For the first time in Stanislaus County, the district attorney's office is suing a street gang to curb the crime and the violence it brings to one of the region's most crime-plagued neighborhoods.
The district attorney's office has filed a lawsuit seeking a gang injunction against 20 hard-core members of the Deep South Side Norteños to limit their ability to operate in a south Modesto neighborhood, whose residents live in constant fear of stray bullets, gang retaliation and losing their sons and daughters to the gang life.
An injunction declares the gang's public behavior a nuisance. Violating the injunction will result in a misdemeanor and a sentence of up to six months in jail.
Authorities hope the arrests will bring a domino effect that will stop the gunfire, ease the neighborhood's fear and stall the recruitment of teens into gangs.
District Attorney Birgit Fladager said the arrests could lead to tougher charges and prison time.
"We want them to sit in jail," Fladager said. "Plus, they're going to most likely have something on them that leads to a felony charge."
David Tubera, 28, of Modesto is on probation and is one of the men listed in the injunction.
"I disagree with it," Tubera said. "I don't feel it's fair, because they're only targeting certain individuals. If I can, I'll get a lawyer and fight it."
On Thursday, probation officers found him in south Modesto and strapped a GPS device to his ankle, so his movements can be monitored.
Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers has vowed to place GPS devices on every probationer listed in the injunction; Tubera is one of two in the injunction.
But residents in south Modesto and community groups welcome the new anti-gang strategy and want gangbangers off their streets.
Jose Reyes, 53, has lived in south Modesto for three years. He lives in a small house near Bret Harte Elementary School, a few blocks north from where gangland gunfire killed a man on his way to buy diapers in March 2007.
He has two large dogs to deter burglars, and he said he sees gangsters loitering in front of his house all the time. He said it's a harsh reality, so he welcomes any effort that can relieve the tension.
"For me, it's a good thing; it's magnificent," Reyes said in Spanish about the injunction. "I just try to stay out of any disputes. I think things can change."
Maggie Mejia is a representative from Commerciantes Unidos, a group of businesses along Crows Landing Road in south Modesto. She also works with Latino commu- nity groups in organizing public events that educate parents about gang violence and the dangers to their children.
"Whatever works with law enforcement to clean up south Modesto we will support it," Mejia said. "We have a lot of gangs in Modesto, and we need to get rid of them."
Judge's approval temporary
The district attorney's office, however, has to get past some legal hurdles before officials start enforcing the injunction.
A judge has given temporary approval of the injunction, and the 20 defendants will get a chance to contest the proposed injunction at a hearing scheduled for Thursday. If the judge issues a preliminary injunction, the enforcement will begin.
More than half of the defendants have been notified to appear in court Thursday if they want to challenge the injunction. Authorities could not find the other men, but investigators left phone messages and told family members to pass along the word.
The injunction bans those named in it from gathering in public, wearing gang colors and engaging in gang activity, and includes other prohibitions.
Gang injunctions have been used in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, the Sacramento area and Fresno. Some law enforcement officials have seen fewer crimes, while others saw gang activity relocate to areas outside the injunction zone.
More injunctions planned
Fladager said her office chose south Modesto because it was the most plagued by gangs and their violence. She said prosecutors hope to file other gang injunctions in the county.
For more than a year, the district attorney's office gathered research, collected crime data and interviewed residents to build a case against the Deep South Side Norteños. Its members are mostly Latino, wear red and spray-paint "DSSN" and other gang lingo to mark their turf.
"Gang activity and criminal activity has just exploded here," said Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira, who was assigned to build the case against the gang and argue for the injunction in court. "There are high calls for service in this area for nuisance offenses."
Some of the defendants already are in custody, while a few others are fugitives. Some of them live within the injunction zone, while others live just outside the zone.
Froilan Mariscal, an investigator with the district attorney's office, said the men listed in the injunction have extensive criminal records and are considered the "more hard-core members."
"These are probably the poster children for the gang," he said.
Mariscal has been assigned to the Central Valley Gang Impact Task Force for the past five years and helped build the injunction's foundation.
Tattoos show dedication
Authorities gathered photos of the defendants and their tattoos that display their dedication to the gang.
Their bodies are scrawled with their street monikers and names for the gang, which gangbangers change to confuse law enforcement. Mariscal said the gang also is known on the street as Deep South Side Modesto, Deep South Side Youngsters and Deep South Side Locos.
Mariscal said one of the men listed in the injunction has the gang's name tattooed around his ring finger to "symbolize they are married to the gang and have made a lifetime commitment."
The neighborhood is clouded in an atmosphere of fear. Many residents don't talk to the cops, let their kids play outside after dusk or speak openly about gangs to outsiders.
The neighborhood is overwhelmingly Latino, reflected by the Spanish that is spoken there and the Mexican culture along its main commercial strip. About 19,000 people live in the neighborhood, according to authorities.
It's a neighborhood filled with contrasts.
Unincorporated county islands are surrounded by city blocks inside Modesto's city limit. Some streets have sidewalks with curbs and rain gutters; others don't. Small houses along dusty streets sit near subdivisions of two-story tract homes with green lawns.
Some people move into the neighborhood and work hard for a better life for their families in a new country and stay because it's all they can afford. Other families have called the neighborhood home for decades and wonder how things got so bad.
The one commonality that binds them is their fear of gangs.
Gang graffiti is spray-painted throughout south Modesto. Gangbangers use walls, fences, garage doors and pretty much anything else as billboards to elevate their status, recruit members and to mark rivals for violent retribution.
Some residents line the tops of their fences with razor wire to keep intruders out. Vacant homes are used as hideouts for gangbangers to buy, sell or use drugs.
The injunction, however, only covers gang activity within the "safety zone." For instance, one of the men in the injunction can walk over to the neighborhood east of Crows Landing Road, wear his gang colors, congregate with other gang members and act as a lookout without fear of punishment.
Benito Torres, 71, has lived in that neighborhood for more than four decades, and he worries the injunction will increase gang activity near his home.
"I don't think my neighbors would be too happy about that," Torres said. "We want to have some control over the gang activity in our neighborhood. We don't want to open the door to more of it."
Torres says he is in favor of the gang injunction, but he wishes his neighborhood would be covered by it. He is one of the organizers who has led a resurgent Neighborhood Watch group.
The residents are working together and with law enforcement to thwart criminals, and they have reclaimed Parklawn Neighborhood Park.
Prosecutor Ferreira said she recognizes that gang activity can move, but it's not likely. Investigators say the Deep South Side Norteños are "very territorial" and feel a sense of security committing crimes in their neighborhood, where victims and witnesses have been reluctant to talk to authorities for fear of retaliation.
"They are very attached to their homes and their area," Ferreira said.
Fladager, the district attorney, said prosecutors expect to see some results about a year after the injunction is granted. She said they'll gather crime data for neighborhoods and speak to residents to learn if the injunction worked.
If the preliminary injunction is granted, police officers and sheriff's deputies will hit the streets with detailed information on each gang member in the injunction, including photos, descriptions and aliases.
Gang investigators from Modesto police, the Sheriff's Department and the countywide task force also will be on the lookout for the men listed in the injunction.
Investigator Mariscal said he has spoken with many residents about law enforcement's attempts to loosen the gang's grip on the neighborhood.
"To them, it's like a dream," Mariscal said about residents' hopes for a gang-free neighborhood. "It would alleviate a lot of their problems. They're the ones that see it every day."
A TIPSHEET ON GANGS
Street gangs are loosely structured and influenced by prison gangs that "tax" the profits from criminal activity. They may engage in organized crime, such as drug sales, or spontaneous acts of violence to take revenge on an enemy or show who controls a neighborhood.
Associates often have to fight, or commit a crime, to become gang members. Those who leave the gang usually fade away over time, by getting a job or starting a family of their own or simply avoiding gang activities.
Gang members challenge rivals by flashing a hand sign, showing a tattoo or asking a potential rival if they bang. Something as simple as a hard stare, known as mad-dogging, can be enough to start a fight. Fights can turn deadly because most gang members carry guns.
Most gang members come from troubled homes and view the gang as their family.
In California, Latino gangs mainly are split between Norteños and Sureños.
A group of inmates at Folsom State Prison formed Nuestra Familia, Our Family, in 1968 because they wanted to strike back at the Mexican Mafia. New prisoners from Northern California were recruited, while inmates from Southern California stuck with the established gang.
On the streets, gang members and associates identify themselves as Norteños or Sureños, an indication of which group they will join if they go to prison. By the late 1970s, the dividing line between the north and south was Delano, near Bakersfield.
Norteños wear red and often have tattoos with XIV or four dots, referring to the 14th letter of the alphabet, which is N. Other gang tattoos include a five-pointed star, symbolizing the north, and the eagle used by the United Farm Workers. Some tattoos are earned by assaulting or murdering a Sureño.
The Mexican Mafia formed at Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in the mid-1950s, so Latino inmates could challenge whites who controlled the prison drug trade. Also known as La Eme, the gang patterned itself after the Italian Mafia.
To join, inmates have to be Mexican and stab a rival on behalf of the gang. Sureños are not supposed to snitch or commit homosexual acts. Parolees explain the north-south divide to youngsters, who are expected to pick a side.
Sureños wear blue and often have tattoos with SUR or XIII or X3 or three dots, referring to the 13th letter of the alphabet, or M. Other tattoos associated with Sureños are MM for Mexican Mafia, or a black hand copied from the Italian Mafia.
The north-south war heated up in 1988, when a top-ranking Norteño, Robert Gratton of Modesto, now an author and gang dropout, released a CD called "GUN," which stood for Generations of United Norteños. Rap-style songs told Norteños to stop fighting each other and channel their aggression toward the Sureños.
As a term of probation or parole, people who have been convicted of gang-related crimes may be required to register with local authorities, may be banned from wearing gang-related clothing or associating with gang members. Violations send them back to jail or prison.
Gang members often wear football jerseys and baseball caps. Some shave their heads while others shave the sides of their heads and keep a long ponytail. Even in hot weather, they will wear long shorts and socks so their skin doesn't show; a style that began in prison when a show of skin was a sign that a person was homosexual.
Norteños refer to Sureños as "scraps," "sewer rats" and "moscas" -- terms that refer to their Southern California roots or immigration status.
Sureños refer to Norteños as "busters," "sod busters," "chapas" or "chapetes" -- terms that refer to their agricultural roots in Northern California.
Sources: Froilan Mariscal, gang investigator for the
Stanislaus County district attorney's office;
Know Gangs, a Wisconsin-based interest group run by a former Modesto police officer
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.