OAKLAND -- Every day, Gloria Vargas keeps an eye on the young men who congregate in front of her concrete apartment complex on 28th Avenue, near Foothill Boulevard. Some of them live on the block, some don't. At least one she has known since he was in preschool.
Those young men and several others create a real nuisance for the neighborhood, residents say. They smoke marijuana, flash guns and spray-paint gang tags on sidewalks, buildings and utility boxes.
But they are not among the 40 gang members that Oakland City Attorney John Russo named in a proposed Norteño gang injunction in October. The injunction, if granted by the court, would prohibit those men -- identified as gang members from past arrests and convictions -- from congregating in public within several square blocks of Oakland's Fruitvale district.
Critics of the proposed injunction say it is too broad and unfairly targets individuals who are no longer in gangs, if they ever were. They say it will lead to racial profiling of Latinos and fear of police. They also say the huge amount of money spent to defend the gang injunction would be better spent on activities and programs that show youngsters an alternative to gang life.
That may be true. But in talking to residents who live within the injunction zone, one thing is clear: Many fear gangs and the violence they bring to the neighborhood. They think the injunction is a step in the right direction because it will bring more police and more attention to the problems of drug dealing, prostitution, robberies, assaults and shootings that have increased over the past year, and in some cases, claimed their loved ones.
Inside gang zone
Whether or not residents favor the injunction, living within the targeted zone takes perseverance -- and sometimes guts.
Vargas, 37, is a single mother of four who runs an after-school program for the East Bay Agency for Children. She says gangs are a problem and rarely ventures out after dark if she can help it. But, at the same time, she's opposed to the gang injunction and says more programs and parental involvement will do more to solve the problem.
She helped the defense attorneys interview some of the suspects named in the gang injunction. Banning them from the neighborhood won't eliminate the problems, Vargas said.
"The people I see hanging around outside or running from police are usually not gangs, or wearing gang colors," she said. "You are not really fixing the problem or addressing the issues, just covering it up."
Vargas keeps close tabs on her children, none of whom is associated with gangs. She has lived in the Fruitvale for 12 years, 10 of those in an apartment complex at 25th Avenue and Foothill Boulevard that was like a war zone with both Norteños and Sureños living there.
The area seemed to change for the better about five years ago, Vargas said, but lately, it has been sliding back. She moved her family to 28th Avenue two years ago, next to a transitional housing complex that had been taken over by drug dealers. It took pressure by the neighbors to force the city to tear it down, leaving behind an empty, fenced lot.
Joe Martinez grew up in the Fruitvale and owns a business and several rental properties within the gang injunction zone. He doesn't think the injunction alone will solve the neighborhood's problems, but it would signal a willingness on the city's part to tackle the pervasive gang issues.
"I think people have the attitude that it's East Oakland and people don't care," he said. "People let the weeds grow. There's graffiti and other nuisance activity. Then somebody gets mad and there are gunshots.
"I've lived here 55 years. As a kid, we didn't see the violence we see today."
Martinez said that the son of one of his former tenants used to deal drugs and was shot and killed a few blocks away. Another young man that he had known since he was a child was shot and killed in a drive-by because he was wearing a red hat.
An Oakland Housing Authority apartment building on 28th Avenue has been the source of many problems, including the headquarters for drug dealing, and it took years to get dealers out.
"Some of these people have a gang mentality," he said. "How are you going to stop it?"
He had to put up a tall fence to prevent prostitutes from conducting business in the narrow side yard separating his property from the building next door.
"What is sad, we don't get to know our neighbors too well anymore. We need to watch out for each other. There's been a lot of break-ins. "... People are after the gold."
Charles Standberry, 60, has lived in Oakland for about 29 years, the past 15 or so in the Fruitvale. It has been about six years since the lamps on his side fence columns were broken out by drug dealers who lived in the apartment building next door and who didn't want light shined on their activities.
Although crime on the block is down, and that apartment building and another across the street have been cleaned up and house new tenants, there are still signs of gang life.
Gang members recently tagged the fence columns in Standberry's front yard with "XIV" and "norte." Rival gangs such as the Sureños, Border Brothers and South Side Locos come into Norteño territory and tag over their rivals' tags as a show of power.
"The gang injunction is good," Standberry said. "It's going to send a message we don't want gang activity around here. We are a peaceful people, and gangs don't care about human life."
Standberry said many people are afraid to report what they see because they will be labeled snitches and could pay the consequences. He said he'd like to move to a place where daily life is a little more predictable and he doesn't have to worry about getting caught in crossfire.
"You never know what will happen (here)," he said. "It's so volatile."
A few weeks ago, Marcelina Sanchez, 33, was meeting with the Alameda County District Attorney's Office to discuss the trial for a gang member charged with killing her brother, Tomas Melero-Smith, 19, when they heard a loud protest outside.
"It's ironic how they had the march against the gang injunction and here we are trying to put this gang member away for good, a gang member who killed innocent people," Sanchez said. "I live in the Fruitvale and I work at Josie de la Cruz Park, where we deal with a lot of gang members who hang out here and scare away a lot of families. Parents say they love our programs and they love coming here, but they are thinking about pulling their kids out because of the drinking and smoking."
Her brother was visiting friends in East Oakland in September 2007 when prosecutors say he was killed by Ivan Ordaz, who was suspected of being a member of the Border Brothers and who police say thought the 19-year-old was a member of rival gang before walking up and shooting him.
Melero-Smith, a city of Oakland recreation leader, was not a gang member, nor was Allan Mejia Martinez, 22, whom Ordaz is accused of gunning down 17 hours earlier. Both Ordaz and Jose Castillon, who drove Ordaz around that day, have been charged with murder. Their trial is scheduled to start this month.
The following year, Marco Casillas, 19, an aspiring dental assistant, was walking with his girlfriend and her dog on Santa Rita Street when police say Francisco Hernandez, also 19 and a member of the South Side Locos gang, shot them both. Casillas, who was not a gang member, died, and his girlfriend was severely injured.
Gang members also killed 14-year-old Ricardo Cortes, a sophomore and gifted art student at Far West High School in North Oakland, as he walked with two friends on 47th Avenue in August 2009. Julio Montano and Francisco Zamora thought Cortes was a rival gang member, but Cortes wasn't involved in gangs. In December, both men were found guilty of murder.
Casillas and Cortes were killed within the proposed gang injunction zone. Even though her brother was not killed by Norteño gang members, and the young gang members who hang around Josie de la Cruz Park are not named in the injunction, Sanchez said she fully supports the ban. She said Oakland's gang problems have gotten out of control.
"I wish this is something that they would have had in place years ago," she said. "It would have prevented these guys from hanging out and driving around with weapons and killing people at random."
Sanchez is committed to her work at Josie de la Cruz Park, but she said she recently moved from the neighborhood because she doesn't want her daughter to grow up around the violence. She said it had gotten to a point where she was afraid to take her to the store and would make sure she stopped first before heading to the baby sitter.
"I am fearful, especially for my mother because she lives there and likes to walk to the corner store and back," Sanchez said. "I try to explain to her how it's not the same as it used to be. There are home invasions, strong-arm robberies and people snatching chains. You can't even wear your religion, your cross, with pride without worrying about it."
Contact Cecily Burt at 510-208-6441. Follow her at Twitter.com/csburt.