Six months ago, it was the bedroom of a small-time tough named Cuahuctemoc Bedolla. Now, it is his shrine, a tribute to a short life with a bad ending.
A Mexican flag covers one wall of the narrow nook in his parents' house in the West Grove woods of Chester County. Votive candles flicker near a statuette of Our Lady of Guadalupe. On the bed are his mechanic's tools, green T-shirt emblazoned "El Paso, Old Mexico," and a red wool beanie, a partial tableau of his 27 years.
At the center of the single bed, in a box cloaked in red velvet, are his ashes.
American-born to immigrants from Mexico's central state of Guanajuato, Bedolla was named for a fierce Aztec chief. On the street, where he was quick with his fists, he was called Temo.
"I worried about Temo all the time," his father, Manuel, 62, a mixer of mushroom compost for a farm-supply company, said recently. "When he went out, I would tell him, 'Be careful.' But I never thought in my life that someone would kill my son."
An Avon Grove High School dropout, Bedolla had twice been imprisoned for drug and weapons offenses since 2007. Work — as a plumber and air-conditioning repairman — was sporadic. His crowning achievement was the Vaqueros street gang, which he founded more than a decade ago and led until last Dec. 3.
That night, following a bonfire in a remote farm field, Bedolla and a fellow member of the Vaqueros were stabbed to death, allegedly by associates of the rival Sureno 13s.
The melee raised troubling questions about the prevalence of Hispanic gangs in Chester County's pungent swath of "mushroom country" from Oxford to Kennett Square, where cross-culturalism affects the ordinary identity crises of young males.
"Even though the Mexican community has been here for 20 or 30 years, in some ways it is culturally and socially isolated," said Rosa Garza Moore, director of the Garage, a Kennett Square community youth center. Its children "struggle to navigate" in two worlds.
While gang membership has fluctuated for at least two decades, with successive generations of teens cycling in and out of the Vaqueros and Sur 13s, police say that fatal violence is rare and that links to wider criminal networks uncommon. At any given time, police say, total membership is usually fewer than 25.
"Are they related to the larger group of Sureno 13s out of California or in cities as close as Wilmington? I don't think so," said Jerry Simpson, police chief of New Garden Township, where the killings occurred. "Yet two people are dead because of their [gang] affiliation and because these groups detest each other."
Mostly younger than 20 and known for hanging out, spray painting graffiti, drinking beer and smoking pot, Chester County's Vaqueros and "Sur 13s" use the names of established national gangs — "real gangs," Simpson calls them — but are not formally affiliated with the Mexican mafia cliques that traffic illicit drugs up and down the nation's coasts, experts say.
"We started seeing Sur 13 graffiti in 1988 and didn't know what it was," said Kennett Square Police Chief Edward Zunino. "We asked gang investigators in the region and found out what we had. Then these little cells started popping up through the 1990s. They were not afraid to advertise as part of the gang and display their colors" — Surenos blue; Vaqueros, founded in 2000, red.
"We've seen fights over girls. We've seen fights over drugs," said Zunino, even fights among Sur 13 factions. "We had a homicide in 2004 when a group of Vaqueros was in the area ... and a carload of Sur 13s happened to pass. They were at a stop sign, and the next thing you know they were out of the car fighting," leaving one Sur 13 fatally stabbed.
The second oldest of four siblings, Bedolla was born at Brandywine Hospital in Coatesville.
A Facebook page created in his memory gives glimpses of a smart aleck who "loved to listen to 2Pac ... party, and kick it back with his homies." One visitor to the site recalled him as "da coolest person" she ever met. "You would always make our night fun if it was borin as hell!! I remember when we got pulled over bye da cops n u was yellin at them," she wrote.
"Most of these kids are U.S.-born" of Mexican descent, and the names of nationally recognized gangs appeal to them, the way Little Leaguers name their teams after the Yankees and the Dodgers, said Detective Oscar Rosado, gang intelligence officer for the Kennett Square Police Department. "They congregate to drink or smoke a little bit of marijuana. ... But their level of organized criminal activity is low. They might break into vehicles to steal GPSs, but those incidents are few and far between."
While the core of the local gangs is Hispanic, the groups are not exclusive, West Grove Police Chief Errol Galloway said.
"Go to one of my [borough] parks, and you will see brown, black and white kids together," he said. "It's all about class, not race. Everybody drives Chevies. Nobody drives Mercedes. When you grow up with that, the race thing, and the ethnic thing, kind of dissolve away."
In fact, he said, the first defendants charged in the stabbings are a native-born white and an African American.
Typically, said Galloway, "these are wannabes ... who come onto our radar screen when they are about 12 to 14. By the time they are 18, they get mobility. Someone gets a driver's license, and they realize the world is a big place. ... They take off for Coatesville, Philadelphia, Newark, bigger places, where there is more activity — for good and bad."
Most of the older members who, along with Bedolla, founded the Vaqueros are not in the gang anymore, said Rosado, the Kennett Square detective. By local custom Bedolla should have aged out too. But "he never left the life of partying, doing drugs, selling drugs and fighting with the Sur 13s."
As Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan prepares to try the homicides, he has studied what makes gang activity in the rural reaches of his county different from gang life in the cities.
"It is a different trajectory than you are used to seeing in Philadelphia," he said. "These are not your general-purpose criminal gangs. ... If you have a gang in North Philadelphia or West Philadelphia, they are there to distribute drugs, and everything else flows from that. A main reason gangs exist in southern Chester County is because other gangs exist. Members need a gang to stop themselves from getting picked on by other gangs." In the city, if gang members "can physically keep up, they stay in," often into their 40s.
"Out here, if they can cycle out, get a job or start a family" in their early 20s, he said, all that is left is a neck tattoo "they have to explain for the rest of their lives."
Investigators say Bedolla and his friend, Jose Rodriguez, 29, also of West Grove, were at the bonfire to watch a televised boxing match between Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto and the Mexican Antonio Margarito, known as "the Tijuana Tornado."
When some Sur 13s showed up, people reportedly asked them to leave to avoid a confrontation with the Vaqueros. They left. Less than an hour later, they returned in force, emboldened by the alcohol-fueled macho that investigators call "beer muscles."
According to police, about a dozen Surenos and associates, armed with knives, bats, broken bottles and sticks, divided themselves into two packs and rushed Bedolla and Rodriguez. Bedolla reportedly was stabbed so deeply the knife stuck in his torso. Rodriguez was found several hundred yards away. Investigators theorize that he was stabbed, ran to escape, and bled out.
A few days after the homicides, James L. Jones, 19, and Stephen Andrew Daddezio, 17, both of West Grove, and identified by prosecutors as Surenos associates, were charged with the killings. Two months later, on Jan. 30, nine men and boys said to be members of the Surenos were arrested in a countywide predawn sweep. They were charged with varying degrees of complicity in the deaths. No trial dates have been set.
A funeral for Bedolla and Rodriguez drew more than 500 people to St. Rocco Catholic Church in Avondale, where the defendants' families are parishioners too. "Parents are really hurting on both sides," Msgr. Frank Depman said.
Hogan, who took office in January, said he was studying "an excellent Delaware statute," enacted in 2003, that made it a crime to recruit for a criminal gang. Such a law could be effective in Pennsylvania, he said: "It doesn't say to the Latino population in Chester County that we are coming after you. It says we are coming after the people who are coming after your children."
At the Bedolla family's pale-blue split-level on a West Grove cul de sac, Temo's mother, Guadalupe, welled up with tears as she straightened a framed picture of her son, arms crossed, fingers splayed in Vaquero gang signs.
"Surenos is a bunch of stupid guys," her husband said. "These guys killed somebody for nothing."
Contact Michael Matza at 215 854 2541 or firstname.lastname@example.org.