A group of four Valley and state organizations have quietly started a peacekeeping effort to prevent violence in south Phoenix and help gang members turn their lives around.
The TRUCE program recently was developed with a one-time $1.2 million stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, said Edmundo Hidalgo, CEO and president of Chicanos Por La Causa, the Hispanic organization that oversees the program.
TRUCE workers and volunteers will spend time with residents and gain their trust so they may be able to detect and stop potentially violent crimes.
Because TRUCE is in its infancy, the program targets a few neighborhoods – those bordered by Broadway and Vineyard roads and 24th and 16 streets. Leaders hope to add more neighborhoods later.
The TRUCE area includes Hermoso Park at 2030 E. Southern Ave., which residents and police long have known as gang turf. South Mountain Precinct officials said there was a stronger street-gang presence in the target area than in any other south Phoenix fight-back area.
Over the past three years, an average of 25 gang-related crimes occurred annually in the target area, police data show.
Crime has dropped significantly in the Hermoso area since an upsurge in violence from July 2006 to May 2007, when south Phoenix saw more than 60 homicides in a one-year period. But the potential for a spike in violence is great with such a high concentration of documented gang members, police say.
TRUCE hired eight workers to connect with gang members and other violent residents, so when tensions rise, the workers could intervene and mediate before anyone was hurt or killed, said Renato Ramos, TRUCE program manager.
“Our Number 1 goal is to stop gun violence,” Ramos said.
Some of the workers are ex-convicts. They work with gang members to help them start anew when they are ready to stop the cycle of violence, Hidalgo said.
David Otero, 43, is a case worker. He understands what gang members are going through; he has been in and out of prison for crimes that include auto theft, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections.
Otero said that as he grew older, he noticed that incoming inmates were as young or younger than his four children, now ages 16 to 27.
“They see what their elders do and they repeat the patterns,” Otero said. “They’re proving themselves to be men. I got tired of seeing the youngsters being misguided.”
Otero transformed himself after prison, earning a GED, going to college and working for TRUCE.
Each day on the job is different, he said. Some days, he’ll get a call as early as 3 a.m. seeking help diffusing a situation.
“It all depends on what they’re going through,” he said.
Otero has gang-symbol tattoos – his passport into the world of gangs. He said his tattoos make it easier for him to meet gang members.
Otero said he was dedicated to helping the gang members get out of the violent cycle.
Chicanos Por La Causa established TRUCE with help from Arizonans for Gun Safety; St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, which receives shooting victims from south Phoenix; and the Arizona State University Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety, which collects crime data.
The effort has the support and participation of local non-profit groups in south Phoenix such as the religious coalition Kingdom Communities of the Valley and the African-American women’s group Black Diamond Divas.
Arizonans for Gun Safety president Hildy Salzow said Phoenix police support TRUCE, but they do not collaborate. Providing tips to police would jeopardize trust with gang members, she said.
Lt. Mike Kurtenbach of the South Mountain Precinct said police leave TRUCE to work on its own.
“If the ultimate goal is to renew and revitalize the neighborhood, the only way we can do that is with effective partnerships and engendering trust with the neighborhoods we are tasked to serve,” Kurtenbach said.
TRUCE will lead a peace rally and walk Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at 18th Place and Broadway Road.