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Urban ills pull at a farm belt

As gang violence grows increasingly common in California's Central Valley, small towns try to fight back.

February 24, 2008|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

DELANO — 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, February 26, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Gangs: An article Sunday in Section A about gangs in California's Central Valley said that the distance from Fresno to Atwater is 200 miles. It is about 65 miles.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, March 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Gangs: A Feb. 24 article in Section A about gangs in California's Central Valley said that the distance from Fresno to Atwater was 200 miles. It is about 65 miles.

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.

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