Central Valley

Gang Infighting: When members attack each other, bystanders often pay

It's not just turf wars between rival gangs that lead to violence anymore: Stanislaus County law enforcement officials say they are seeing more fights between members of the same gang.

This infighting can spill onto the streets, endangering bystanders and forcing residents to duck for cover inside their homes, according to investigators who gather intelligence on gang activity in the county.

In May 2008, investigators in Turlock cited gang infighting for a series of shootings on the city's west side.

The internal friction of a gang can easily erupt with gunfire, and the gangsters don't care who gets hurt, said Modesto police Lt. Gary Watts, supervisor for the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force.

"It's amazing the lack of respect for life these guys have," Watts said. "The thing is they are very bad shots, and they always hit someone who is not in a gang."

It doesn't take much to spark this type of violence.

Gangsters will take on one of their own over money, drugs, a woman or simply because one looked at the other the wrong way, said Sgt. Jeramy Young, a supervisor for the Modesto police street crimes unit.

"It happens all the time," Young said. "Anything that can cause friction within the gang. Giving someone else 'hard looks' could be all it takes (to spark a violent attack)."

He said there really aren't many rules for gang members, but they don't do so well following what rules there are.

Some of them:

— Don't have sex with a fellow gang member's wife or girlfriend.

— Don't fight a fellow gang member.

— Don't steal from a fellow gang member.

Violators are subject to discipline, which leads to violence between members of the same gang.

It might seem ridiculous to the rest of the society, but that's how the politics work within a gang.

Sign of weakness

Showing disrespect to a fellow gang member can quickly escalate. Young said a gang member refusing to respond with violence can be seen in the criminal underworld as a sign of weakness and a major obstacle for gangsters to move up the criminal career ladder.

"If they are confronted, they can't back down," Young said. "That's going to look bad on them. And this type of violence can happen anywhere."

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The street crimes unit focuses its enforcement on curbing gang activity in Modesto. It's the unit's job to keep track of the divisiveness within a gang and try to prevent the street violence.

Young said infighting also occurs when members leave the gang. These gangsters are known on the street as "dropouts," and they continue their criminal activity.

"Dropouts are out there functioning with their own little crews," Young said. "They still want to be a criminal and live the gang lifestyle."

The dropouts leave their criminal organization because they don't like the way the gang is structured or they don't want to pay "taxes" to the higher-ups.

Some gang members in the Modesto area are known to have paid up to 25 percent of their street earnings to the gang's leaders, Young said, but the amount of taxes depends on the gang member's position in the gang.

Here is how a gang's chain-of-command works from the bottom to the top:

— The gangsters or "homeboys" are the soldiers on the street.

— The leaders of crews on the street run the operation.

— The top bosses are inmates inside prison.

Young said gangsters hustle on the street to make money for themselves and pay taxes to gang leaders, and the money travels up the chain of command to the leaders in the prisons.

He said some gang members have legitimate jobs, but others sell drugs on the street, grow marijuana or steal cars, identities and anything else they can get their hands on.

"The (gang leaders in the) prisons run the street," Young said. "A lot of things that start in there end up out here."

A gang's inner turmoil can start as soon as gangsters are taken into custody, said Modesto police officer Robert Gumm, a member of the countywide gang task force.

Gumm said many gangsters in custody become confidential informants for law enforcement and can be targeted by their gang. He also said it's the disputes between inmates within the county jail that can create the gang infighting.

"It's a power struggle," Gumm said. "It's about who is in charge of the jail."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.