Joe Guerrero knows the gang life all too well.
“Growing up in Chicago, I didn’t know anything different,” he said. “I remember cheering when someone I knew got arrested.”
The life Guerrero, 44, was living in Chicago was leading him down a potentially bad path, so he moved to Goshen in 1982 at the age of 21 to escape it. “I came straight out of Chicago,” he said. “I noticed (gangs in Goshen) right away. There were biker gangs, then there were other gangs, but smaller. Later on, though, in the late ‘80s, ethnic gangs started to make a strong presence.”
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, authorities say, Michiana saw an influx of violence from predominately black gangs. But recently, Hispanic gangs have taken the spotlight, said Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department Detective Marcus Wolfram.
“Gang violence has been here for some time,” said Guerrero, who works for anti-gang organizations in Elkhart County. “And it’s not anything new; however, the levels (of crime) are growing.”
Elkhart County has experienced two alleged gang-related shooting deaths in the past 11 months.
Sixteen-year-old José Martinez was killed April 9, and 14-year-old Rogelio Reyes died Feb. 19.
“In Elkhart County, (Hispanic gangs) are a lot more prevalent, not only in numbers but in activity, than predominately black and white gangs,” Wolfram said.
Like most gangs, Hispanic gangs are centered around drugs, he said.The Vatos Locos and Sureño 13, the two most prominent Hispanic gangs in Elkhart County, are both tied into larger gangs that began in the California prison system and have access to drugs, he said.
But rustic Elkhart County, with its countryside dotted with horses and buggies carrying Amish families to and fro, seems an unlikely place for gangs to settle.
Many gang members are born and raised there.
“Their parents come here for work, usually from Mexico,” Wolfram said.And now that Elkhart County is a high employment area—with a 2000 unemployment rate of only 2.5 percent—many Hispanics have relocated here, said Bill Wargo, chief investigator for the Elkhart County prosecutor’s office.
But often with migration comes isolation.
“Ethnic gangs started to make a strong presence because (members) feel like they’re strangers in a strange land,” Guerrero said. “When you have a rash of migration, it’s very hard to blend in. Oftentimes ethnic gangs are formed because of that, for a feeling of protection.”