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Drive-By City: Remembering San Antonio Gang Violence in the 1990s

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Educación, a West Side mural painted in 1994 by Juan Ramos and Cruz Ortiz.
  • Educación, a West Side mural painted in 1994 by Juan Ramos and Cruz Ortiz.

"My Neighborhood Was a Jungle"

Darrell Boyce wasn't a gang member, but he easily could have been. Boyce moved to San Antonio from New York City in 1989 with his family when he was 11. He now works for San Antonio Fighting Back, a group that helped fight gang violence in the '90s and continues to perform community development work.

Boyce grew up in East Terrace, one of the hotspots for gangs on the East Side. He remembers drive-bys as a constant threat. His mother didn't let him or his brothers leave their home after 6 p.m. Although he tried to keep out of harm's way by engaging in extracurricular activities, violence was impossible to avoid altogether.

"From 1993 to 1998, I probably had 15 to 20 friends that were killed due to gang violence. These are guys I went to school with, we played basketball together. It was really a hard life," Boyce said.

Two of Boyce's brothers were incarcerated: one for drug-related charges, the other, who's still in prison, for murder.

A fellow East Terrace resident, Edwin Debrow Jr., was perhaps the youngest person ever to be charged with murder in Texas.

Debrow was 12 in 1992 when he was convicted of killing Curtis Ray Edwards, a taxi driver, in a botched robbery. At the time he was a member of the Altadena Block Crips, following in the footsteps of his older brother. He remembers most of his childhood as "hanging around older guys and learning the drug trade." Now 36, he's projected to be released in 2031.

"When I was a kid I don't remember anyone who influenced me positively," Debrow said in a letter to the San Antonio Current. "My neighborhood was a jungle and full of so much lawlessness. There was not any programs [sic] for the kids who were running around in the streets. Drugs and gang violence dominated the neighborhood."

Looking for Something

After drive-by shootings peaked in 1993, they dropped to 540 in 1994 and 339 in 1995. Police embedded deeper into the neighborhoods, forging relationships with gang members and aggressively issuing search warrants to try and seize guns in people's homes.

"We learned that the best thing is to talk to them. I was really shocked that a lot of these kids were just looking for something. Every kid was looking for something different," Coleman said.

Community pressures also helped weed out some of the violence, both through stronger neighborhood associations and through events like the 1994 Gang Summit.

The Gang Summit was held over an early weekend in April at Grace Lutheran Church. Mediators – mostly former gang members – came from across the country to forge truces between San Antonio gangs.

Rev. Ann Helmke, who helped organize the 1994 Gang Summit, remembers watching the news each night and despairing for the future of the city.

"The young people who were being arrested were young. They were the future of our community," Helmke said. "If you lock them up, for some reason it made people feel better. It didn't do that for me. I was like, 'You're locking up our young people!'... And all I wanted to do is go out to the curb and scream 'Stop!'"

The summit included an open forum for gang members, community groups, elected officials and mediators to air grievances and establish goals. Although not all gangs participated, particularly those from the East Side, the final sessions included four West Side gangs calling a truce. Several others followed suit in the weeks following.

Although shootings continued after the summit – including at least one the day after it concluded – they did so at a slower rate. Organizers claimed that it served as a symbol of hope moving forward.

But the slowdown was also due to attrition among the gangs' ranks by death, imprisonment, and, Coleman hypothesized, fear and boredom.

"The gangs started slowing down when they started realizing that all of this just wasn't fun anymore. Everybody knew somebody who had gotten hurt or shot or killed. It wasn't fun anymore," Coleman said.

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