Gangs thriving in Modesto

Experts expose lifestyle myths, urge teens' families to step up

Take a walk with Modesto police Detective Richard Delgado and you'll get an earful about a persistent problem that thrives on fear and intimidation, prompts cycles of violence and cannot be solved with arrests and incarceration alone.

A decade ago, most gang members in the region affiliated with the Norteños, or northerners, who claim red.

Due to a migration of street gang members from Southern California -- and home-grown youngsters who simply choose blue over red because that's the dominant color in their neighborhood -- the number of documented Sureños now is rising faster than Norteños.

So the north-south rivalry is growing, too.

"It's all about a color," said Delgado, a member of the Stanislaus County Gang Intelligence Task Force, which includes representatives from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.

Although the authorities think gang membership has grown along with the population in the last decade, they cannot pinpoint that growth because the Sheriff's Department and city police departments adopted a standardized classification system only two years ago.

The task force has documented about 4,000 gang members, which is less than 1 percent of the population. And its members believe the true number is 7,000 to 10,000.

The vast majority of documented gang members, 87 percent, are Latino, though Asian, black and white gangs exist, too.

And 24 of 74 people awaiting trial on murder charges in Stanislaus County Superior Court are charged with gang "enhancements," an indication that officials believe a killing is gang- related and deserves extra punishment.

Gang markings can be found in alleyways and fences and street signs throughout Modesto, though they are most concentrated in neighborhoods in the southern and western areas of the city.

On a recent morning, Delgado explained the rivalry by pointing to graffiti on a fence near Rock Pine Court and Marlow Street, home of the Rock Pine Gangsters.

The dominant marking is a big blue XV3, which shows that the Sureños claim this turf. They often have tattoos with "SUR" or three dots, referring to the 13th letter of the alphabet, or M, for the Mexican Mafia, the prison gang from which they sprang.

There's another marking -- ST18 -- that suggests an affiliation with the 18th Street gang, a 10,000-member Sureño gang from Los Angeles. The XV3 marking also relates to the 18th Street gang.

And there are challenges left by the Norteños, who identify with the 14th letter of the alphabet, or N, and often mark themselves with four dots or the huelga bird, a symbol César Chávez used when he pushed to expand rights for immigrant workers.

An X4 shows that the West Side Norteños claim this territory, too.

And there's an SK, with a slash mark through the S, which is shorthand for "scrap killer." That's a sign of disrespect to the Sureños, who return the favor by calling the Norteños "busters," referring to their agricultural roots as sod busters in Northern California fields.

The graffiti-painted fence forms the boundary for a paddock in which a horse is grazing, a rooster crowing in the distance. It could be a bucolic setting, but the police fear that the boys who used to call themselves the Little Town Sureños are linking up with a tougher crowd.

"We can expect a lot more violence, because 18th Street is a much more powerful gang," Delgado said.

Lives changed after attacks

The red-on-blue war spawns personal vendettas as gangs attack each other over drugs or money or girls, but it also leaves innocent bystanders in its wake.

Some are mistaken for gang members because they wear red or blue clothing, while others are caught in the crossfire or fail to show gang members the respect they crave. Some survive savage attacks, but their lives will never be the same.

Stephanie House, 27, of Modesto was shot in the face and blinded in one eye July 13, 2004, after she and her boyfriend and sister got hard stares from Sureño gang members at a taco truck. Three men took plea deals. Another has gone to trial twice, with his case ending in a mistrial both times.

Eric Carrillo, 17, of Turlock was shot in the neck and paralyzed April 30 as he stood in front of Wakefield Elementary School, talking on his cell phone. He was wearing a red football jersey. The police arrested three adults and one juvenile who await trial.

Randy Dennis, 14, of Modesto was shot in the spine and paralyzed Aug. 14 as he played a video game in his living room. He is an honors student and his family said they have no idea why anyone would shoot at their home.

To law enforcement, the names and faces change while the violence remains a chronic problem.

"For every gang member I put in prison, there's two more taking his place," said Deputy District Attorney Thomas Brennan, who has prosecuted gang crimes for eight years.

Intervention efforts focus on exposing the myths that lure youngsters into the lifestyle, because gangs thrive on peer pressure and the power of persuasion.

Delgado rattles those misconceptions off with ease:

The gang is not a family because its members look for plea deals as soon as they get busted, despite their "snitches rest in ditches" motto.

The gang is not a lifetime obligation despite a popular "blood in, blood out" oath because most members age out or walk away after a few years.

The gang does not provide protection in dangerous neighborhoods because youngsters are safer if they get involved in school activities and steer clear of the boys who wear colors.

Gang members do not make easy money because older homeboys get a cut even if youngsters take the risks.

Gang members don't get the respect they crave because vendettas create new enemies.

Officials hold a steady stream of gang forums to get the word out to parents.

Two police officers run the Gang Resistance Education and Training program, with weekly lessons in elementary and middle schools throughout Modesto and Empire.

And the police have a Wake-Up program for youngsters who get in trouble and want to avoid detention in Juvenile Hall. They must attend an eight-week class with their parents.

Sometimes, families rally around youngsters who have made bad choices, pushing them in another direction. Other times, young men adopt street names such as "sniper" or "silent" and act as if they have nothing to lose.

They tell the detective about "la causa," harkening back to the days of Chávez, but can't quite say what their goals are.

"It's about the cause," Delgado said. "What cause? What cause? What cause? Nobody can give a good definition of what the current cause is."

Groups provide structure

James Hernandez, a former Pittsburg police officer and criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, said gangs give marginal kids the structure their parents failed to provide.

He said youngsters name their gangs after the streets they live on, and get tattoos with their area code because their horizon is so limited.

Those who stick with the delinquent lifestyle eventually end up in prison, where they have to affiliate with a gang to survive. When they get out, their allegiance is to the only people who gave a damn about them.

"The Mexican Mafia is doing a hell of a job in prison," said Hernandez, who has testified for the defense in Stanislaus County. "They're teaching these kids to write. They're learning to show up on time, or somebody is going to pound on them. They're getting results."

Dionicio Vargas of Turlock visits Juvenile Hall once a week as a lay minister with Youth for Christ.

He sees a steady stream of lost boys and said he believes many become bitter as they await a resolution in their cases, developing stronger gang ties in the process. He said he thinks most of them would have found a better path had they been taught how to deal with their insecurities.

"They don't think," Vargas said. "Nobody ever taught them to think about the consequences."

Jared Lewis, a former Modesto police officer who runs a Wisconsin-based interest group called Know Gangs, testifies for the prosecution. He said parents need to intervene as soon as their children scribble gang signs on their notebooks or put red or blue shoelaces in their sneakers.

Suppression alone will not solve the gang problem, he said, but some kids can turn back before it is too late.

"Gangs have been here forever. Gangs will always be here," said Lewis, who noted that gangs have been part of California's history since the early 1900s. "There's always going to be a select few who want to create a secret society and prey on others."

John Ervin thinks the community needs to make a bigger investment in intervention, and he's got the credentials to back that opinion.

He recalls being stabbed in the arm during a gang fight in Los Angeles as a teenager. In the early 1990s, he ran a job program for youth offenders in Phoenix, where he helped negotiate a gang truce. He is director of community affairs for Modesto City Schools, where after-school programs reach about 10 percent of the eligible population.

Ervin is pleased that an intervention program will start at Elliott Alternative Center for Education this fall, but said one specialist working with troubled teens and their families is not enough.

He said he thinks gangs can be curbed by better parenting, sensitive schools and meaningful job opportunities.

Ervin moved to Modesto so his children wouldn't have to learn about the kind of street life he faced in the big city. He found a town where gang members are bold enough to shoot at each other in the parking lot at Vintage Faire Mall, as they did in January.

"I'm getting a déjà vu," Ervin said. "The level of activity that I see in the city here, in this area, to me it's frightening."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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