State

Prosecutor hopes public spurred to action

As veteran gang prosecutor Tom Brennan sees it, the drive-by shooting of a 22-month-old boy is a sad fact of life in a neighborhood where gang violence is a chronic problem.

He said he hopes the case of Josue Becerra sparks the conscience of the community, prompting reluctant witnesses to come forward as parents take time out to remind their youngsters that there is no reason to fight over red and blue.

But he said he knows the tragedy could be forgotten as the shock wears off, with new youngsters filling in the ranks of local street gangs even as arrests are made, convictions obtained and sentences imposed.

Either way, the deputy district attorney will play his part in the war on gangs, charging minors as adults if they shoot guns, then telling Stanislaus County Superior Court juries that gang members are amoral monsters who live for the moment and don't care whom they hurt.

The big difference between the gang-on-gang violence that happens every weekend -- and the shooting of a toddler who was playing in front of his west Modesto home -- is that the public will care.

"This is one of those perfect storms for the media," Brennan said.

Most of the gang violence in the region stems from a war among Latino gangs, as Sureños from Southern California, who claim blue, move into territory that traditionally has been controlled by Norteños, or Northerners, who claim red.

The gangs, which formed in prison, "tax" the profits of criminal activity. Some have ties to Mexican drug cartels that control the methamphetamine trade. And it's not uncommon for innocent bystanders to be caught in the crossfire.

According to booking records maintained by the Sheriff's Department, 20 of the 81 people awaiting trial or sentencing on murder charges allegedly committed their crimes to benefit their gang.

Media attention worries some

Like most defense attorneys, Public Defender Tim Bazar said he worries when a case receives a lot of media attention, because jurors are expected to set their emotions aside and act as impartial judges of the facts.

Bazar said the gang problem is scary because too many young men have easy access to guns and no jobs to keep them busy. But he gave a reminder that violent crime has been decreasing since the mid-1990s.

"The big picture is that our community is becoming safer," Bazar said.

According to the California Department of Justice, Stanislaus County had 2,079 violent crimes in 1996, including homicide, rape, robbery and assault. By 2005, that number was down to 1,602.

Experts agree that the lure of gangs is a persistent problem.

James Hernandez, a former Pittsburg police officer and criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento, said youngsters who have trouble at home and do poorly in school are most at risk, because they find comfort in the macho lifestyle that gangs promote.

He warned that law enforcement alone won't solve Becerra's case.

"As long as you're just busting them, you're going to get replacements," Hernandez said. "You have to cut down on the supply, too."

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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