That unassuming wall or fence at the end of the block may be more than simply a decorative property divider. When it's covered with graffiti, it could be the barometer of that neighborhood's criminal street gang activity, the highly visible "newspaper" that gang members use to diss one another.
While gang graffiti incidents may be down lately in certain parts of Merced County, the practice still remains entrenched in the region. Gang graffiti's message is more menacing than the more-innocent scrawl from taggers, police and sheriff's deputies say -- and it isn't going away anytime soon.
"We want people to know we are aware of the problem and are attacking it as aggressively as we can," Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said. "If they're going to advertise, we'll be the ones watching and answer their ad."
Gang graffiti forms part of the "broken windows" theory of criminal behavior. First unveiled in the early '80s by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, the theory suggests that when a neighborhood allows broken windows, graffiti, litter and other urban blight, an atmosphere is created that breeds crime. "That link is similar to the process whereby one broken window becomes many," the criminologists wrote. "Serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked."
Local authorities also believe that graffiti actively discourages potential investors while encouraging contempt for law and order. How communities deal with graffiti also symbolizes how they view themselves.
Gang graffiti often includes threats and insults to rival gang members -- even against law enforcement. Val Pacheco, supervisor of the Merced Multi-Agency Gang Task Force, said some recent tagging in Livingston threatened to murder an officer there.
"It's a way of getting their name out," Pacheco said. "By tagging a wall, fence or gate, they are just sticking their chest out. In Los Banos, they even went so far as to tag a house."
Sheriff's Deputy Ken Jew, who patrols the Planada and Le Grand areas, said gang graffiti can foreshadow serious assaults or homicides. Those familiar with gang lexicon can tell if a brawl or a drive-by shooting is brewing.
"It (graffiti) is like a street newspaper," Jew said. "It's challenging or disrespecting, a slap in the face. When rival gangs cross out markings, it starts escalating, and gang members drive around looking for each other."
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse said while gang graffiti is a comparatively small part of overall vandalism, it represents the same visual blight as any other tagging. It's worse, however, because it "portends criminality," he said.
"Gang graffiti is fraught with more significance. It's very message-oriented and laying tracks for more gang conflict and violence. It is part of the gang culture, and in the mix as they try to establish who they are."
The district attorney said graffiti is an attempt for gang members to stake out their territory, assert control and establish turf. Gangs ebb and flow; when one is taken down another surfaces.
Deputy Tom MacKenzie, sheriff's department spokesman, said between this January and March there have been 56 gang-related taggings in the county, compared with 234 in 2006 and 126 for the same period last year. He attributes the decline to aggressive patrol by uniformed deputies.
Gang graffiti may be down in the county, but it's up in the city of Merced. Cmdr. Floyd Higdon of the Merced Police Department said graffiti-related problems have increased in the first three months of the year, and officers are taking the vandalism seriously.
The writings of criminal street gangs generally are pretty plain and easy to read. The work of tagging crews sometimes is scribbled, appears more artistic and often can't be read, according to Sgt. Curt Gorman, who supervises the Merced Police Department's Gang Violence Suppression Unit.
Gorman said gang members will tag a public building or monument as a remembrance or memorial to a dead gang member, using the abbreviation for "rest in peace." The taggings often include the nickname or moniker of the would-be artist, who more than likely lives in that neighborhood.
Deputy John Mathis is the sheriff's department gang expert. While gang taggings are especially prevalent in Le Grand, Planada, Winton and Delhi, the scourge covers the entire county.
"We will find out who's doing it and put a stop to it," Mathis warns. "We will track them down, and they don't want that kind of attention. If you don't clean it up, it escalates into physical violence. It's been going on for years and years."
Deputy Kevin Blake, a member of the Sheriff's Tactical and Reconnaissance team, said certain areas are tagged by gang members to "mark their turf," control drug sales or extort money from people in that neighborhood.
Parks, specific blocks or neighborhoods could be considered a certain street gang's territory, Blake explained. When one gang's monikers are crossed out, that's tantamount to spitting in their rivals' faces.
"A lot can be ascertained by reading their writing on the wall," Blake said. "You can see what's going on in a neighborhood. It can inflame an already hot situation. Tagging crews aren't as hard-core; they are trying to be cool and put themselves out there."
Sometimes these gang rivalries extend from town to town. Officer Allen Adrian of the Merced Police Department is Merced's graffiti expert. He has noticed red-colored Norteno criminal street gang scribblings in Merced, along with competing blue-hued messages from their bitter Sureno rivals from Atwater.
"It leads to bigger issues," Adrian said. "They (Atwater gang members) are coming over here just to antagonize their rivals." He estimates gang tagging represents about half the graffiti incidents in Merced.
Mathis said when a gang member puts up his moniker or any gang names or slogans, the sheriff's office focuses on that gang.
"They don't like the additional attention, and hopefully that will put pressure on their own members to stop spraying graffiti," Mathis said.
Pazin said a countywide effort is needed to stop the blight. He praised the countywide gang task force established last fall for doing a "spectacular job since its inception." More defined and deliberate efforts from prosecutors and a harder stance from probation officials may be discouraging graffiti vandalism.
"We might have hit on the right formula to knock it down," Pazin said. "My hope is we are getting out the word to these hooligans that we won't tolerate their behavior anymore. The bottom line is this is causing some real damage and costing the taxpayer good money."
Atwater Police Chief Richard Hawthorne said gang graffiti is an issue in all county communities. Atwater patrol officers and the Street Crimes Unit pay close attention to graffiti signs and try to locate the responsible gang members and taggers.
Crossed-out gang graffiti is a sign of impending conflict, Hawthorne said. The chief belongs to a a city graffiti task force which includes the mayor and public works employees. This group meets monthly to keep tabs on graffiti vandalism.
Some people witness graffiti vandals in the act but don't call 911. Hawthorne wishes they would. "We try hard in Atwater to keep graffiti to a level manageable but it's a very hard crime to stay in front of," he said.
Jew, who served as the department's gang expert years ago, said the Planada and Le Grand areas host four or five criminal street gangs. He cautioned people against challenging taggers when they see them in the act, but urged them to report taggers to the sheriff's office.
Higdon, the police department commander, said Merced officers have answered 179 graffiti-related calls so far this year, including 112 last month, 32 in February and 35 in January. In the first three months of this year, 520 juveniles have been arrested, 20 of them for graffiti offenses. For the same period last year, 11 juveniles were arrested on graffiti vandalism charges.
Thirty juveniles have been arrested from January through March for gang-related issues, compared with 16 youths for the same period last year, Higdon said.
Experts say taggers see graffiti as an art form, a game or a friendly contest. On the other hand, street gangs use graffiti to mark areas they frequent and to issue threats to their enemies.
Whatever the origin, officers say graffiti should be painted over immediately. Areas that are painted over are much less likely to be hit again.
Graffiti left untouched becomes a status symbol.
Local law enforcers don't intend to leave it untouched. But they need help. From everyone.
Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.