MODESTO — Street gangs in the Modesto area used to be disorganized, operating independently. They committed crime, but there was less brazen gun violence.
That all changed in the early 1990s after prison-based Nuestra Familia gang leaders called for unity among Norteños across California. They were ordered to work together to eliminate their common enemy the Sureños.
The message produced by a Modesto gang member and sent out via a rap music CD titled "Generations of United Norteños," or "G.U.N." sparked an ongoing war between the two gangs that rages on today. Gang violence became more coordinated and deadly.
"Now, (the Norteños) knew they had some boundaries," said Stanislaus County sheriff's Sgt. Anthony Bejaran, a former gang investigator. "They had some people telling them what to do and how to do it."
The Sureños responded by establishing their own gangs in Northern California, including areas such as west Modesto and the city's airport neighborhood.
Recruitment for both gangs increased, as did their presence and the culture of fear it spawned. This clash for dominance created a gang hierarchy in prison with more control on what happens on the streets. That remains the case today, with so-called shot callers behind bars still directing criminal behavior such as drug trafficking, home-invasion robberies and revenge killings of former fellow gang members.
The shootings and killings might be about gang colors on the street, but the violence is a byproduct of big business orchestrated by prison gang leaders. Many decisions are dictated by what helps them gain more illicit profits from their criminal enterprise.
Sureños are controlled by the Mexican Mafia prison gang, also known as La Eme, which was formed in the mid-1950s so Latino inmates could challenge whites who controlled the prison drug trade. The Sureños wear blue and associate with the number 13.
Norteños answer to the Nuestra Familia, which was formed in 1968 by Latino Northern Californian prison inmates wanting independence from the Mexican Mafia. They wear red and associate with the number 14.
Until 20 years ago, hostil- ity between Norteños and Sureños was not common, at least in Northern California, where there were hardly any Sureños, and Norteños fought each other from time to time. The demarcation line was Delano, about 75 miles south of Fresno, and the gangs rarely crossed it.
Along with the Norteño call for unity, two other factors created the violent gang rivalry seen in the Modesto area today.
Families with teens and young adults swearing allegiance to the Sureños moved to Northern California cities, including Modesto, for a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with gangs. Rival gang members now were living not far from each other. The Nuestra Familia saw Sureños in Northern California as encroachment on their turf.
Parents looking for affordable housing left Bay Area cities, such as San Jose, and moved to the valley. Many commuted over the Altamont Pass for work but lived in neighborhoods of newly built tract homes in south Modesto. Some of their older children already were experienced Norteños in the Bay Area with strong ties to the Nuestra Familia. In Modesto, they started right where they left off.
"You're bringing in some people with more sophistication and experience in the gang world," Bejaran said.
The two dominant gangs divided the region into blue and red areas and launched all-out war. Violence escalated over the next two dec-ades. Gang members, mostly teenagers known as street soldiers, had their marching orders: Eliminate the enemy.
Sheriff's Sgt. Kevin Davis investigated gang crimes from 1995 to 2000. He said gun violence spiked to about two drive-by shootings a month.
"We just had gangsters trying to make a name for themselves, trying to carve out a little piece of the world," Davis said.
Young Norteños used the message behind the "G.U.N." rap album as a call to arms. They had an enemy in their own back yard and newly acquired knowledge from Bay Area gang members to carry out attacks.
Robert Gratton, a top-ranking Norteño from Modesto who later became an author, gang dropout and police informant, released the rap CD to help finance the Nuestra Familia. He died in July 2008 at age 44 in a suspected alcohol-related vehicle crash in Southern California.
Froilan Mariscal was a student at Modesto's Downey High School in the early 1990s when the seismic shift changed how street gangs operated. Even though he avoided the gang lifestyle, many of his fellow students chose sides.
"You could clearly see them separate themselves at school, kind of like in a prison yard," said Mariscal, who later became a gang investigator for the Stanislaus County district attorney's office.
As a teenager, Mariscal lived in a home on Imperial Avenue west of Crows Landing Road in south Modesto. He saw gang violence rise as Norteños joined in their fight against Sureños throughout the city.
"You feel more bold and empowered," Mariscal said about Norteños coming together. "It's just that gang mentality that you don't back down."
His old neighborhood became the spawning ground for the Deep South Side Norteños, a gang that became entrenched there and terrorized residents for two decades. It got so bad that law enforcement officials were granted an injunction in 2009 to disrupt the gang's activities and loosen its grip on the neighborhood.
Bejaran also grew up in south Modesto, but he lived there before the Norteños' call for unity. He remembers seeing gang members routinely involved in fistfights, but they rarely used guns, the common method of violence by gang members today.
As a teenager in the 1980s, Bejaran said, "you could walk down any street" and not be harassed. There was not much open gang recruitment. And "Southerners weren't really around."
Gang fights along McHenry Avenue, which were common many weekends, contributed to the end of cruising along the Modesto thoroughfare. There was a large number of gangs, but there wasn't a dominant group.
Bejaran said gangs such as the Eight-Ball Mob and the Night Owls were part of the criminal landscape in the early '80s. There were groups that associated with the Norteños then, but the various Norteño gangs in Modesto sometimes would fight one another.
Today, his old neighborhood just north of Shackelford Elementary School on Crows Landing Road is home to the Original Gangster Locos, a Norteño gang that didn't exist when Bejaran was a teenager.
Sureños also grew in number, even though there are far fewer of them in Stanislaus County. Sureño gangs such as Brick City and 18th Street, which are names for Sureño gangs in Southern California, still exist today in west Modesto. The Brick City gang considers its turf a small area north of Paradise Road near Carpenter Road, and the 18th Street gang claims its territory to be south of the Tuolumne River near Highway 99.
Profits go up the chain
Mariscal said today's Norteños and Sureños have such a highly organized power structure that prison inmates ultimately decide who dies on the street.
Money is the fuel that powers the engine behind these power-hungry gangs. Street soldiers fight over colors, but their prison leaders orchestrate violence to protect their investments in drug trafficking, armed robberies, burglary and other criminal activity.
Gang members on the street funnel a share of their profits up the chain of command to leaders inside prison. Street soldiers refer to this process as "paying taxes." Decisions made by the Nuestra Familia and the Mexican Mafia routinely are based on their illegal business ventures.
For instance, several years ago, prison gang leaders ordered their street soldiers to stop committing drive-by shootings. Mariscal said the leaders thought drive-bys were drawing too much attention from law enforcement and the media, making it bad for gang business. He said gang members were instructed to walk up and shoot at targets instead.
The result of this power struggle between Norteños and Sureños has created gang leaders in prison who today have more direct control of street warfare than they've had in the past, Mariscal said. Shot callers doing time in Pelican Bay state prison, for instance, are sending orders to street soldiers in Stanislaus County.
"The gang members who are from this county are taking orders from those who are not from this county," Mariscal said. "It's not all about territorial turf battles anymore."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2394.
AT A GLANCE
Stanislaus County gang statistics:
5,000: Number of gang members among 64 documented gangs
84 percent are Latino-based gangs
7 percent are white gangs
4 percent are Asian gangs
3 percent are black gangs
2 percent are miscellaneous
Of the Latino-based gangs, 82 percent are Norteños; 18 percent are Sureños
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"Gangs are wreaking economic havoc on our communities and they are destroying the lives and futures of our young people. We know there is a gang problem, but our strategies from the past are not working. The growth of gangs in our community must be stopped and reversed. We must not accept their presence in our community as normal."
Vito Chiesa, Stanislaus County supervisor
"I don't fear. If they want to kill me, they can kill me. If it's my time to go, it's my time to go. (But) if I die at the hands of (my son's) homies, good luck for you because when he gets out (of custody) he'll be out for blood."
"It's like (gangs) had a sense of honor (in the old days). They wouldn't fight innocent civilians. Now they shoot up places for no reason. People inside their own gang fight each other. It's like everyone's ego is getting in the way. It's not about a color; it's about egos."
"My nephew got jumped and stabbed in the stomach with a screwdriver. He lived and went out there looking for revenge but they caught him at the mall and stabbed him in the head a couple of times. He lived and yet he's still in (his gang). He's 16. What's next?"
An automatic death sentence will be put on a familiano (member) that turns coward, traitor or deserter.
from "Constitution of the Nuestra Familia," Section V
"I can take any kid a rich kid; he doesn't have to be poor and I can turn him, make him feel more welcome than their own family. I'll make them loyal, make them crave to be loyal. He doesn't even know why; he just wants to please me. I own him."
imprisoned gang recruiter quoted in "Parents Gang Awareness Program,"a document used with families of Stanislaus County Juvenile Hall inmates
"Get involved in other activities and lifestyles. It isn't about the thrill anymore; it is about blending in and surviving. Reinvent yourself. Shut your face."
from "How to change your life and leave the gang and make it," a Juvenile Hall resource
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