This is the first in a three-part series on gangs in Turlock.
It would likely come as no surprise to anyone to learn that criminal street gangs have become a problem for the Central Valley. Gang activity, which was once seen as a problem relegated to the larger cities, has now entrenched itself into nearly every suburb, township and city that make up the Central Valley.
As their presence has grown over the decades, so have the crime statistics. Communities can no longer solely rely on the law enforcement agencies and courts to find a solution to the problem and have had to come up with multi-prong tactics to combat gang violence and negate their influence over youth.
“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem,” said Lt. Gary Watts, supervisor of the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force. “Our true hope lies in prevention and early intervention. With them, maybe we will see a different world.”
If the community needed a better reminder than the graffiti and gang insignia scrawled on fences and street signs that gang violence is taking its toll, it need not look any further than last year, when Stanislaus County saw a record number of gang-related homicides, shootings and assaults.
The largest group falling victim to gang violence are 10 to 24 year olds. A 2009 Centers for Disease Control report listed homicide as the second leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 to 24 years. This age group may be the largest segment of victims in gang violence, but it is also the largest age group of perpetrators. The most dangerous gang members are usually those between the ages of 14 and 18 years, because they have the most to prove, said Robert Gumm, an officer with the Modesto Police Department’s gang unit and previously with the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force.
“We are losing a whole generation of our kids to gang violence,” Gumm said.
Within Stanislaus County there are at least 5,000 documented gang members with the actual number closer to 10,000 to 12,000, according to the task force. Nearly all types of gangs are represented, from Asian, African-American, white and outlaw motorcycle, but the largest gangs are Hispanic-oriented. Of the gangs present in Stanislaus County, 85 percent are classified as Hispanic. Within the Hispanic gangs, the Nortenos and the Surenos have the most influence in this region.
Both gangs grew out of prison gangs — the Nortenos are from Nuestra Familia and the Surenos are from La Eme, — the Mexican Mafia. The Surenos are associated with the color blue and the number 13, which is for the thirteenth letter of the alphabet — M. The Nortenos associate themselves with the number 14, for the letter N and typically wear red, though some have started wearing green, the color they are assigned in the county jail, Gumm said.
Statewide, the Nortenos are not as large as the Surenos, though their numbers are growing, largely in part because members do not have to be Hispanic to be part of the gang. Stanislaus County has long been considered Nortenos territory, and violence in the past was brought about by gang infighting. But now, Gumm said, as more Surenos are moving into the area, the violence is sparked by turf wars.
As the violence has grown, school districts, community groups and churches have taken a more active role in the areas of prevention and intervention, while law enforcement and prosecutors have come up with more innovative ways of suppression.
“There is hope,” Watts said. “We can find a solution to this epidemic.”
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.