MODESTO — For decades, gang activity in Modesto has been heavily concentrated in the poor areas of the south and west.
A portion of south Modesto was so overrun that in 2009, the Stanislaus County district attorney sought and successfully enacted a gang injunction in the area, which declares the gangs' public behavior a nuisance and bans certain activities.
But gangs have become more widespread in the past decade, and a neighborhood that hasn't been affected by their violence is hard to come by. Some believe the injunction should be countywide.
Areas once considered safe or untouched recently have become the scenes of violent crimes committed for the benefit of a gang.
Some residents newly exposed to gang violence want to rise against it and reclaim the security they once felt, but others prefer not to get involved for fear of retaliation from gang members.
Froilan Mariscal, a gang investigator with the district attorney's office, said it's possible some gang members have left their parents' homes and moved into neighborhoods not known for gang activity until recently. He said the neighborhood just east of Coffee Road and south of Floyd Avenue is an example of a place that has seen an influx of gang activity in recent years.
"Now, they've crossed into every boundary and neighborhood," said Mariscal, who also works for the countywide Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force. "They'll spawn a whole new neighborhood gang."
The front yard of a fourplex on Vera Cruz Drive, behind a run-down shopping center at Coffee Road and Floyd Avenue, has been the scene of three gang-related shooting deaths in just over a year.
The most recent occurred Feb. 14 when authorities say a Norteño gang member was confronted by a large group of Sureños, stabbed and then shot to death.
Neighbors say the sound of gunshots has become a weekly occurrence in the area, which is a mixture of working-class homes, duplexes and apartments. They say the neighborhood has deteriorated with the infestation of gangs. Some worry they will become collateral damage from the violence.
One resident said the violence is isolated to one block of Vera Cruz and he isn't overly concerned, but still didn't want his name used for this story.
"As long as they keep the riffraff on that part of the street," said the man, who has lived one street away for about five years.
But a neighbor who lives with her husband farther from the crime scene disagrees. "We kind of know our block, which is mostly homeowners, and we felt like it (the violence) was kind of down there, but there is no magical barrier that keeps them from crossing the street," said Diane, who asked to be referred to by her first name only.
Her husband works a second job at night delivering pizza, and she fears for his safety every time she hears a siren. She calls his cell phone each time to make sure he's all right.
Diane said she and her husband won't leave town for even a night without having someone house-sit. Her elderly next-door neighbor won't take a shower without first setting her security alarm.
Diane and her husband have stopped taking walks to nearby parks because the other park visitors no longer are families with children but grown men in gang attire, their claim marked by graffiti around the park and on street signs.
The couple moved to the neighborhood from the Bay Area 13 years ago. It wasn't always this way, but today Diane feels safe only inside her locked home. She, like her neighbor, uses a security alarm and said her dog is the only thing that keeps criminals from jumping her fence.
"We know whose 'territory' we are in and we try to keep to ourselves," she said. "We had hoped for a better life and to live in a neighborhood where we could know our neighbors. Instead, we just see things getting increasingly worse around us."
Public park overtaken
A neighborhood about four miles to the southeast also has faced mounting gang problems, which came to head in January when a young man was stabbed to death in Creekwood Park.
Tylor Crippen, 18, and his girlfriend were the victims of a botched robbery, and he was killed when he ran from the teenage suspects. Three documented gang members were arrested on suspicion of murder.
A week later, a teenage boy walking through the park was severely beaten by two Norteños and an associate because of a dispute over a girl, said Modesto police gang unit Sgt. Scott Myers.
Neither victim had any affiliation with gangs.
"It baffles me that they have the nerve, after someone has been killed there, to go back to that park and claim the same crap, that this is 'our territory,' " Myers said.
Creekwood Park sits on a winding, shady street next to an elementary school in the middle of a neighborhood built in the early 1990s. It should be a safe place for children to play or adults to enjoy an evening stroll.
But residents say that over the past five or six years, it has become a haven for gang members. They see criminal activity there on a daily basis: drug deals, fights, teens, including gang members, drinking and using drugs.
A woman who's lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, since before the park was built, said: "It used to be very quiet, very nice. You knew everyone, and now you don't."
She said gang members gather for meetings at the family pavilion, a covered cluster of picnic tables in the center of the park.
"We call it the 'gang table,' or 'the hut,' " she said.
She used to walk her dogs through the park, but gang members have confronted her with profanity and asked abrasively what she's looking at.
She didn't want her name used because she's scared. "You don't know what they are going to do; that is why we don't confront them. You don't know if they are going to burn your house down tonight or break in."
Fear encourages bangers
Gangs thrive on the fear they instill. It's how they hold a neighborhood hostage and ensure people will turn a blind eye to their criminal activity.
Before the south Modesto gang injunction, it was common for large groups of gang members there to not only take over parks, but stand in front of people's homes or spray-paint graffiti on their fences as a method of intimidation.
Residents near Creekwood Park hope to suppress the gang epidemic in their neighborhood before it reaches that point and before another innocent person is killed.
Since the January slaying, a vigil has been held at the park, during which Police Chief Galen Carroll urged participants to stand up against the violence and not let Crippen's death be in vain.
New Neighborhood Watch groups have sprouted up around the park. Residents have pledged to walk their dogs or ride their bikes through the park every day as a show of force. People are getting anti-graffiti kits from the city to paint over tagging as soon as it appears.
Kelvin Coenen has lived near Creekwood Park since 1994. He said he moved to Modesto from a town of 120 people in Iowa.
"When I first came to the big city, it was kind of nice, I didn't have to wave at everyone I see, but that works against you," he said. "There is a benefit to knowing your neighbors."
Coenen became friends with some of his neighbors, and one of them had his truck stolen in 2011. That's when Coenen started a Facebook page for his block so neighbors could report crimes and help look out for one another.
Crippen's death expanded the scope of the Facebook page and made Coenen want to do more. He and other neighbors organized the Creekwood Family Picnic in the Park, being held today. They also created a Neighborhood Watch program one of five that have been established in the neighborhoods bordering the park since January, according to community service officer Heather Graves.
"The Creekwood Park neighbors are eager to take back their community," she said. "Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Vera Cruz area. Currently, there is only one group in that area, located near Oakdale and Celeste. That group was formed in October of 2011."
Coenen said there still are people who just don't want to get involved, either out of fear or disinterest because they haven't personally been touched by the violence. Coenen thinks unity is one of the best ways to ensure that they aren't.
"We have to step out of our cocoons and make an aggressive attempt to know our neighbors," he said. "If we pull together as an army, we can win this, but if we stay under our roofs in our houses we will lose."
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2366. Follow her on Twitter, @ModestoBeeCrime.
At A Glance
A group of inmates at Folsom State Prison formed Nuestra Familia in 1968 to strike back at the Mexican Mafia. New prisoners from Northern California were recruited, while inmates from Southern California stuck with the established gang.
On the streets, gang members and associates identify themselves as Norteños or Sureños, an indication of which group they will join if they go to prison. By the late 1970s, the dividing line between the north and south was Delano, south of Fresno.
Norteños wear red and often have tattoos with XIV or four dots and two lines, referring to the 14th letter of the alphabet, which is N. Other gang tattoos include a five-pointed star, symbolizing the north, and the eagle used by the United Farm Workers. Some tattoos are earned by assaulting or killing a Sureño.
The Nuestra Familia criminal organization has a military-style command structure that starts at the top with prison inmates on a governing body known as La Mesa.
Decisions made by shot-callers in prison are relayed to regiment leaders, who typically oversee gang activities in a certain region or county.
Crew bosses usually are responsible for the gang's activities within a neighborhood.
Street soldiers are the rank-and-file gang members on the street, typically teenagers with the least amount of experience.
The Mexican Mafia formed at Deuel Vocational Institution near Tracy in the mid-1950s, so Latino inmates could challenge whites who controlled the prison drug trade. Also known as La Eme, the gang patterned itself after the Italian Mafia.
To join, inmates must be Mexican and stab a rival on behalf of the gang. Sureños are not supposed to snitch or commit homosexual acts. Parolees explain the north-south divide to youngsters, who are expected to pick a side.
Sureños wear blue and often have tattoos with SUR, XIII or X3 or three dots with two lines, referring to the 13th letter of the alphabet, M. Other tattoos associated with Sureños are MM for Mexican Mafia, or a black hand copied from the Italian Mafia.
Latino inmates divided themselves into northerners and southerners, but their street war against each other didn't intensify until the early 1990s.
A rap album called "Generations of United Norteños," or "G.U.N.," called for Norteños to unite and eliminate Sureños who had moved into Northern California cities such as Modesto.
Robert Gratton, a top-ranking Norteño from Modesto who later became an author, gang dropout and police informant, produced the rap CD to help finance the Nuestra Familia. Gratton died in July 2008 at age 44 in a suspected alcohol-related vehicle crash in Southern California.
Norteños refer to Sureños as "scraps," "sewer rats" and "moscas," terms that refer to their Southern California roots or immigration status.
Sureños refer to Norteños as "busters," "sod busters," "chapas" or "chapetes," terms that refer to their agricultural roots in Northern California.
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