Gangs outrage city but fear is stronger

Manuel Chapa diligently calls authorities to have gang graffiti removed from the fence behind his south Modesto home, or he paints over it himself, said his wife, Anita.

One day the graffiti was different.

"You can't stop me. I won't stop," the scrawled message read.

"We feel very helpless," Anita Estrada Chapa said. "I get the feeling they are taking over. Obviously, we are intimidated by it."

"Those guys have guns. We don't," Raymond Castro said.

Castro is the chairman of the South Modesto Municipal Advisory Council, a group formed to act as a liaison between the county and residents. Estrada Chapa is the vice chairwoman.

They said the gang violence in south and west Modesto will get worse before it gets better, though it's hard to imagine getting worse than shooting a 22-month-old playing in his yard, as happened Friday in west Modesto. Hours later, a 14-year-old San Jose boy was shot dead and a 15-year-old wounded, also in west Modesto.

"That's scrubbing the bottom of the barrel," Castro said of the toddler's injuries.

As horrifying as the shooting of little Josue Becerra was, it won't stop the paralyzing fear that prevents people from cooperating with law enforcement officers, community activists say.

"People are only speaking about it behind closed doors," said Maggie Mejia of the Crows Landing Road group Comerciantes Unidos.

"You can call the sheriff, and hopefully they will show up," Castro said. "But what happens when they take off? You are a target. People aren't going to say nothing."

Many who might come forward don't because they have children they fear for, Castro said.

"There are a lot of good people here. But a lot of good people are afraid, too. ... I get depressed, I get upset. I tell people that it's our neighborhood, we should help take care of it. But they don't. They are scared. I can't blame them if they have a family. I'm not going to ask them to risk their lives or their family."

"It's a war zone," Estrada Chapa said. "I'm 78 years old. If I had young children, I would not live here. You can't step out the door."

'Gangs prey on weakness'

Community activists say the problem will remain until people are willing to step out the door together and face what's happening on their streets.

When people close their doors to crimes in progress rather than witness and deal with them, criminals are allowed to terrorize neighborhoods, said Hispanic Leadership Council President Balvino Irizarry.

"Gangs prey on weakness,"Irizarry said. "When they see people don't stand up for themselves and pretend nothing is happening, that's (a gang member's) ticket to continue."

Central Baptist Church pastor and west side advocate Wayne Bridegroom said he figures every silent person has a hand in the problem when they could be the solution.

"Nobody dares get involved in anyone else's life. But somewhere along the line, residents as a group need to step up and say we are tired of this and we're not going to take it anymore," Bridegroom said.

Police investigators are happy to receive anonymous tips if people are concerned about safety. There are many ways to share information without endangering yourself, Modesto police Sgt. Jeramy Young said. In addition to CrimeStoppers and direct calls to detectives who are working on homicide cases, people can leave messages for the Street Crimes Unit, which deals daily with gang activity, about where gang members live or where they're hanging out.

"A lot of people are concerned with retaliation and concerned about coming forward," Young said. "We can have a conversation over the phone. We can meet at a restaurant, or you can come down to the station to talk if you're worried about officers coming by your house. I don't need to put your name out there. I don't even need to know your name."

Young said the recent violence, though tragic, provides an opportunity for change.

"When there's no shootings, no violence, it falls back in people's minds unless it's happening in their neighborhood," he said. "When things are violent and when people are getting hurt, everyone is very concerned and wants to help. That's when we get a lot of our information."

Don't let go of the outrage

One of the city and county's primary resources in the west Modesto neighborhood where Josue was shot is the Weed and Seed Committee, which uses federal grants to bring together residents, churches and government officials.

Without a suspect to blame, Weed and Seed Vice Chairman Bob Schmal points to the enabler.

"It was apathy on the part of the city, county and community that has created this mess," he said.

Marvin Jacobo, ministry coordinator for Modesto's Youth Ministry Network, also is part of the committee. He grew up in west Modesto and spends time mentoring young people in the neighborhood.

"People need to continue to be outraged at this thing, and not throw rocks and blame, but ask, 'What can we do together?' " he said.

"There's some incredible children in the neighborhood," Jacobo said. "But there is that spirit of fear in the neighborhood. We've got to continue to let people know they can speak, and together we can begin to make a difference."

John Ervin, director of community affairs for Modesto City Schools, spent Saturday speaking with residents in west and south Modesto about Friday's shootings.

"It's just been a lot of talk about what people are going to do about this situation. It's just bad. People don't feel safe," Ervin said.

"Most people were worried more about what we're going to do as a community than what the police are going to do. ... Because the police can't be everywhere," he added. "People know the perpetrators or have some information ... and no one is coming forward."

The sense of urgency that some members of the community feel today is fragile.

"Within a year, everybody will have forgotten about it," said James Hernandez, a former Pittsburg police officer who is a professor at California State University, Sacramento.

"We've seen this before," Ervin said. "We've seen the battle cry for 'We need to do something.' There's a spark, but the minute the spark goes away, nothing else really happens."

Bee staff writers Merrill Balassone, Susan Herendeen and Emilie

Raguso contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at or 578-2349, Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at or 578-2366 and Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at or 578-2382.

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