Latino Homicides on Sharp Increase

Jim Herron Zamora, San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 22, 2006

Changing demographics and rising gang violence have brought a dramatic increase in the number of homicides among Latinos in Oakland and San Francisco, even as the number of African American victims has fallen, police and community leaders say.

Oakland saw twice as many Latinos slain last year as in 2004, while San Francisco saw an increase of 50 percent during the same period. Authorities in both cities say the problem largely sneaked up on them because they were focused on the larger—and still more prevalent—problem of African Americans killing others of their own race.

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Of the 96 homicides in San Francisco last year, 15 victims were Latino, compared with 10 Latino victims out of 88 slayings in 2004. Oakland recorded 94 homicides last year with 25 Latino victims, compared with 12 out of 88 killings in 2004.

Authorities attribute the trend to changing demographics as Latinos move into neighborhoods once composed largely of African Americans. That, too, has brought an increase in violence among Latino gangs, which were once dominated by the Norteños but have seen other groups increasingly vie for turf, police said.

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Some of the killings are crimes of passion, such as barroom fights that turn deadly. But what troubles police and community leaders is the rising number of slayings stemming from gang rivalries or instances where the victim was either mistaken for a gang member or an innocent bystander, police said.

“These Hispanic gangs call it checking,” Oakland homicide Sgt. Brian Medeiros said. “They walk up or drive up and want to know what gang you’re in. If you don’t answer, they sometimes open fire. Or sometimes they don’t bother to ask.”

That was apparently the case with Ever Ramos, 17, who was killed last Sunday night just blocks from De La Fuente’s home.

Ramos and two friends were walking to a convenience store near his home on Coolidge Avenue when someone in a white minivan opened fire. Ramos, who arrived from Honduras in 2004, was working as a day laborer and going to school part time to improve his English, his family said, and police said he had no gang ties.

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In San Francisco, the issue is less about changing demographics than gang violence moving beyond the Mission District into once-peaceful areas.

San Francisco Police spokesman Sgt. Neville Gittens said Saturday that the department didn’t recognize the trend until late last year because five of the 15 Latino killings came in November and December. Gittens said the department is planning to devote more officers to reduce violent crime among Latino gangs.

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“We’ve seen more established gang members move from the Mission into other neighborhoods,” said Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who represents the Ingleside, Excelsior and Ocean View areas. “The main focus of the gang is still the Mission, but we’ve seen members—and leaders—move to other parts of town.

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They are all Latino, all are accused of brutal murders years ago, all of their alleged crimes were committed in the Bay Area and all may have fled to Mexico.

They comprise California’s little-known “Featured Wanted Persons,” reminiscent of the familiar FBI “Most Wanted” list.

The state list has been posted on Attorney General Bill Lockyer’s Web site for the public and is immediately available in data banks to any law enforcement officer in the field.

But officials say that if the suspects are in Mexico, even if they are known to authorities there, they face little threat of being returned to California. Mexico’s high court has ruled that extraditing suspects who could face the death penalty is in violation of that country’s constitution.

The ruling and a decades-old treaty has caused considerable friction between the United States and Mexico.

California’s Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a longtime advocate for changes, said, “If you steal a car in the U.S., Mexico will return you to face prosecution and punishment. But if you kill the driver, Mexico will protect you.”

The clash between U.S. and Mexican authorities has been particularly acute in Southern California due to the number of cases.

But California’s current “Featured Wanted Persons,” part of a broader online list, all committed crimes in the Bay Area—Berkeley, Newark, Richmond and Sonoma and San Joaquin counties.

The state Attorney General’s Office could not say for sure whether it was coincidence, a confluence of factors, or both.

They are on the featured list, in part, because “the most serious crimes are the ones that go up there,” said Robin Schwanke, an AG spokeswoman. Many of the crimes have gone unpunished for years.

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