Gang violence: Planada residents' health affected when it's not safe to go out

Residents feel multiple effects on well-being in unsafe environments.

November 24, 2010 

PLANADA -- Gang violence can be harmful to your health -- and not just if you're in a gang.

Vicky Ramirez said gang violence in Planada has transformed the community into a place where many don't feel safe.

For others, gang violence has simply become normal.

Planada residents are used to hearing shootings and seeing groups of teenagers dressed in red shirts, Ramirez said.

The consequences -- an unhealthy community that could lead to unhealthy residents.

Many people don't feel safe to go out at night and sometimes even during the day, Ramirez said.

"That's why there's so much obesity because the (children) can't even go to the park," she said in Spanish. "I wouldn't let my granddaughters go out to the park because it is very dangerous."

Ramirez is involved with one of two local organizations that are trying to make Planada a healthier place for people to live in.

She's president of Las Monarcas Unidas, which along with the Planada Community Safety Committee, has recently sent a letter to the Merced County District Attorney's Office. The two grass-roots community groups ask for stiffer penalties to be written into existing penal codes that deal with gang-related violence and activity.

"Violent crimes are the norm in Planada, and our children and families are being victimized," the letter states. "We want to send a strong message to the entire community that this will no longer be tolerated and set a new norm of safety and intolerance toward gangs and gang activities."

Larry D. Morse II, district attorney, said he has received a copy of the letter and has already asked his secretary to contact the groups and schedule a meeting to discuss their concerns. However, he said he doesn't believe the problem is lack of severity of laws governing gang members or their activities. "In fact, the laws are quite harsh," he added. "We persecute fully those who are involved in gang activities."

Morse said it's more of an enforcement issue. He said there needs to be a larger law enforcement presence in the area. "Unfortunately, the sheriff is like everyone in the county -- forced to do more with less," he said. "They are spread very thin trying to provide (law enforcement) presence throughout the county."

He said officials are glad to meet with the groups to try to find solutions to make their community safer. The solutions would have to be within their financial limitations.

Ramirez agreed that the lack of law enforcement officers in the area is part of the problem.

Diana Zuniga, leader of the Planada Community Safety Committee, said she sees the problem as a puzzle.

Crime is a result of several pieces missing in the puzzle. There's a lack of activities in the community to get teenagers and families involved. There are not enough officers patrolling the town. And violence for some residents has become acceptable. "It's different pieces that fit together that pretty much have brought us to this point," she explained.

Ramirez said some crimes go unreported because people fear retaliation. "(People) don't call because they fear that the gangs are going to do something," she said.

A community is like a home, Zuniga said. People shouldn't let anybody who is going to make them feel uncomfortable come into their community.

Zuniga said she doesn't feel unsafe because she grew up in a much worse neighborhood. However, as a resident, she does get stressed every now and then, fearing that her house will get broken into.

Zuniga also hears from those residents who don't feel safe when they step outside their home. She said people not feeling safe "is a big contributing factor," in people exercising less.

Ramirez said the situation in Planada is depressing.

Michael A. Hoyt, assistant professor of psychology at UC Merced said those involved in health psychology are constantly exploring the pathways by which health is affected in the short term, acutely, and over time, chronically. "Like most things, it is a complicated network of factors that typically lead to ill health effects," he said. "Typically, this involves unraveling how things like living in an environment in which you feel unsafe or one in which violence is prevalent can create a situation in which one is confronting stressors on a very consistent basis."

He said the pathways that might ultimately contribute to poorer health might be multifactored -- that is, with behavioral, physiological and emotional factors.

Zuniga said she hopes that their efforts will help create a "healthier outlook for the future of Planada."

"I think that as the affected residents, we have the power to change the system," Ramirez said.

El Centro, a community center, has been facilitating monthly Planada Community Safety Committee meetings since March when Planada residents expressed concerns about crime and gang violence in the area.

It's a sad state of affairs. For decades Planada produced some of the Valley's best athletes in many sports, young men who went on to play in college and even the pros.

Today, though, gang violence has strained not only the social fabric of the community, but its physical well-being.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 388-6507, or yamaro@mercedsun-star.com.

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