The Gang's All Here

We can sit out here," Becky Estrada says from her front porch. She shrugs and shakes a cigarette out of its pack, pausing a moment to stare down the street as though looking for someone. Then she lights up. "The house is a mess."

Small wonder. An endless parade of nieces, nephews, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, in-laws and other family members bang in and out of the screen door. Inside the house, where Becky raised her own children, the curtains are drawn as if to protect the inhabitants from the bright summer sun and the world outside.

A small boy with enormous brown eyes emerges from the dark cocoon and crawls up on Becky's lap. He wants an ice cream from the two teenage boys in baggy shorts and oversized shirts who are pushing a cart up the street. He pleads. "Please, Mom, can I have a dollar?"

"No, son," she replies. Both she and her husband work, but there is never enough--not with so many mouths to feed. A dollar is a lot of money for an ice-cream bar.

Most of the modest homes in the neighborhood are well-kept, with green lawns and relatively fresh paint. Becky's place looks like something has sucked the life out of it--out of the yard, the house, the people who live there. Everyone except the children...nothing seems to knock them down for long.

The boy continues to beg until he gets his dollar. Then he bounds down the cement steps in pursuit of the vendors.

"That's Angel," Becky says, using the Anglo pronunciation of the name. "He was four when they killed his mother."

Becky draws sharply on her cigarette, as though inhaling smoke could smother the sadness waiting inside. But her eyes gleam with tears as they track Angel's return, the already melting ice-cream bar clutched triumphantly in his small brown hand.

Becky is a small, round woman with blue-green homemade tattoos fading on her arms. She looks like a person who once laughed a lot--the tell-tale lines are there around her eyes--but now does not find much reason for laughter. The years have been hard on her; there's been so much death and pain.

When she talks, her eyes mirror the emotions of the moment. Her anger at gangs and guns and the senseless, never-ending violence. Her fear that Angel and the other children face a future in which they will likely be victims of or participants in that violence. But mostly Becky's eyes reflect her apprehension, her anticipation that any news will certainly be bad.

A year ago this week, Becky learned that her nineteen-year-old granddaughter Venus Montoya, Angel's mother, had been murdered--by cowards who attacked in the dark and killed an innocent girl.

But there has been some good news of late. In June the Lakewood police arrested several members of the Westside CMG Bloods, and charged them with Venus's murder. It didn't surprise Becky that the same gang members were also accused of killing another young girl, whose body had been dumped like trash in the mountains back in May.

Becky had known in her heart that Venus's killers murdered that girl, too, even before the police figured it out. And now Denver and Jefferson county prosecutors and police officials were talking about having broken the backbone of the CMG Bloods, both Eastside and Westside, through a series of arrests for drug dealing, robbery, racketeering...and murder.

Including the murder of Venus, who wasn't even the gangsters' target that night last July.

In late spring 1996, word was out among the CMG Bloods that Salvino "Sal" Martinez was a snitch. That he was talking to the "po po's": the Denver Metro Gang Task Force and the Denver Police Gang Bureau. Giving up some of his homies to save his ass...or maybe to further his own business interests by eliminating the competition.

Martinez was asking for trouble. The Crenshaw Mafia Gangster Bloods, who'd started out as a black gang near 104th and Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, had shown up in Denver over a decade ago--and their power had been growing ever since. Although at first their numbers and influence had been negligible compared with some of the homegrown gangs, by last summer they covered much of the metro area.

The CMG Bloods split Denver by race and territory. Eastside CMG was predominantly black and claimed the Park Hill area down to Aurora and into Montbello.

Westside CMG came along a little later, when more Latinos joined up. Most of that branch remained Latino, although there were also white, Asian and black Westside CMGs. Generally, the Westside CMG claimed anything west of downtown Denver, into the east side of Lakewood and south into Bear Valley. But not north of Colfax--that was Northside CMG.