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.”
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.
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 Sureño gang member repeatedly shot a 16-year-old Norteño 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.
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 Sureños, or southerners, and the Norteños, 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 Norteños, 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 Sureños too and is only seven miles from that gang’s turf in McFarland.
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.
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.”