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

A mural at Cassiano Homes commemorating Jose Jesus Rodriguez’s death.
A mural at Cassiano Homes commemorating Jose Jesus Rodriguez’s death.

Everything Cyrus Bates wore was white.

As a black teen growing up in San Antonio in the 1990s, Bates wore the color to avoid being mistaken for a gangbanger. The violence of the city whirled furiously around him in reds, blues and browns, and Bates wanted to avoid it. For him, wearing white was the answer.

"You could turn on the news back then and that's all you saw. Crips and Bloods, Crips and Bloods, Crips and Bloods," said his mother, Cheryl Salone. "That's not a way of living life. I tried to keep my kids away from it."

Bates, a charismatic and bright teen, was tempted by the fast money gang life offered, sometimes weeping to his mother about how tough it was not to sell drugs. He resisted, but with difficulty.

"It was a battle between the streets and a better life," Salone said. "I just kept begging him and begging him, 'Please give the good life a chance.'"

Try as Bates and his mother did, he died on the street nonetheless. Bates was shot and killed in his Northeast Side neighborhood on the evening of June 11, 1998.

Otto Rodriguez shot Bates from the passenger seat of a blue Cadillac. He then got out of the car and shot him again in the back. The motive for the crime is unclear, but Bates' family believes Rodriguez mistook him for the real target. Rodriguez was found guilty of murder, and sentenced to 60 years in prison. He'll be eligible for parole in 2028. Rodriguez was 23 at the time of the crime; Bates was 16.

But Rodriguez and Bates' stories are as tragic as they are common. They're one of thousands who died in drive-by shootings or were incarcerated for perpetrating them and other violent acts in San Antonio in the 1990s, fueled by a surge in gang activity. Many of the communities affected most still bear the scars of one of the most violent periods in the city's history.

Thousands of Shootings

Gang activity in San Antonio crested more or less with the rest of the country in the 1990s. Prolific violence in cities like Los Angeles dominated national headlines. Curtailing gang crime was a major emphasis of the Clinton administration, and the issue seeped into state legislatures as well.

Organized crime had existed for decades in San Antonio, but the seeds of widespread gang activity among young people were sown in the late 1980s.

"We had this proliferation of Bloods, Crips, coming in from other places," said Mario Salas, a community activist who served as a city councilman during the '90s. "They brought with them that gang culture ... and sort of infiltrated the criminal element, which was a little bit more quiet during that period of time."

The number of juveniles arrested in San Antonio for violent crimes tripled between 1987 and 1994, according to the Texas Law Enforcement Management and Administration Statistics Program. The number of youths arrested for unlawfully carrying firearms doubled over the same period.

The San Antonio Police Department recorded over 1,200 drive-by shootings in 1993 – nearly 3.5 per day. That figure dwarfed the number in other Texas cities, and it unofficially marked San Antonio as the state's drive-by capital.

Although no part of the city was immune, the vast majority of the violence occurred on the East and West Sides, particularly where poverty was prevalent. Gang members killed each other and innocent bystanders to protect their home turf and drug-selling interests. Housing projects – such as Alazan-Apache Courts, Cassiano Homes, East Terrace and Wheatley Courts – served as hubs for different groups, sometimes housing multiple rival gangs.

It's a reality that Kyle Coleman saw every day from 1989 to 1997, when he was a member of the Bexar County Sheriff's Department gang unit. The unit was started in the late 1980s to respond to growing gang threats. Most of the gang members he dealt with were between the ages of 13 and 17.

Coleman attributed the rise in drive-bys to the simplicity with which they were executed, the ease of procuring high-powered weapons and to the 1988 movie Colors.

Colors features a scene in which actor Don Cheadle, playing a Los Angeles Crip, shoots a group of Bloods with a shotgun in a drive-by. The film became a cult classic in gang culture.

Guns were often stolen or procured by older gang members at gun shows, Coleman said. The first gun Coleman ever took off the street was a .25-caliber automatic pistol. But as gangs grew, so did the sophistication of their arsenal.

"The longer that we were working on the gang unit ... we were taking AK-47s, MAC-10s and AR-15s off the street," Coleman said.

click to enlarge 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.

"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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