Gangstas in Paradise

Galveston has beautiful beaches, the Strand and Moody Gardens. North of Broadway it has the projects, crippling poverty and big-city problems. And now the bad guys are back.

It's a military operation, understandable given Benavidez's prior tour of duty as a marine in Vietnam.

These gangsters don't come from the part of Galveston regularly seen by tourists. Gang haunts aren't the Strand, the Seawall or 61st Street. They won't be dining at Gaido's. Take a wrong turn and there they are, though, over on Winnie at 39th, Winnie at 29th, 25th at L, Tenth at L, 55th at M. They gather for fights outside the A&M grocery at 36th and M. They come from the projects -- Cedar Terrace, Palm Terrace, Magnolia Homes and Oleander Homes, where surfboards are few to nonexistent. Eighty percent are African-American. They attend Galveston public schools, where 58 percent of the students get free or reduced-price lunches. Many never make it over the causeway to the mainland, officials say. Most live north of Broadway where the cops drive slow and shine their lights at night and ask people to move along, writing them up for "impeding the sidewalk" if they don't.

Galveston -- that little bit of paradise, the storied land of pirate Jean Lafitte, exotic foliage, pastel-colored historical homes, lighthouses and sandy beaches just an hour's drive from Houston -- has a problem rivaling that of any major city. Thirty-two miles long and three miles wide at its widest point, this city of fewer than 60,000 people is home to at least 20 separate gangs, with more than 350 members associated with either the Bloods or the Crips.

David Terrill

Top: A shrine has gone up in homage to the latest shooting death. Michael, bottom, says he wants out of gang life.
Deron Neblett
Top: A shrine has gone up in homage to the latest shooting death. Michael, bottom, says he wants out of gang life.

Step in from the edges a bit and find crime, blinding poverty and desperation. The gangs were supposed to be gone. What social programs of the early and mid-'90s didn't turn around, law enforcement took care of with hard-core, aggressive policing. They sent the bad guys away, usually on drug, weapon or theft convictions.

But now the gangsters are back. Some, like Michael, say they want to settle down, be given another chance. They say the island needs to do more for its own, more activities, more education, more job possibilities.

Others are clearly ready to reclaim their turf, and if trouble comes, well then, trouble comes. Shooting and dying is just part of the deal. Little ticking time bombs, that's what they are, with a deadly fatalism guaranteed to get themselves and others in reams of trouble.

On an island divided into bits and pieces of gang territory, the dance floor at the Boys and Girls Club at the corner of 45th and P is neutral ground.

Bloods and Crips come together Friday nights. Colors are checked at the door under the watchful eye of police officers like Clemente Garcia. Bloods are red and Crips are blue, but that's in transition too, as Crips have started using gray and black. There's never been a weapon seized, but that's probably because they know the officers are there. Occasionally someone throws down gang signs, the police shine lights on them, order them to cut it out.

Mostly, it's a dance like any other teenage dance; girls hang with girls, boys with boys, circling the floor again and again, pressed to the walls of the room until someone asks someone to dance to rap music.

Only students are admitted to the dance. Those suspended have to wait out their time. Robert Quintero, the club's vice president of operations and development, says kids are always trying to sneak in.

The club is so determined to make the dance a safe haven that it offers kids bus rides home so no one has to walk back through the wrong territory or turf. There are two city buses, a squad car and police officers. "We guarantee that to the families," Quintero says. "Of course, we can't guarantee that they'll get on those buses."

The club also has an outreach project to try to get dropouts back in school, and an after-school program available to its 2,300 members for $10 a year. But Quintero says there are families with several children who can't handle even this much and the fee is waived. The age range is six to 17.

The Boys and Girls Club is grant-driven and constantly looking for money. Things used to be better. It and other social service agencies in Galveston used to get more grants, but money on the island was reallocated to infrastructure. Cheryl Chatman of the Boys and Girls Club says the kids asked for the dance. It used to be open till three in the morning, but they don't have the funds for that any longer. "If we had the funding," she says, "we'd do it again."

Frank Bankston is the gang intervention specialist for the club. A soft-spoken, earnest man, he attends the dances to keep an eye on the hardcores and the wanna-bes. He says dances go well; trouble, when it starts, is two to three blocks away, where the suspended kids wait for the dance to let out.

Bankston is not a believer in the power of the prison system to turn around lives. He thinks the gangsters are back and want to reorganize. He's working hard to reclaim OGs like Michael, offering them other options. "Most of them don't have a father role model. There's nothing positive in their lives. So we try to teach them things about family unity and self-esteem."

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