of teenagers are particularly susceptible to making short-range decisions that are high-risk, no matter where they live, he said. Their choices, however, are defined by their environment, not their race.
"If you took wealthy white kids, and put them in an environment like East Oakland, you'd have white gangbangers. It's that simple," he said.
What is clear is that as long as some of the factors remain that help push young people into gangs in the first place -- poverty, unsafe streets and a lack of social programs to keep them occupied after school -- the gangs themselves are unlikely to disappear, no matter how many police flood the zone.
They may shift their activities to other areas, or go underground for a while, Duncan-Andrade said, but their loyalty to the blue, the red and the black will remain intact until it can be replaced with something more meaningful in the community. "I know it's wrong, but I'm just going to keep going until my casket drops," said Bloody, as if to underscore this point.
Drips, the Border Brother, expressed a similar refrain. He said the only way he'll leave the gang is "if I die."
Only one gang member interviewed for this story expressed a desire to leave. He was 17 and said to call him No Name. He joined the Sureños, he said, "to fit in." He had gotten into fights with Norteños and Border Brothers. He had been shot at. But he had also stayed in school, and he was surrounded by teachers who wanted to see him succeed.
One of them had applied to college on his behalf, and he was waiting for the response. He wanted out, he said, even though it was hard to leave behind the life that had given him a sense of meaning. But he said he was willing to change. "It's good to be riding with my girl and know that someone isn't going to just come up and shoot me," he said. "I'm trying to start over."