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

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"What Kind of Man He Would Have Been"

The most important signs of the violence in the 1990s – the dead and imprisoned – are largely invisible. But there are some physical reminders, too.

One of the murals at Cassiano Homes shows the face of a boy above a scroll that reads "In Memory of Jose Jesus Rodriguez, 1979 – 1991."

By multiple accounts, Rodriguez was 12 when he tried to quit the 8 Ball gang, the dominant group in Cassiano Homes. An older gang leader shot and killed him for it. Another part of the mural shows Rodriguez's casket surrounded by fellow gang members, represented by black shadows.

"Nobody messes with that

picture. They respect it. People get hurt if they mess with it," said Robert Ramirez, a 60-year-old Cassiano Homes resident who's lived much of his life in the complex.

Another West Side mural, Educación, was commissioned by San Anto Cultural Arts in 1994. The piece by Juan Ramos and Cruz Ortiz depicts a Latina holding a banner that reads "Educación" above skeletons in blue and red hats, pointing guns at each other behind tombstones.

The mental effects run deep, too. For Boyce, he sees something broken in his community that has yet to be fully repaired.

"The community has lost pride," Boyce said. "The community has lost family. The community has lost faith in those who are supposed to be our leaders."

Those who grew up within the violence, even if they or their families were unharmed, could have had their growth retarded by their environment. Randy Gladden was the principal of Gonzalez Achievement Center, a San Antonio ISD alternative school, from 1990 through 1995.

Many of his students, including Debrow, came from communities ravaged by gang activity. They and their parents would tell him stories about how the whole family slept in the bathroom to keep away from stray bullets coming through windows, or how their local playgrounds had been overrun by drug dealers. Some students would suddenly disappear altogether.

"I took away that it is possible to live beyond that [environment] and to become something else," Gladden said. "It is really, really hard. ... I understand that for some children and young people, it really is insurmountable."

Even though the brazen youth gang violence of the '90s has abated, violent crime still plagues some San Antonio neighborhoods – particularly in former gang hotbeds. Drive-by shootings happen regularly, and no one is immune from the violence. In November 2014, a vehicle owned by Mayor Ivy Taylor was shot at during a drive-by, and a building owned by Taylor's husband was also hit. Two people were wounded.

Police Chief William McManus and District 2 Councilman Alan Warrick recently held a set of community meetings to address the rampant shootings, drug-related activity and vandalism that East Side neighborhoods face. Frustrations from long-time residents bubbled up, and many pressed for a more visible police presence in their part of the city.

"These problems are chronic. They've been around forever," McManus told KSAT. He plans to send more street crime units to East Side communities.

But the crime has persisted for so long, Salas wondered if perhaps people have just gotten used to it.

"It makes some people want to move and just surrender to that norm that evolved over the course of time. It makes some people very nervous, it makes some people go and purchase guns. It makes some people put burglar bars all over their house," Salas said.

The greatest cost of the violence in the '90s, almost all agree, is the young lives who were plucked from their communities, whether by death or by imprisonment. The waste of life and talent in such a seemingly arbitrary way leaves those left behind struggling with unanswerable questions, and memories of lost lives.

"We just wonder what kind of man he would have been," Mecole Williams said of her brother, Cyrus Bates. "What kind of children would he have? Would he be married? He was going to be an engineer – what kind of engineer was he going to be? But he's in heaven. He lives on. He lives on through us."

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