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​Summer of Peace: A Generational Fight Against Gangs in Denver

As this past summer began, according to police statistics provided to VICE, Denver had seen 12 gang-related deaths, up from three over the same period in 2014 and seven each for the start of 2013 and 2012.

by Donna Bryson
04 September 2015, 4:00am

Activists march against gang violence in Denver this August. All photos by the author

Makia Peevy joined the hundred or so marchers calling for peace. Her father was gunned down in April outside his Denver home, and shots fired at mourners gathering for his funeral weeks later killed one of her cousins. Police linked both deaths to gang violence.

Cathy Maestas marched as well on an August Saturday morning so bright it was hard to believe autumn was around the corner. Her son was 16 when he was killed by gang members in 1993, just blocks from where Peevy's father and cousin died.

The losses Peevy and Maestas suffered a generation apart serve as evidence that gangs are entrenched in Denver. But Peevy and Maestas also epitomize a community's determination to stop the violence. After the previous winter and spring saw an upsurge in gang murders—including those of Peevy's father and 22-year-old cousin—Denver feared a repeat of 1993, when Geranimo Maestas was among scores killed in what became known locally as the Summer of Violence.

As this past summer began, according to police statistics provided to VICE, Denver had seen 12 gang-related deaths, up from three over the same period in 2014 and seven each for the start of 2013 and 2012. City, state, and federal authorities joined in a crackdown that included more surveillance, more reward money, and the possibility of more serious federal charges against murder suspects.

The pace of killings waned. The law enforcement crackdown played a part, but people like Maestas also credit a more coordinated and mindful response from community activists, parents, church leaders and others who see fighting gangs as more than a police problem. Since the 1980s, when the federal government's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention asked researchers to find out what kinds of anti-gang projects were being undertaken across the country and which ones were working, a growing body of evidence has shown that key elements include the involvement of community groups and former gang members in reaching out to young people and ensuring they feel part of a wider world, an emphasis on creating educational and job opportunities, and suppression efforts such as increasing police patrols in the worst-hit neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, communities stumble when they don't act comprehensively, by, for example, concentrating on arresting the bad guys without enough outreach, or counseling without enough emphasis on jobs and education.

"I think there's been a decrease relative to last winter and spring, and we're fairly happy with it," Denver Police Commander Marcus Fountain says of local gang violence. Cops have adopted a different strategy than the traditional response of flooding troubled areas with officers. Instead, they did research, determined who was responsible for most of the trouble, and concentrated on them in collaboration with regional, state, and federal agencies. "The biggest thing that has shown to help is to take a focused approach," Fountain adds. "And a large part of it was collaboration with the community."

Paul Callanan, head of the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver, a city government project that got federal funding in 2010, told me, "I think what the city in coordination with the police department and community groups was able to do was head off a summer of violence."

Children bike past a mural honoring Eddie Armijo, who died of illness last year

While the numbers in Denver might not compare to the scores of gang deaths places like Los Angeles and Chicago experience year after year, the Colorado capitol is proof that gangs aren't just a mega-city problem. The latest analysis of statistics from across the country by the National Gang Center, a Department of Justice-funded think tank, shows that nearly every city with a population of at least 100,000 has seen year after year of gang activity. Any city where gangs are entrenched, the center's experts say, will periodically see violence spike for reasons ranging from local rivalries to increased competition for turf spurred by the influence of international drug cartels.

Cities can't just fight gangs, though—they also have to address the conditions that make gangs seem like the best option to their most vulnerable citizens, people who have been marginalized for generations and risk falling further behind even as America emerges from recession. Denver, with a population of about 650,000, may have lessons to offer larger metropolises. A recent issue of the National Gang Center's newsletter directed at law enforcement and other professionals working to bring down gang violence focused on the summer programs of the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver.

This summer, police targeted a small group they saw as most responsible for the violence and used tools like a new network of microphones on the streets connected to a computer to pinpoint shootings. Meanwhile, Callanan helped distribute extra city funding for programs such as basketball tournaments and job fairs at which young people were offered mentorship and opportunity. Also this summer, more groups than ever before organized marches aimed in part at drawing fearful people out of their homes to make the personal connections that strengthen neighborhoods.

As her nine-year-old daughter Pride listened, Makia Peevy told VICE in an interview that she and her family had spent the summer "doing lots of marches, and coming together as a community."

Six years after the death of her son, Cathy Maestas started a dance company she called No Mo Violence to divert young people's energy from crime to creativity. The members of the Denver Crips affiliate known as the Tre Tres who killed him wanted to steal his Broncos jacket. Three Tre Tres were convicted in his death and received long prison sentences.

This summer, Cathy Maestas said she saw groups like her own No Mo Violence collaborating more closely.

"I think everybody's realizing we're all working toward a goal and we need more unity," she said.

It was a Monday afternoon, and the meeting room in a community center near the corner where Geranimo Maestas was killed was full of acronyms and tattoos. This summer was the first to feature a weekly gathering of those working to quell violence in Denver's neighborhoods.

In an atmosphere where an insult or a boast posted on Facebook can lead to violence, checking in regularly has allowed activists, counselors, ministers, police, bureaucrats and others to pass on information that can help quell rumors and keep the peace. The conference room also is a place where fundraising ideas or word of job openings for young people can be shared. Calendars can be consulted to ensure an employment fair in one part of the city doesn't conflict with a street fair elsewhere. A community group in the room with expertise in trauma counseling, for example, can offer helpful advice to one specializing in, say, tutoring.

Anti-gang counselor Leo Alirez

Leo Alirez is a regular participant in the Monday meetings. He spent the summer with Impact Empowerment Group (IEG), counseling young people and organizing sports tournaments and excursions to a zoo, an adventure sports camp, and other vantage points teasing possibilities beyond neighborhoods often defined by poverty and violence.

A tattoo on Alirez's right arm reads, "Never give up." One on his left reads, "Never let go."

"That's what gangs are about," Alirez said, explaining that he tries to tell young people their loyalty and passion do not have to be devoted to crime.

Alirez's expertise isn't academic. His grandfather was a member of a local gang in largely Hispanic north Denver who went to prison in California on drug charges and came back to organize a hometown affiliate of a larger criminal enterprise known as Nuestra Familia. While he says his parents were not members and his mother in particular was opposed to gangs, Alirez followed his grandfather, aunts, uncles, and cousins into the life.

Like his grandfather, Alirez went to prison. While serving time on assault, drug, and other charges, he began to hear his mother's entreaties.

"I realized I was giving loyalty more to my gang than to the woman who gave me breath," he said.

When he left prison 16 years ago, Alirez asked Nuestra Familia to let him go. His grandfather's status eased his way out.

His mother had pushed him to get a diploma. So even though he started serving his first jail sentence six months after graduating from high school, he had some foundation for a new life when he left Nuestra Familia. He had to take remedial math classes at a community college when he got out of prison, but went on to earn a counseling degree from Denver's Metropolitan State University. He has run programs for the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver and the state Department of Corrections.

Burton's grandfather was shot and killed, and he says his uncle "died because he was a Crip." His father was killed by a drunk driver. Of another uncle, he said, "I forget how he died."

At 38, Alirez may see a version of his younger self, one that made better choices, in Da-rell Burton. The 17-year-old high school senior was among the young people Alirez mentored this summer. Gangs and violence are the stuff of family life for Burton, as they were for Alirez.

Burton said his father and uncle formed a gang when they were younger and have "always been telling me, all my life, 'You were born to this.'" But he saw joining a gang as "volunteering to get killed."

Burton's grandfather was shot and killed, and he says his uncle "died because he was a Crip." His father was killed by a drunk driver. Of another uncle, he said, "I forget how he died."

Burton stayed out of the gang, his eyes on graduating from high school, where he has been active in the JROTC. He wants to join the Army and get a college degree. He tells younger kids from his neighborhood that gang life isn't nearly as exciting as the rafting and camping adventures he has enjoyed thanks to groups like Impact Empowerment.

Sitting in IEG offices with several other teens who spent the summer essentially serving as camp counselors for Alirez, Burton nods in recognition as a friend recounts that a teacher once told him he would never amount to anything. Even if they don't hear it directly, young black and brown men in America too often receive the message that their lives don't much matter. Gangs, in a twisted way, offer acceptance and opportunities to lead and contradict that narrative. They also reward the anger that is a natural consequence of the violence and trauma that haunt people like Burton.

Former gang member Terrance Roberts, 39, started what would become Impact Empowerment in the late 1990s with after-school study and sports programs. In a stark lesson in just how fragile social progress can be, what was then known as Prodigal Son collapsed when Roberts, who has told reporters he was acting in self-defense and awaits trial, shot and wounded a gang member in 2013. Haroun Cowans, an entrepreneur who grew up in the same neighborhood as Roberts and like most young men never joined a gang, was chairman of Prodigal Son's board of directors when it fell apart. His attempts to revive what he sees as an important community resource began with giving it a new name, a way of drawing a line under the mistakes of the past. He has put in more than 40 hours a week as its unpaid director this summer. Officials of the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver were impressed enough with Cowans' commitment that they provided just over $120,000 in city funds, paving the way for Impact Empowerment to offer eight-month contracts that started in the summer to Alirez and two other outreach staffers who brought deep experience working with young people in difficult circumstances.

Cowans, pragmatic as the bank manager he once was and business owner he still is, said it is up to him to persuade the Gang Reduction Initiative of Denver and others to keep supporting IEG so it can continue to work into the fall, the winter and well beyond. He plans attitude surveys to track how young people are responding to programs, and may even keep a count of how many young people are moved to remove gang tattoos to help make the case that outreach works.

Impact Empowerment operates out of two small rooms in a community center in North Park Hill, a neighborhood where gang violence has flared repeatedly. A shopping center that once stood nearby was a neighborhood hub, but also a Blood hangout and was destroyed in a 2008 Crips firebombing. Roberts was active in the area's revitalization after the fire. When I visit, Cowans walks with me past part of Roberts's legacy—basketball hoops and brightly colored benches—on the way to consult about community building with other activists.

Cowans does not have Roberts's street cred, but he has gained the trust of former gang members like Alirez, from whom he has learned about how gangs recruit and operate. Cowans already knew how their actions can reverberate throughout a community.

The 37-year-old Cowans had played on a championship middle school basketball team with Geranimo Maestas, and when he talks of hearing of his friend's death on the news 22 years ago, it's clear the shock and pain is still with him. More recently, after a Denver policewoman was killed in the crossfire of a gang shooting that broke out at a family-friendly jazz concert in City Park in 2012, Cowans comforted the officer's sister, an employee of a security company he runs.

"Violence and the culture of it have affected me and people who look like me," he said. "I've had the experience of it being around me, and choosing a different path."

Higher property values are pushing low- and middle-income Denverites out of neighborhoods like the one where Cowans grew up as firmly as police and probation officers forced Alirez and his family to move in 1993. Some say the stress of displacement helped fuel the deadly gang violence Denver saw earlier this year.

Cowans, who decamped for Denver's southern suburbs, is renovating a house in the historically-black Five Points neighborhood just east of downtown. He sees more in his old neighborhood than the cachet of living close to downtown or the allure of homes rebranded as affordable fixer-uppers. When Cowans walks to the barber shop where he had his hair cut as a child, or golfs on a nearby course known for the diversity of the players it attracts, he feels he has come home. And he wants to give back in the way of the black east Denver entrepreneurs he grew up admiring.

Cowans marched as well, that Saturday when his neighbors gathered to call for peace.

"The big thing is keeping this issue in front of the community," he said. "This is an ongoing issue. It's not something we solve in a year, in a summer."

Donna Bryson is the former Associated Press bureau chief in South Africa and has also written for Agence France-Presse and the Wall Street Journal. Follow her on Twitter.

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