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Man Dies from Protection

August 5, 2009 permalink

When his family tried to discipline Leo Perez at age 13, Yakima Washington police and social workers intervened. From that day forward Leo used the threat of the cucuy (Spanish for social services boogeyman) to control his parents. He descended into gang life resulting in his death at age 20.



From the Online News.

Families at a loss over kids in gangs

By MELISSA SÁNCHEZ, Yakima Herald-Republic

Leo Perez and Leo Jr
KRIS HOLLAND/Yakima Herald-Republic
A family photo shows Leo Perez holding his son Leo, Jr.

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Dozens of somber young men surrounded Lala Perez, their wet eyes fixed on the pile of fresh dirt at her feet.

Any one of them could have been her son.

But Leo Perez wasn't there with his homies. He didn't hear his mother's plea, the one he'd ignored so many times.

"If you could only look into a mother's heart and see the sorrow, you wouldn't keep behaving the way you do," she said, her voice breaking. "I want this to serve as a lesson, an experience.

"You need to change for your own good."

It was too late for her son. He'd just been buried.

Leo was shot in the chest May 18 in an alley less than a block from his home on North Third Street. The 20-year-old died the following night.

A day after the funeral, as relatives and friends recited the rosary inside his home, Daniel Perez wondered whether it could have ended any other way for his son.

"What were we supposed to do? We talked to him and talked to him and he never listened," he said. "Ever since he was little, he was rebellious. You just can't take that out of somebody."

His words reflect the frustration of many immigrant parents in the Yakima Valley.

Police say at least 500 known gang members live here. Most were born here, but in many cases their parents are immigrants, police and social workers say.

As immigrants, they don't always understand rules that they sometimes see as undermining their authority at home. And they don't know where to turn for help.

It's a situation not often seen or understood by critics who look at the recent spike in violence and blame parents for their children's involvement in gangs.

Long before their son's death, the Perezes say they'd already lost him to the gang life. They point to an evening about seven years ago when their authority over their fourth-born child began to crumble.

He was about 13 and had lied about having friends over, they say, so they took turns hitting him with a belt. Police came. State social workers opened an investigation.

In the end, the Perezes were not charged with abuse. But the investigation took months and involved family counseling. Leo took advantage of the experience, they say.

"If you hit me, they'll throw you in jail," Lala said her son would tell them. "He felt so protected by the law that it became easy for him to do as he wanted after that."

In Spanish, the word for "boogeyman" is "cucuy." That's how some Latino immigrants view social workers, said Alex Santillanes, who teaches parenting classes through Barrios Unidos, an anti-gang ministry.

But this "cucuy" is used by children to scare parents.

"These kids are smart. They're using the system against the parents and they know it," Santillanes said. "Often parents were trying to do the best they could to try to get this kid out of a gang ... (but they've) already been traumatized by CPS workers, the police department, the court. They don't want to go through that again."

Many immigrants are here illegally and sometimes equate police with immigration authorities.

Families in any community -- immigrant or nonimmigrant -- often fear social workers, said Doug Savelesky, a supervisor with Child and Family Welfare Services in Yakima.

But the fear is more real for immigrants, he said. Many immigrants, after all, come here illegally and can confuse government agencies with immigration authorities.

"We don't ask citizenship status in any manner," Savelesky said. "If it does come up in our social work, it's nothing we report to any outside agency."

Parents don't always know that. And many children -- who often serve as interpreters for the family -- learn to play on their parents' fears, said Santillanes.

"How can you discipline without fearing you're going to be chastised?"

The question is one Leo's parents say they probably wouldn't have asked in Mexico.

They grew up in southwest Mexico, where they say physical discipline taught them to respect and obey their own parents. There, what happened within a family stayed in the family; police rarely interfered.

"I know that in Mexico it's different," said Angela Guardiola, a social worker for teens in Child and Family Welfare Services. "There are rules and laws, like there are here. But I don't think they are as enforced in some of the rural towns because of the distance of some of the offices."

Leo's parents -- who are here legally -- immigrated as teenagers, met in the Yakima Valley and raised eight children on modest agricultural wages.

They had so many children, Lala explained, "because it's what God wanted" -- a nod to her Catholic faith. They worked long hours, often double shifts, in orchards and packing houses to support the family.

As a boy, Leo was a star soccer player who for years held on to trophies from an undefeated season in a junior soccer league. His parents rarely were able to attend his games.

"My parents would try to go," said his older brother Martin, 21. "But when they didn't have time or were working, they just couldn't. They worked a lot, especially during the summer, and that was when Leo played."

Weeks before he died, he spoke resentfully of those days, his girlfriend said.

"He told me his parents never went to his games," said Isabel Torres, 18. "He didn't think his mom loved him."

His mother said she regrets not spending more time with her son. She remembers how he helped pay bills and talked about becoming a better man. He provided for his girlfriend and their young son, taking them on regular shopping trips to Seattle. His siblings remember playfully teasing him for regularly leaving sweatshirts at other people's homes.

But what Leo did outside their home his parents could never be certain. He didn't tell them. He stopped asking for permission to leave, regularly skipped classes and eventually dropped out of school.

He joined a gang as a young teenager, rose through the ranks and was calling the shots by the time he died at age 20. His criminal record was lengthy -- some minor assault and burglary convictions, as well as a few pending charges.

He had no major felony convictions. But Yakima police -- from those patrolling the streets at night to the chief -- knew who he was.

"It was destined to happen to this kid," said Chief Sam Granato. "I don't know how else to put it, but I remember making that prediction to him.

"When you think you're the best and the quickest, there's always going to be someone who is better and faster."

Leo's community corrections officer, who supervises close to 40 gang members in Yakima County, considered him an important "businessman" within his gang. Authorities say Leo ran a gang house, owned bulletproof vests and modern guns, and made daily dope runs to King County.

Leo lived fast in the months leading up his death. He was on the run -- wanted on multiple warrants for violating probation -- and rarely stayed long at his parents' home. He'd wear a "disguise" to avoid being caught: shades and a dark blue baseball cap imprinted with the letters DEA.

Throughout the Valley, schools, churches, nonprofit organizations, libraries and police departments offer free parenting classes, in English and Spanish. They can be intensive, two-hour groups that meet twice a week for several weeks.

They're for parents to learn about drugs, gangs and violence before the problems even enter the household, said YPD's gang awareness educator, Officer Dave Cortez.

"It's the same as locking your doors and windows at night," he said. "You don't wait until you're broken into before you do that."

Recently, Cortez sent 2,000 invitations to the parents of children in Yakima schools for such a class. Fewer than two dozen attended.

"It's not like the services weren't here," said Cortez, a former gang unit cop. "It's not as difficult as you might have thought."

Classes can teach parents the difference between spanking a child, which is legal, and child abuse. Or how they can get help from the courts through youth-at-risk petitions when situations get out of hand.

But that information doesn't always reach those who need it.

"We are very frustrated with the gang issues," said Guardiola, the social worker. "In my teen unit, I have a lot of children who are involved with gangs. If there are resources out there, I'd like to get more involved."

Ralph Berthon, field administrator of Yakima County's community corrections office, said anti-gang resources in the Valley need to be better coordinated.

"That's what we can make out of Leo's death," he said, "to get that message to parents who are going nuts out there about what they can do for their kids."

When Leo died, his family turned to the Catholic Church for comfort.

At the funeral Mass, hundreds of people -- many of them gang members from across the Valley -- poured into St. Joseph's Catholic Church in downtown Yakima.

"I do it mostly for the family," said The Rev. Michael Pope, who oversaw the service. "I don't want to condone gang life."

His Mass celebrated hope in the Resurrection. But because he's conducted so many funeral Masses for dead gang members, the Jesuit challenged Leo's homies.

Violence is a sign of weakness, not strength, Pope told them. War should be the last option. And Leo's death was the senseless end to a life that could have been so much greater.

"Where does heaven begin? After death?" he asked in Spanish, which most of those in attendance understood. "No. It can begin right now. Just as during our lifetimes we can create heaven here on Earth, so too can we create hell.

"Which would you prefer?"

At that, a half-dozen young men -- all in red, some with bandanas, most tattooed and one with a ponytail and shaved head -- stood and walked out.

A few nights earlier, the mother of one of Leo's homies stopped by the Perez house. Afraid for her own son's life, the woman asked Lala Perez if she could counsel her boy.

Leo's mother said she'd think about it.

The words finally came to her at Leo's burial, and the homies stood quietly as she implored them to leave the gang life. Whether they listened is another story.

* Melissa Sánchez can be reached at 509-577-7675 or

Source: Yakima Herald