As Modesto gangs spill more blood, answers get more elusive

gstapley@modbee.comMay 2, 2013 

  • There are an estimated 5,000 gang members in Stanislaus County. Leaders say the problem can’t be cured with arrests and incarceration alone, that other forms of intervention are necessary. But what? Law enforcement experts say today’s gang members are often the third or fourth generation of their families so involved. How do you break the cycle? And what’s the price residents are paying in fear? In this ongoing special report, The Bee begins its examination of gangs and their impact in the Modesto area. Our hope is that the coverage will encourage a community dialogue about the problem and what to do about it.
    alternate textGarth Stapley
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: Regional water, growth, land-use and transportation; civil law, real estate fraud and special projects
    Bio: In his 19 years with The Bee, Garth Stapley has focused on city and county government

MODESTO — Gangs are on the rise.

Hardly a day goes by without some report of a deadly confrontation, revenge shooting, gang sweep or gang members in court for a variety of vicious acts that made headlines much more rarely a decade or two ago.

In Modesto, gang murders, assaults and drive-by shootings have increased an average of 149 percent in seven years. More than half of crimes involving guns in 2012 were gang-related, police say.

Once mostly confined to poor districts, gangs see few boundaries these days. You're still more likely to see graffiti in the airport neighborhood and south and west Modesto, but gangsters are killing one another in places once considered safe.

People are more alarmed when people unexpectedly fall prey to urban violence. The latest poster child for senseless assault, teenager Tylor Crippen, tried to run before he was chased down in January and stabbed to death by three gang members, police say, while on a walk with his girlfriend in Creekwood Park on the east edge of the city.

The randomness breeds fear in nicer neighborhoods, where residents' familiarity with gangs used to start and end with "West Side Story." Nowadays, many sense that Modesto gangs are getting out of control. With every new graffiti scrawl, with every news story about bullets in the air and blood on the streets, people stay in more and make eye contact less.

Some people, including active gangsters and family members, shared thoughts for this story. Almost all asked that their names not be used, for fear of reprisal.

Authorities for years have warned about the steady spread of gang influence. They say it's not a police problem, that "we can't arrest our way out of this," that with limited firepower to combat them, gangs are becoming bolder and will continue to grow.

Explosive growth

The FBI says 1.4 million people belong to 33,000 gangs in the United States, and they are responsible for 48 percent of violent crime in some areas and up to 90 percent in others, including parts of California. That's a stunning 40 percent increase from the 1 million gang member estimate in 2009.

Local authorities document 64 gangs operating in Stanislaus County, with about 5,000 members and many more unofficial hangers-on. That's about 1 percent of the population causing heartache for the rest.

A majority — 84 percent — are Latino gangs, authorities say. Of those, more than four of five consider themselves Norteños, or Northerners. Some of the violence in recent years, experts say, comes with an incursion of Sureños moving with family from Southern California or the Bay Area.

Raul said he joined the Sureños because he tired of getting beat up by Norteños at his junior high school. Now he's surrounded by the enemy and has been shot twice, he said, shivering in his yard despite warm weather, his eyes constantly darting up and down the street. A single bullet hole can be seen in the front window.

If Raul tried to walk through his south Modesto neighborhood, "I probably wouldn't make it three blocks," he said.

Although the typical homeboy is in his teens or early 20s, more are hanging in for life, short as it may be. Officers are arresting more in their 30s, 40s and beyond.

"Can't stop. Won't stop," Raul said, his eyes squinting.

More disturbingly, they're also starting younger.

"I have a grandson who explained to me how to roll a joint. He's 5," said Martha, who has two children heavily involved in gangs. Both have been incarcerated.

"They took him out to shoot a gun when I think he was 3 or 4. How could they do that? They say, 'Too bad, Mom — we're cholos (hoodlums) and he's going to grow up to be one.' "

All in the family

With myriad changes, it's tempting to say something like, "It's not your father's or grandfather's gang anymore." The truth: It just might be. Literally.

"Gang mentality is generational," said Froilan Mariscal, a gang investigator with the Stanislaus County district attorney's office. He grew up in a south Modesto neighborhood that he says now has plenty of third-generation gangsters who grew up with family expectations.

"Kids learn what they see. If all they know is gangs from the day they're born, how do they get out? It's a very slim chance," Mariscal said.

"They look at it like a career," he continued. "There are people whose sole goal is to become a shot caller (leader), just like others want to go to college and become the CEO of a company. It's the same idea."

Martha, the grandmother, used to hang with gangbangers and considered herself on the fringe, not an active participant. So did Tina, a former drug addict whose sons were mugged at knifepoint a few years ago in their teens. She said one was ordered to strip, ran home naked and was taken under the wing of an older gang member soon after.

"That's the day I lost one son and gained one son," Tina said. "One said, 'Screw this' and got into (sports). The other got hard. He said, 'Nobody will ever do me like that.' Now, unfortunately, people are afraid of my son."

He was jailed after a nonfatal shooting a couple of years later and sharpened his gang skills behind bars, she said. Eventually paroled, he's now back in custody, facing charges in a gang-related double murder.

What's his future likely to hold?

"He's going to die," Tina said, wiping tears. "If he gets out of this, he'll die. I already know that. He's going to be killed.

"It's like a train wreck happening and you can't stop it. You know it's going to happen, you see it coming, but no matter how much you yell and scream and wave your hands, it's not going to stop."

Gangsta chic?

Young people long have been fascinated by outlaw culture. These days, some music genres and clothing trends associated with gangs have gone mainstream. Think rap and sagging pants.

"It's ingrained in society now," said Marlisa Ferreira, who has prosecuted gang crimes in Stanislaus County for the past decade. To change gang influence, she said, "You'd have to change 'cool.' "

A YouTube music video filmed in south Modesto shows groups of young people flashing gang signs as a rapper reels off violent boasts, racial slurs and profanity, and a girl caresses an assault rifle with a colored bandana. It's among the more polished of dozens of clips attributed to local gangs, many with references to Modesto, specific neighborhoods and the 209 area code.

Advances in technology are altering how gangs operate. With social media and the Internet, the FBI says, gangs can more easily recruit and stay in touch.

As gangs evolve, authorities have changed their approach. More than 100 gang-related prosecutions have been filed since authorities in 2009 drew a line around a particularly bloody south Modesto neighborhood, called it a gang injunction area and publicly warned suspected gang members of stiffer penalties for crimes in that area.

They're not supposed to congregate, but people say young toughs in colors gather most evenings at an elaborate shrine for a slain gang member established at least a couple of years ago. They light candles in remembrance, play music, drink beer and lounge on a ragged couch and plywood bench blocking an alley at the rear of a church parking lot.

Despite gang activity heating up throughout Stanislaus County, budget cuts prompted Sheriff Adam Christianson to eliminate his anti-gang unit in early 2011. He announced in September that he would reinstate the unit and set aside money, but the plan has been delayed until July. By then, gangs will have received diluted attention for 2½ years from the area's largest law enforcement agency.

Corrections realignment is affecting gang activity as well. Many authorities say it's too early to judge whether the shift from state prisons to county jails is working. But it's clear that reducing prison populations has put more sophisticated, more violent criminals on local streets in the past couple of years.

Unrepentant defectors

And the nature of gangs is changing. Prison gangs are more likely to call shots for street gangs as their leaders get lengthy sentences. The FBI says 230,000 members are incarcerated, virtually unheard of in decades past. Dropout gangs — composed of members no longer affiliated with mainstream gangs — could represent the fastest-growing sector of the gang culture.

"Rules established 50 years ago don't apply anymore," said Austin. He was granted protective custody when he left a gang in prison before being paroled to west Modesto, where he has helped fashion a rival street gang; he said he hopes officers take note of its graffiti. Fresh tattoos represent his new allegiance in coded symbols.

Gang leaders pass down orders that must be obeyed without question, Austin explained, including assault and murder. Refusing, as he did, can get you killed. "Why make a blind sacrifice for someone I don't know and I can't even ask, 'What for?' " he said.

Dropouts deserve contempt more than Sureños, said Carlos, a north Modesto Norteño. Dropouts are traitors who are more dangerous because they know Norteño secrets, he explained, and could exploit them.

Confronting gang violence almost has become a cottage industry.

Numerous nonprofit and faith-based groups, some funded by government grants, are stepping up efforts to disarm and discourage those most at risk of being sucked in.

"I was a juvenile delinquent myself, a throwaway kid," said Vickie Trask, a vocational instructor for Juvenile Hall and the Stanislaus County Office of Education. Her world is a roller coaster ride of stories featuring young lives saved while others are snuffed out by blades and bullets.

"We have to show them there are other choices and options out there," Trask said. "That's what drives me every day."

Youth for Christ reaches more than 200 young people and their families every year and has plans for more programs, many aimed directly at rescuing those being recruited by gangs. Ken Sylvia, the group's mentoring director, said: "I don't think we're ever going to stop gangs. No matter how many want to make a difference, evil will go on. But if we can decrease the problem, for me, that's a win. I don't think we'll ever lose hope."

Will it work?

For some, yes.

Discovering other options

Steven's older brother and sister have brought their family untold heartache. His fearful mother hides when they come around, especially if they're on drugs. But Steven, now a young adult, didn't bite when he came of age.

"I was the baby, and they would dress me up in red and try to make me do the gang signs, smoke weed and drink," he said. "I don't get how people could fight over it or be so stupid."

Carlos said his father and stepfather were into gangs and suffered drug-related deaths. He relied on gang protection while locked up, but now gets help with a Stanislaus County Office of Education job-training program.

"They've got better options than shooting each other up," said Trask, who has guided many young people away from violence and into jobs. "They can't change where they come from. You can only help them from the inside out."

For others, not so much.

Richard said his gang membership means access to marijuana. His time in prison, the loss of a sibling and bullet holes in stucco at his family's Ceres home are just natural parts of life, he said. He sees no reason to find another and seems mystified that someone would ask.

Who were the bullets meant for?

Richard shrugged. "Probably me," he said with a grin.

Elena, a teen mother, said she is not an "active" and prefers spending time with her child more than banger friends. But she likes the thought that she could, if needed, get immediate protection with a simple text message or phone call.

Apathy and fear

Modesto City Councilman Dave Lopez was raised in gang-hardened west Modesto and now leads a council committee focused on public safety. Next to the flash and sparkle of chrome-plated firearms, pretty girls, easy weed and money dangled by the gang lifestyle, Lopez said, "What do we have to offer? A part-time job at McDonald's is a tough sell.

"I don't know what the answer is," Lopez continued, "but what we're doing now doesn't seem to be working."

Do people care?

With so much gang-related news, some seem desensitized.

"One more waste of air gone," a Bee reader wrote in online comments at the bottom of a recent story about the violent death of a suspected gang member.

Another echoed growing apathy as gangsters maim and kill one another, writing: "Another dead punk. Nothing to see. Move along."

But those still living on long-established gang turf continue to cower.

Five members of an extended family recently huddled together on the floor of their south Modesto home, below window level in case a stray bullet should find its way inside. Shooting had erupted outside moments before.

Someone pulled up chatter on a smart-phone app for police scanners. The adults pulled children close and waited.

"We slept all together on the floor that night. In the morning, we could see (bullet) shells on the street," said a woman brave enough to share the story but far too scared to provide her name. Neither would the other adults. Gangbangers have kept a respectful distance so far, and they want to keep it that way.

"We don't want any drama," she said. "You learn to keep your mouth shut and stay out of people's business. We don't really want to be in this area; it's just something we can afford."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or (209) 578-2390.

VIDEO: Gang families --

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