Urban ills pull at a farm belt

Times Staff Writer

Here in the birthplace of Cesar Chavez’s nonviolent farm labor movement, a 14-year-old who aspired to become a policeman is cut down by gunfire on his front porch.

In the farm town of Merced, billed as the gateway to Yosemite, an armed gang member shoots an officer after a vehicle stop -- the first police slaying in the city’s 118-year history.

And in Red Bluff, which prides itself on its Victorian homes, rodeos, hunting and fishing, a teenage gangster pumps seven bullets into another high school student outside a party.


Along the 450 miles of the Central Valley, an explosion of gang violence in recent years has transformed life on the wide, tree-lined streets of California’s agricultural heartland.

As jobs and relatively affordable housing in the fast-growing region have attracted families from the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas, law enforcement officials say, some have brought gang ties with them, aggravating the valley’s home-grown street crime.

“What we are seeing is a migration of gangs from larger cities . . . to more rural areas,” said Jerry Hunter, who oversees state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown’s anti-gang units. “The gang activity . . . is a huge crisis for those communities.”

The spread of gang violence has strained police resources and rendered some playgrounds and streets off limits. Bullets have shattered the peace in parks and strip malls.

Some graffiti cleanup crews in Stanislaus County have bulletproof vests or police escorts. Lifeguards in Turlock no longer sport traditional red or blue swimwear -- those gang colors might provoke gunfire. Schools in many places have adopted anti-gang dress codes, and rumors of impending gang attacks sometimes scare students from classes. Fear has silenced witnesses to gang crimes.

Up and down the valley, task forces have been formed as evidence mounts that street hoodlums are committing homicides, robberies and car thefts and trafficking in drugs. Some communities have taxed themselves to pay for more police. Local, state and federal sweeps have produced thousands of arrests -- but tens of thousands more gang members remain on the streets, authorities say.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has appointed former Sacramento U.S. Atty. Paul Seave as his anti-gang chief, hoping to improve the effectiveness and collaboration of state agencies that spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to prevent and combat gang violence.

And Brown has declared the gang problem a top priority, likening it to domestic terrorism. His office is providing local agencies with expertise, intelligence and agents for raids.

The Central Valley contains eight of the 22 counties that had the most gang-related homicides in 2005 and 2006, Seave said. And annual California Department of Justice figures show that the number of valley gang killings has accelerated, as has the number of law enforcement agencies reporting such crimes. In 1997, 50 gang-related homicides were reported, compared with 80 in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Gang violence came with startling brutality to the Tehama County town of Red Bluff, at the northern reaches of the Sacramento River.

After a 17-year-old Sureno gang member repeatedly shot a 16-year-old Norteno gang member outside a house party, rumors of an attack on a local high school caused many students to stay home. The young gang member was sentenced last year to 25 years to life in prison for the 2006 shooting.

“This is a small town, and . . . we’re not used to those types of things happening,” said Greg Ulloa, the county’s juvenile probation chief. “But it is getting worse.”

The lower end of the valley has long been known as the Mason-Dixon Line of California’s major Latino gang rivalry. But now clashes between the Surenos, or southerners, and the Nortenos, northerners, have migrated through the state.

“In the eastern part of the county, families are moving in from the L.A. basin,” said Kern County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Whiting. The gang members who come with them, he said, “are small fish there, but they can be bigger fish here.”

The North-South conflicts are particularly pronounced in Delano. It is territory claimed by the Nortenos, whose traditional strongholds are farming communities and who have adopted as their insignia a version of the United Farm Workers Union’s Aztec Eagle symbol. But the town has Surenos too and is only seven miles from that gang’s turf in McFarland.

One night last year, 14-year-old Steven Fierro, a freshman at Delano’s Cesar Chavez High School, was standing outside his tidy tract home with his older brother and two of his brother’s friends when they were strafed by rifle fire from a car. Steven was killed and the others wounded in what police say is an unsolved shooting rooted in the gang rivalry.

Steven’s mother Isabel keeps a small, candlelight shrine inside her front door to remind her of a son she describes as good-hearted, loving and not a gang member. He wanted to be a policeman, she said, and hoped to buy a bigger house and nice car for his mom, who works in a horticultural facility.

She left Steven’s room untouched -- with his video games, baseball photos and paintball gun.

“Maybe this way I’m thinking he has gone off to school and will be back,” she said, weeping. “The same night they killed my son, they killed me also.”

Police, school officials and community groups say gang violence cannot be curtailed without prevention and intervention. Some towns teach parents to be on alert for signs, such as red or blue clothing, shoes and handkerchiefs, that their children might be drifting toward gangs. Other towns have stepped up recreational activities to keep youngsters busy.

Even when law enforcement agencies record successes against a gang, members often move elsewhere, as some may have done after crackdowns on Fresno’s Bulldogs gang. It has an estimated 6,000 members.

Police in nearby Selma are now seeing Bulldogs, with their dog-paw tattoos, standing on street corners literally barking warnings when squad cars approach. There have been drive-by shootings in midday, and police say one crime witness was wounded by gang members who shot through her front door.

The rise of gang violence “has caught us off guard and shocked our community,” said Selma Police Chief Tom Whiteside, noting that the town of about 24,000 had five gang homicides in the last three years. “Today, gang crime is probably No. 1 on everyone’s radar screen in the valley.”

Selma voters overwhelmingly approved a half-cent sales tax in November that will allow its police force to nearly double in the next decade.

The Bulldogs have adopted the red theme and menacing mascot of Cal State Fresno’s athletic teams, sometimes blurring the visual lines between gang members and others. “An Hispanic group occasionally will be in a compromising position at a mini-market or walking down the street . . . because they are wearing . . . Bulldog-related clothing,” said Fresno Police Sgt. Bill Grove. “It poses problems for law enforcement as well. . . . We come into contact with known gang members and they claim they are just fans of the teams.”

University officials say they will not surrender their mascot to gangs. “By changing our name, it would reward them,” said Paul Oliaro, vice president for student affairs.

A striking case of mistaken identity visited Atwater, 200 miles to the north. A Fresno State student, home for the weekend several years ago, was jogging in her red school T-shirt when someone yelled at her for wearing Norteno colors and fired five shots from a car, narrowly missing her.

Her father, Richard Hawthorne, is now the town’s police chief. He collaborated with the state attorney general’s office last summer on raids against the 150-member A-Town Gang, a Sureno affiliate. The raids yielded 31 arrests and a cache of drugs, cash, vehicles and weapons, which Hawthorne says at least temporarily crippled his town’s biggest gang.

The attorney general’s office coordinated raids in Stockton last summer that took down the leadership of the Loc Town Crips, a Cambodian gang allegedly engaged in nationwide drug trafficking and terrorizing entire blocks of the city with drive-by shootings and gun battles.

Despite such strides, law enforcement agencies have suffered painful losses as gang members turned their guns on officers. Sheriff’s deputies were killed in Tulare and Sacramento counties days apart in December, and gang members were accused of the slayings.

After big funerals and tributes, officers’ families are left to live with the scars. Michelle Gray still is doing so a year after a Gangster Crip member was sentenced to die for killing her husband, a Merced police officer, during a vehicle stop.

She moved to another town because, she said, the gang harassed her after her husband’s slaying. The 38-year-old nurse is raising three children on her own.

“Our lives will never be the same,” she said. “Stephan never got a chance to see our son’s first T-ball game. . . . With our daughter, he missed her first dance. . . . And she cannot believe he can’t be there to give her away when she gets married.”

In the Stanislaus County community of Ceres, an alarming number of reports of shots fired prompted Police Chief Art de Werk to begin keeping count. Last year, more than 160 were logged in the town of about 42,000.

Some people, he said, “are virtual prisoners in their own homes.”

Police Sgt. Rick Armendariz of Modesto supervises the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force, an alliance of local, federal and state agencies that exchange intelligence and keep tabs on gang members on parole or probation.

“Gang members do not heed borders,” he said. “Gang members move here but do not cut their ties.”