Some said prayers quietly in Spanish while others walked somberly with candles in hand during a vigil Tuesday meant to mourn the deaths of two young men while calling for peace in this tiny rural town.
Several Le Grand High School students organized a candlelight vigil, march and moment of silence for 22-year-old Diego Gallardo and 27-year-old Pedro Lua, the two men killed in what authorities said was a gang-related shootout near Highway 140.
Planada native Vincent de Landa walked in the march, calling it a “positive step” to bring people together in the place many locals call “Planet X.”
“It’s sad, people killing people because of a color,” he said. “Sad. They’re so young.”
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Gallardo, Lua and a third man on Feb. 1 were eating food from Ramon’s Tacos, a popular taco truck on Highway 140 in Planada, when multiple gunmen from a rival street gang opened fire, the Merced County Sheriff’s Office said.
Two of the men died from their injuries, and the third victim is recovering, the sheriff’s office said on Tuesday. The shootings may be linked to “up and coming gang members trying to make a name for themselves,” the sheriff’s office has said.
Even as marchers walked along dimly lit Broadway Avenue in Planada on Tuesday, about a half-dozen gunshots could be heard in the distance. “That’s crazy,” de Landa said.
Young people in the march wore T-shirts that said “Am I next? #peaceforplanada.”
Investigators believe at least one of the victims returned fire. Deputies have recovered two handguns — one tied to the victim, the other to the attackers — but said they believe more firearms were used in the gunfight and are hoping to locate several more.
At the march, a number of women spoke in Spanish as the group circled around them in Houlihan Park. They gave impassioned speeches about how Planada residents are a family.
But, the town of fewer than 5,000 can often feel unsafe, according to Julian Diaz, a 17-year-old Le Grand High senior. He’s a member of the school’s Restorative Justice, the day’s organizers.
Gang violence has plagued Planada, especially over the last year and the Sheriff’s Office has responded with numerous probation-related sweeps and targeted investigations in an effort to crack down on the violence, authorities said.
The Restorative Justice students said Tuesday they want to take the lead.
The program focuses on dialogue and peer mediation to work through conflicts, find the root of a problem and make changes to prevent repeated problems. Diaz said he hoped the gathering could be the beginning of a greater effort to make Planada’s streets feel safe, and a way to “bring positivity” to any young people who might be influenced by gang culture.
“We think it’s about time something changed in our community,” he said. “It’s too bad that this (shooting) had to be what broke the barrier.”
No arrests have been made in connection with the shooting, Deputy Daryl Allen said Tuesday. No suspect descriptions have been released.