'WHEN you have two cars with four or five kids in a car cruising around, looking for rival gangs, and they've got guns, that's hunting," said Sgt. Fred Mestas, supervisor of the Oakland Police Department's gang unit.

He was describing the rash of gang-related shootings and killings in Oakland. In the most recent, the driver, two passengers and a man pumping gas were shot Saturday night after the driver pulled into a Fruitvale area gas station. Doctors say the driver, Reuben Aviles, 27, is brain-dead and will not recover.

The previous Sunday,

17-year-old Ever Ramos and two friends were mistaken for gang members and shot after a group inside a car challenged them and they tried to run away. Ramos, who had come to Oakland from Honduras just four months earlier, died. The night before, 15-year-old Alberto Salvador Villarreal was shot and killed on East 15th Street, not far from where Ramos was shot.

The escalation of Latino gang violence that started last year has carried over into the new year. Police link nine of last year's 94 killings to gang rivalries; three of this year's five homicides have a gang link.

Mestas said members of the rival gangs, the Norteos and Sureos, challenge each other, asking which gang they claim. If the person gives an answer they don't like or is wearing colors or clothing affiliated with the other gang, they are shot.

"They can tell each other in a blink," Mestas said.


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"The Chicanos (Norteos) tend to have longer hair and dress differently. The other kids have come more recently, and their hair is short or their heads are shaved."

Blue is Norteos' color, red is Sureos'. "X14" is a Norteos symbol, "13" signals Sureos.

Mestas served in the gang unit from 1991 to 1998 and has recently returned. He said a lot of rivalries seem to be coming to a head with what had been neighborhood conflicts turning ugly. Before, a chance encounter might spark violence. Now, the rival gangs are setting out to hunt each other down.

The Sureos also have been growing and attempting to move into Norteos territory.

"Before (the Sureos) was a Los Angeles problem. Here it was the Border Brothers against the Chicanos (Norteos). The Sureos have made a huge play to increase their presence." Two offshoot gangs, the South Side Locos and the Border Brothers, affiliate with the Sureos.

The gang members also have grown bolder, often endangering innocent bystanders.

Last summer, two young men who were not affiliated with either gang — one was wearing a red sweat shirt his girlfriend had picked out for him that day — were shot at a taco truck on 54th Avenue and International Boulevard. One was wounded, one was killed.

A month later, on a Sunday afternoon, after the exchange of hostile looks at a Laundromat at 14th Avenue and International Boulevard, a man shot and killed a young man who wasn't in a gang but was with a gang member.

"You know there are a lot of people in the area on a Sunday afternoon and on a summer evening," Sgt. Brian Medeiros said. "The recent acts have definitely been bold."

Medeiros and Mestas advised young Latino men to avoid anything that might give someone the idea they belong to one of the gangs, including the colors red and blue or, for example, a hat with the letter "N" on it.

Mestas, Officer of the Year for 2005, said parents, community groups, churches and the city can do more to keep young men from joining gangs.

"As a parent raising your kids in the city, if you see your kid starting to lean towards that, look at his notebooks, look at what he's wearing, who his friends are. Parents have a lot of sway, but they don't use it. Pay more attention and don't be afraid to challenge your kids," Mestas said.

He also said the city and community could do more to provide alternative activities and safe havens. For example, he said one Fruitvale community institution used to have a meeting place where gang colors and posturing weren't allowed.

"It was a safe environment, a haven," he said. "These kids go to school together, sit in a classroom with each other and they're not tearing each other's heads off. They have it within them to control themselves if they are given the opportunity."

He said police officers are looking for patterns in the attacks and have scheduled meetings with community organizers, but with the escalation of violence, it feels as if they are running from fire to fire.

"There needs to be intervention," he said. "Cops are a hammer. We have a single purpose, to arrest people. We need intervention by community programs, churches and parents."

In a postscript to the Ramos killing, his funeral is today. His body will be returned to his parents in Honduras on Thursday.

"His parents were shocked. His mom started screaming and crying. She reacted really bad," said a 14-year-old relative in describing how the victim's family received the news. "He wasn't a bad kid. He had just gone out to buy some chips and stuff, and they shot him. I feel unsafe. I don't go out on the street anymore. I don't walk to the store. A lot of gang stuff is going on, and people are getting shot by mistake."

Brenda Payton's column appears in the Metro section on Tuesdays and on the opinion page on Sundays. She also writes Friday's Eye on the Arts feature.