As much as law enforcement knocks them down, they keep coming, learning, growing.
Gangs' strength is not only in their numbers on the street, the guns in their belts and money in their pockets, but also in the well-organized system to which they adhere. Feeding on men and boys' fear and yearning to belong, it's a system that allows gangs to regenerate and spread even while destroying their members' lives.
"Nuestra Familia," a documentary that has won awards in the United States and Mexico, explores gangs from the top to the "soldiers" in strongholds such as Salinas.
Community leaders throughout Stanislaus County packed a Riverbank theater on Thursday to see the movie, which offers a glimpse of what the future could hold for the county.
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"There is a connection between gangs here and the Bay Area," said Sgt. Rick Armendariz of the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force.
That connection is geographical and historical. Gang members move easily throughout the valley and Bay Area, spreading business and messages from higher-ups. They have strongholds on communities with agricultural roots, where Latino farmworkers united against labor injustices in the 1960s.
While the film focuses on how orders from prison gangs are played out on the streets of Salinas, reporters from the Center for Investigative Reporting investigated the connection between incarcerated Nuestra Familia members and Norteño gangs in Salinas, Modesto, Merced, Visalia and Tracy.
The film shows how families can breed gangs and prevent them. Reporters interview a 19-year-old former Norteño who first fired a gun at age 6, joined a gang at 9, committed his first armed robbery at 12 and is serving time for murder.
"I always wanted to be like my dad," the fresh-faced, blue-eyed Latino said.
Organizers, who planned Thursday's event before the recent gang-related shootings in Modesto, say they hope the film inspires leaders to unite in opposition to the spreading gang problem by addressing it in four ways: prevention, intervention, suppression and economic development.
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2382.