San Francisco: Where Violent Street Gangs and Silicon Valley Tech Bros Coexist

There's gang violence on the same street corners where gentrifiers are paying thousands of dollars in rent.

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Feb 8 2015, 5:13pm

Photos via Flickr user CTG/SF

For decades, San Francisco enjoyed a reputation for welcoming outsiders: hippies, gay people, assorted weirdos who went West in search of freedom and ended up at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Now, thanks to a tech-fueled cash bonanza, it's increasingly a city of clean lines and affluence, home to ultra-rich Silicon Valley barons and vagrants of the digital era David Talbot calls "Stanford assholes." But despite the new tech bubble, rising property values, and hipster enclaves, the city's underworld—and the gangs that fuel it—are still rollicking along, often right next door to the new money.

Judging by the number of security guards Mark Zuckerberg has hired to protect his $10 million mansion, Facebook's boss probably had some idea that the rapidly gentrifying Mission District can (still) be a dangerous place. By sheer volume of reported incidents, the neighborhood remains the second most risky place in town, closely following South of Market (SoMa), where many tech startups rub elbows with homeless shelters and mental illness treatment centers.

SoMa has its gang problems, but the Mission has a reputation. There's a gang that claims real estate right around the corner from Zuck's mansion called MS-13, which has allied itself with the Sureños, or the Southern California faction of the Mexican Mafia. And gang members say that both the hipster haven at Dolores Park and territory stretching north from the corner at the end of Zuckerberg's block are places where it owns the monopoly in the pre-Silk Road drug trade.

The Sureños, and so by proxy MS-13, is constantly warring with their historic rivals the Norteños, or the Northern California coalition of gangs loosely organized under the Neustra Familia's banner. "One of the rules common to both Sureño and Norteño gangs is that gang members of each side must attack members of the other side," federal prosecutors wrote in a racketeering and murder indictment made public in November. "The more brazen the attack, the greater the respect that is given to the attacker by fellow gang members."

Mostly, both gangs just want to make money by selling drugs such as coke, molly, meth, and weed. And between the two gangs, their territory covers most of the Mission, where newcomers can expect to pay upwards of $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.

Junior members generally serve as the narcotics foot soldiers, according to the Feds, but gangs have also branched out to burglary and robbery—which often means snatcing smartphones. When they get violent, senior gang members known as Shot Callers or La Palabra ("the word" in Spanish) generally do the killing. The feds also say that big homies—captains—shoot people once in a while as well as order hits from inside federal and state prison.

At the moment, the government is trying to pin three bodies on 17 Sureños, plus a bunch of attempted murders and racketeering charges.

The most recent murder that's making its way through the justice system took place six months ago, before last call at Valencia and Sixteenth Streets—a popular spot to get drunk on the weekend. A then-unknown assailant shot the victim several times, remarkably not hitting any bystanders (collateral damage is a frequent and deadly consequence of gang violence). A CEO of a venture-funded tech company told me that he's renting a place, with a roommate, for somewhere above $5,000 a month at that same corner.

Across town in another rapidly gentrifying neighborhood named the Western Addition, a gang called the Central Divis Playas (CDP) is headquartered a block away from the Sunday farmer's market at Grove and Divisadero streets, federal prosecutor William Frentzen said in court. Other gangs such as Knockout Posse, Eddy Rock, and Page Street Mob (Money Over Bitches) operate close by as well.

The feds have accused the CDP of murdering five people in recent history, as well as participating in an ongoing criminal enterprise that sells drugs, and pimps women, some of whom are underage. Mostly, like the Hispanic gangs, the CDP and its allies are all about the money—getting their start during the incredibly destructive crack boom of the 1980s and 1990s. (The Western Addition neighborhood used to be a motley collection of crack houses, one longtime city resident told me.)

The 16th and Mission BART Station back in 2008. Photo via Flickr user Marcin Wichary

These days, the streets of the Western Addition are littered with gentrification symbols: $4 toast, the Wall Street Journal calling the neighborhood the Mission 2.0, expensive cafes, and parklets. There's even a fancy BBQ joint called 4505 Meats around the corner from the CDP's HQ, which one cop told me the gang used to claim as a kind of front office.

But even as the neighborhood gentrifies, beefs crop up between gang members and their rivals—though it's personal rather than organizational, according to a longtime neighborhood resident familiar with the gangs who identified himself as Rico. "It's not like they have a meeting about killing someone," Rico said. He grew up in the Western Addition, at one time dabbled in shady activities, and knows people in many of the crews.

One of the murders the CDP has been accused of was quite clearly personal. A mother and father allegedly exacted vigilante justice on a pimp named Calvin Sneed, who convinced their daughter to sell pot at a Los Angeles dispensary and work as a prostitute in her off hours. The parents reportedly tried to gun down Sneed in LA. Failing to do so, they lured the pimp to their doorstep in San Francisco. After the daughter tried to warn at Sneed about his impending doom, the parents and two members of the CDP killed the pimp in his car. The couple has pled not guilty.

Nudged along by federal organized crime investigations, many of the current members of Hispanic gangs in the Mission and the Central Divis Playas currently face years in prison. Prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a statute that was originally penned with the intention of destroying the Italian mafia the feds are able to stack up decades of prison time on anyone caught up in one of several ongoing cases.

The greatest federal triumph in recent San Francisco history against a gang has been the case against Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow and 28 other defendants (including a state senator who charged with corruption and bribery). Reading eerily like a true crime production out of Hollywood, the government claims that, under the auspices of a Chinese secret society called the Ghee Kung Tong, the defendants carried out a smuggling operation that moved illegal booze, cigarettes, guns, and weed—laundering $2.3 million in total profits.

Allegedly presided over by Shrimp Boy, the criminal enterprise included the leader of a Chinese gang called the Wah Ching and a motley collection of other characters with colorful pasts, the majority of whom are currently awaiting trial. But the sudden disappearance of such a large criminal enterprise has had an unintended consequence. According to a former SFPD Gang Task Force investigator I spoke to, there's a power vacuum at the top of the criminal food chain, and it's only a matter of time before someone else steps up.

It's worth pointing out that the federal investigation was so sprawling that it even touched football Legend Joe Montana, rapper Too $hort, Suge Knight, and San Francisco's current Mayor, Ed Lee, who allegedly took $20,000 in campaign funds from undercover federal agents. But no matter how far-reaching law enforcement's efforts are—or how loudly those efforts are broadcast throughout the Bay Area echo chamber—condo pitch men haven't and surely won't add the criminal underworld to their sales script. So long as Silicon Valley keeps minting new millionaires and billionaires, young, upwardly mobile tech types are going to continue burrowing deeper into Mission and Western Addition gang territory.

As Bob Wheeler, a local realtor with Paragon Real Estate Group, put it, "The Inner Mission is so hot right now, they just don't care about the crime."

Follow Max Cherney on Twitter.

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