Factions foment war in our town

May 1, 2008 

There is a region where warring factions tear at the fabric of society.

They speak the same languages and basically believe in the same things, but hate each other nonetheless.

They bear a disdain for the law and legal authority.

Some can kill with coldness and ruthlessness that defies explanation.

They don't care who gets caught in the crossfire because a mistaken victim simply creates more fear and intimidation, and furthers their cause -- as sordid as it might be.

Uniformed men and women try to fight or at least neutralize them, but usually are outnumbered and are limited by rules of engagement that don't apply to the enemy.

Islamic sects in Iraq? No, you don't have to go that far away.

Try Norteño and Sureño gangs right here in the valley. There are roughly 4,200 documented gang members in Stanislaus County. While there are white, Asian-American and black gangs, the vast majority here are Latinos. They fight over control of neighborhoods and parks. They fight over turf where they sell drugs. They murder, rape and pillage. They steal. And some have no problem whipping out a pistol and shooting you dead on the spot if you're wearing the wrong color, or if they think you've somehow disrespected them.

It's a pretty safe assumption that gang members were involved in the surge of violence that left three people dead and three others injured over the past two weeks, including a 22-month-old boy.

Two of the victims -- murdered 14-year-old Valdemar Rojas Jr. and his wounded 15-year-old friend -- are thought to have had gang affiliations, police said. The others had no links to gangs whatsoever. But they're linked now, as victims.

Toddler Josue Becerra -- one tough little survivor -- could become the poster child in an effort to combat gangs or at least dull their impacts here. Or perhaps his scars will simply represent how gang violence is a pathetic part of everyday life in the valley.

"It's going to take something drastic to stop it," a former police officer and gang investigator told me. He didn't want to be identified by name. "And I don't know what drastic is. It just keeps snowballing, and (police are) not going to stop it. Nothing can stop it."

Gangs certainly won't be stopped by a temporary surge of police presence that the department can't maintain at current staffing levels. And while some might blame the police for not squelching gang activity, the police alone cannot stop it. They can only react to it -- not be the solution to the problem. It's far too widespread for any one agency to control.

Nor can you place much faith in the obligatory series of public forums involving police and residents in areas where the violence occurs most often. We've endured gang violence before, followed by these types of meetings. The gangs then lay low for a while, and everything is forgotten until the next rash of violence triggers the next set of forums.

Shootings like the recent ones too often become topics of conversation, but generate little real action or reaction.

After all, if it doesn't happen in your neighborhood, it doesn't affect you, right?

Think again. Bullets might not be flying on your street, but you still pay a price.

The social cost of gangs goes well beyond paying the salaries of police and prison guards, and funding the jails and prisons to house convicted bangers. It transcends the cost of paying people to remove gang graffiti -- the language of the streets.

A portion of your tax dollar goes toward a welfare check to the pregnant wife or girlfriend of an incarcerated gangbanger. And because gangs don't contract with Blue Cross for a group health plan, you're paying for their health and dental care while they're in jail, as well as that of their wives, girlfriends and children.

You pay for indigent burials when no one steps up to pay after a gang-related killing. You pay higher auto insurance premiums because Modesto is the nation's car theft capital, and gangs are big on stealing cars.

In fact, said Jared Lewis, a former Modesto police officer who is an expert on gangs, more of your tax dollars are spent locally fighting gangs than go to fighting al-Qaida in Afghanistan or the insurgents in Iraq.

And if you're a veteran who has to fight the U.S. government for benefits after, say, losing a limb to a roadside bomb in Baghdad?

"There are more grass-roots efforts (nationwide) helping gang members than our vets," Lewis said. "More outreach programs, more assistance for a gang member coming out of prison than often for many of our veterans."

Meanwhile, gang activity continues, mostly under the radar until a shooting occurs, followed by the mandatory retaliation.

Law-biding citizens can't understand the gang lifestyle that recruits children into a life of crime, providing the type of support their families don't.

It used to be that Norteños operated primarily in Northern California and the Sureños in the south.

Norteños tend to be second- or third-generation types while the Sureños often recruit immigrants from Mexico and Central America by offering them protection from Norteños, Lewis said.

It's a badge of honor for a gang member to do time.

"Going to juvenile hall, jail or prison is the equivalent of a college education," Lewis said. "They learn covert communication skills, marketing drugs and fencing weapons. It's a perverted culture."

And one that needs to be dealt with through prevention and intervention before a kid gets entrenched in the gang lifestyle. Parents need to be there for their children instead of leaving a void for the gangs to fill.

Churches, schools, social services and service clubs must play a role, too, he said. Ultimately, it can't be all about sheer force and retribution.

If someone could only convey that to the gangs, our domestic warring factions.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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