Merced County task force will take the fight to gangs

MERCED -- Gang colors will run.

That's the pledge from local law enforcement leaders who formed an anti-gang partnership Monday. The effort soon will lead to a decrease in crimes committed by people claiming red and blue in Merced County, they predicted.

"In the last decade, gangs have become an increasing scourge in our communities," said Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II during a news conference in front of the historic courthouse. "Through acts of violence and intimidation, they instill fear in young and old alike."

The Merced County Inter-Agency Task Force will begin cracking down on the area's most notorious gangs in a renewed effort to fight the growing problem tied to drug sales, assaults and murders.

Merced Police Lt. Tom Trin- dad estimated there are about 2,500 gang members in the city. With Atwater and Livingston nearby, they're known to move around.

"We will never surrender our communities to gang members," Morse said. "(They) move across city boundaries and so must we."

The task force, which has partnered with the state Attorney General's office, is the sixth of its kind in California to adopt this strategy to deal with the problem. The Modesto area participates in one.

Stop it before it starts

Half the effort will be on arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating members, and the other half will be on keeping children from joining the gangs and giving members reasons to leave. Sam Rangel, a drug and gang counselor with Merced Union High School District, said he expects the pressure on gangs to have an immediate effect on crime but warns prevention is vital because it breaks the cycle.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin is working with Merced College President Ben Duran to create an educational program for released convicts that will provide a support system with counseling and financial aid to encourage them to attend school. "The last thing we want is for them to start the program and find it too challenging and end up losing them," Duran said.

Many gang members don't have the basic skills, such as reading and writing, to improve their lives; teaching those will be the first part of the program, he said. From there, they could enroll in vocational job training courses.

The program needs funding, and Duran hopes that it can be launched in spring. Gov. Schwarzenegger released $2.8 million to be used for job training for at-risk teenagers, though it's unclear where the money will be spent.

Rangel said kids are most vulnerable to gangs when they're in the fifth and sixth grades. The key to keep them from joining is to provide fun recreational opportunities in the city, he said.

Of the 100 teenagers in his caseload, 94 of them never have been to the beach because they're too poor to take day trips out of the area. "What else is there to do?" he asked. "All we have is the streets."

When he was in a gang, Rangel said he'd befriend kids who often saw the lifestyle as glamorous and cool. He'd give them small gifts, such as CDs, and feed on their need for acceptance. "Gang members are some of the best salesmen," he said.

The anti-gang force includes officers from the Merced County Sheriff's Department, district attorney's office, the Probation Department and Merced, Atwater, Livingston and Los Banos police departments.