Two teenage boys in Santa Fe were shot and killed over the summer, and police say two other teens were the shooters. Ivan Perez died in the parking lot in the Bluffs at Tierra Contenta on July 15; J.B. White, Aug. 1 at a party out in the county.
Police, prosecutors and witnesses say both crimes involve members of a group called the Southside Goons. In court documents about White's death, Assistant District Attorney David Shapiro characterized the group as a gang in his argument that shooter Estevan Montoya should remain in jail through his trial.
The Santa Fe County Sheriff says the group is "violent" and "criminal."
But some local teens tell SFR the Southside Goons aren't that at all. They describe a tight knit group of friends who grew up in Tierra Contenta and other neighborhoods along Airport Road and who make music together under the name. They tell SFR the recent spate of violence among Santa Fe youth is not stemming from organized gang activity.
"They've always looked at us as some kids from the south. You know, we've always just been like the poor kids, less fortunate," says Ish, who declined to give his last name. He is one of the 11 or so artists under the Southside Goons label, which also included Perez and Montoya.
Ish speaks to SFR next to a mural painted on wood in the Southside Library parking lot. The piece is nearly obscured by teenagers as they work on a tribute to Perez and to Aiko Perez. Aiko, a third Santa Fe teen who was stabbed to death on Aug. 1 by his friend while the two were allegedly using drugs, is not related to Ivan. Police arrested 17-year-old Mario Guizar-Anchando for Ivan's murder and another teen was charged in Aiko's death.
A portrait of Ivan takes up one whole side of the mural and a colorful painting in honor of Aiko decorates the other. Many of the young men, painting in honor of their fallen friends, are a part of the Southside Goons and consider themselves musicians and rappers.
Ultimately, the young men gathered at the mural in the quiet parking lot want others to know their group has been mischaracterized by the media and law enforcement. Montoya's well-publicized history with marijuana and gun possession wasn't part of what the teens largely shared.
"I feel like law enforcement and the media forced this 'figure' on Estevan," Ish says. "They are making him seem as if he is a killer and thug when in reality he's just a kid hungry for opportunity. He is a proud member of SSG, a group of boys that are artists, a group of boys that are different. A group of boys that are family…They see the Southside of Santa Fe, the south side of Albuquerque, mostly any south side of anywhere is the poor side of somewhere. So we are the broke side of Santa Fe, but we are still doing bigger things, you know, they're just, like, casting a shadow over us."
The portable mural, intended to stand in Swan Park on the Southside, is a collaboration between multiple organizations: Alas de Agua Art Collective, Gerard's House and the Santa Fe Public Schools' restorative justice program. The project is meant to bring together a community broken from the loss of multiple lives to violence. (The groups plan to facilitate another mural of White in the spring.)
Ish says the recent violence is more about too many people having access to weapons than it is about gangs operating in Santa Fe. He and his friends, most talking all at once, explain that some members of the clique help pass out food while others have painted murals around Santa Fe to bring more attention to the MMIW epidemic. Ish is helping organize a basketball tournament on the Southside that will raise money for the families that lost a son this year.
Kane Flores, who also says he is a part of the Southside Goons group and has a studio at his house at which they record music, tells SFR they hoped to have Ivan's side of the mural done by what would have been his 18th birthday, Sept. 23, but it will likely take a couple more weeks to completely finish the piece.
Flores says people call the Southside Goons and other youth groups in Santa Fe a gang because they don't know what else to call it. The Santa Fe Police Department did not respond to requests made on Sept. 18 to comment on the characterization but the Santa Fe Sheriff's Office says the Southside Goons is considered a gang based on its "criminal activity and violent nature."
Daniel Roybal, 19, who grew up in Tierra Contenta and attended Capital High School, says the homicides over the summer are a product of widespread possession of guns combined with fear of violence, which has created a dangerous cycle in the city for at least the last five or six years.
"We see people in the neighborhood that just live here walking around with guns I've never even seen before, not even teenagers, anyone, adults, thugs walking around with assault weapons on their shoulders," Roybal says. "But I don't think it has anything to do with the gangs. I think it more has to do with, you know, people see someone with some crazy gun that they got from somewhere…Just a crazy Call of Duty gun and they feel like, 'Oh, you know, that guy doesn't like me…So I'm going to go get something to protect myself just in case, you know, this guy comes up on me and decides to do something.'"
Roybal hopes the city will focus on the teen center planned just across the street from the Southside Library and include activities there young people can get passionate about, like sports, music and help finding work.
The mural is a start for the teenagers and adults in Santa Fe to move forward from the recent violence and deaths, according to Mary Lou Romero, the restorative justice coordinator for Santa Fe Public Schools. She serves both middle and high schools.
"I want this to be an opportunity for us to heal and forgive and recognize that somebody did lose their son, their grandson, their cousin. And we are all worthy of love," Romero says, her voice shaking with emotion. "Nobody deserves to die like that. Aiko didn't deserve to die. Mondo didn't deserve to die. J.B. did not deserve to die. And I think that's one thing that we need to recognize."