As dozens of people marched in the cold and along the wet streets of Planada on Saturday shouting for peace, 16-year-old Jose Gonzalez remembered a friend he lost recently to gang violence.
“Man, I grew up with that kid. He was a real nice guy,” Gonzalez said. “But, I mean, you know, he was human and he made some bad decisions, chose the wrong path.”
His friend, Asbiel Copado, was 16 when he was shot and killed Dec. 9 on a poorly lit street not far from the site of Saturday’s peace rally. Copado’s murder has not been solved, but investigators suspect gang motives in the case.
Two weeks earlier, one of Copado’s relatives, 24-year-old Eric Guzman, was gunned down in nearly the same spot as Copado, outside a home in the 9300 block of Bigler Avenue. Guzman’s death also remains unsolved. Detectives believe it also was gang-related.
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“I know a lot of people are afraid to speak out,” Gonzalez said Saturday. “But, honestly, I just want all the violence to stop.”
More than 100 people attended the peace rally, including many of the Merced County sheriff’s deputies and detectives who are investigating the deaths of Copado and Guzman.
“I think it shows that the community of Planada is galvanizing against the violence and the criminals,” Sheriff Tom Cavallero said. “We in law enforcement need the support of the community. Without it we’re just not able to be as effective as we can be, and we in law enforcement support the community.”
Nearly a dozen top members of the Sheriff’s Department attended the rally, as did many from the California Highway Patrol.
Planada has quieted in recent weeks. Authorities say that’s due, at least in part, to sheriff’s investigators who locked up several key gang members in unrelated cases.
The next step, event organizers said, is filling the vacuum with positive activities for young people.
Alex Garcia, one of the event’s main organizers, grew up in Planada and said nothing will change unless residents take more pride in their community.
“It wasn’t always like this, not at all when I was growing up here,” Garcia said. “It’s really up to us as a community to make good things happen here and to bring positive things here for the kids to see the positive alternatives to gangsters.”
More than a dozen community organizations and residents gathered at Houlihan Park for food, games, and dance and skit performances by the Yoztalteptl Aztec Dance Group of Fresno and the Le Grand High School’s Restorative Justice League.
“We try to help youth become advocates, become mentors and mediators on campus and in the community to resolve problems and prevent future incidents,” said Andre Griggs, a coordinator for the Restorative Justice League.
Garcia said he hoped Saturday’s event would be the first step toward “taking back” the streets for the majority of residents in Planada who have nothing to do with gangs but whose lives are affected whenever violence breaks out.
“I haven’t been personally affected by the violence, but we’re all affected by it mentally or emotionally,” Garcia said. “This is us as residents reaching out, making positive things and events happen, and bringing the community together.”