I’ve been watching this phenomenon quietly unfold for several years. It amounts to a revolution in criminal behavior in the region that essentially invented the modern street gang, then exported it to much of America.
It’s not necessarily to say that, literally, all gangs have stopped existing, though some have. Rather, it’s to say that their behavior is so much more underground, low-profile, so quiet, that it amounts to about the same thing for many working-class neighborhoods that were besieged by these guys for so long. Some are still active but none is as active as gangs were a decade or two ago.
These were truly street gangs, meaning they took their power, identity and reputation from their streets and how well they “defended” them.
Areas like Drew Street, mentioned in the piece, are now seeing a resurgence that was denied them for many years due to the stifling presence of their local gangs.
On the night of July 9, 2000 on the West Side of the city of San Bernardino, several armed gang members went into the driveway of a duplex and opened fire.
Four people were killed that night. They included two brothers, Johnny and Gilbert Agudo. The Agudos were presidents of their respective west side gang cliques — 7th Street Locos and the Little Counts.
The incident became known as the Dead Presidents case and involved betrayal and greed and murder worthy of Shakespeare’s best tragedies.
The Agudo brothers’ murders changed gang life in the West Side Verdugo area, the flatland barrio separated by the 215 freeway from the rest of San Bernardino and made up of families whose ancestors first settled the area in the 1920s and found work at the Santa Fe Railroad.
What made it more amazing was that it was the Agudos’ own homeboys doing the killing.
The case came to a long-awaited end last week, when the last of four defendants to be convicted for the crime, Froylan Chiprez, now 36, was sentenced to four life terms without parole, and 31 years for the attempted murder of two others at the scene that night.
Chiprez, a gunman that night, was arrested in December, 2011 in Tijuana, where he’d been living for a decade.
The case fractured West Side Verdugo, the largest Latino gang, then comprising four cliques, in San Bernardino, said Denise Yoakum, the prosecutor in the Chiprez case.
“Gang officers have told me that many gang members weren’t sure who to trust after that,” she said. “They refer to it as their 9-11. A lot of the old gangsters, you ask them a question [about some event], and they’ll say `Was this before the Dead Presidents case or after?'”
The murders took place supposedly at the behest of Sal “Toro” Hernandez, the Mexican Mafia prison gang member who controls San Bernardino Latino gangs.
One member of the 7th Street gang, Luis Mendoza — aka Maldito — was Johnny Agudo’s best friend. Together they started the 7th Street clique.
Mendoza organized the shooting that night, believing he could be made president of the gang, and possibly a Mexican Mafia member himself, if he followed Hernandez’s orders and killed Johnny Agudo, who was believed to have been talking to police.
Gilbert Agudo was killed because it was believed he would always avenge his brother’s death if he lived.
Mendoza and another shooter, Lorenzo Arias, were sentenced to death in 2008. John Ramirez, another long-time 7th Street homeboy, spent 12 years in prison for his part in the shooting that night, his sentenced shortened due to his cooperation with prosecutors.
These guys all went to school together. Their mothers babysat for each other, and they knew everything there was to know about each other’s families.
I always took the case as a sign of how Southern California barrio life, once so tight-knit, almost cloistered, began to shred under the influence of the Mexican Mafia.
In the early 1990s, the Mafia came out to the streets and put Latino gangs under its control, forcing gang members to tax drug dealers and kick Eme members a percentage. In time, Eme members began ordering gang members to kill their own.
On the streets of Southern California, this undermined the long-standing, deep loyalty that many Latino gang members felt for their own homeboys. This case, and others, showed that that loyalty pretty much doesn’t exist any more.
A lot has changed on San Bernardino’s West Side since then. Mexican immigrants have replaced many of the Mexican-American families who once lived there.
The Agudos’ parents moved away from the west side long ago.
“Some of the victims moved completely out of state,” said Yoakum.
The physical presence of the gangs in the area has diminished notably. There’s far less graffiti and no gang members hanging out at markets or at a large park on the West Side. That doesn’t mean the gangs have disappeared, Yoakum said.
In fact, more than 13 years after that night, only the influence of the Mexican Mafia remains constant in the barrio where the presidents died.
Photos: Johnny Agudo, Gilberto Agudo, Mount Vernon Virgin of Guadalupe