Stanislaus County law enforcement leaders are looking for a new neighborhood to target with a gang injunction, a legal strategy they credit with disrupting crime in south Modesto.
Building a case for a new injunction, however, could take years because budget constraints are limiting law enforcement resources and manpower, officials from the district attorney's office said.
They're pleased with the results of the injunction they placed on a south Modesto gang seven months ago to curb the movements and behavior of more than 50 documented gang members.
That's why they want to expand the injunction to a different neighborhood where other gangs operate. Three areas are on the short list, with west Modesto rising to the top.
"Just based on what I know about that neighborhood, that's a very likely place for the next gang injunction zone," said district attorney investigator Froilan Mariscal.
A gang injunction is a civil lawsuit used by Stanislaus County authorities to limit activities of specific gang members within the zone.
If gang members are caught engaging in any of 14 banned behaviors inside the "safety zone," they're arrested and charged with contempt of court. The violation is a misdemeanor with a penalty of six months in jail and three years of probation.
Residents in west Modesto struggle with gang activity, intimidation and retaliation on a daily basis, as do residents in the south Modesto injunction zone.
But there is a difference between the neighborhoods. West Modesto has rival gang members living in the same neighborhood. One block can be claimed as turf by Norteños, and another block just a few streets away is claimed by Sureños.
"It's a battleground for territory," Mariscal said.
The neighborhood also has gang members from different groups within the same gang, who sometimes fight with each other over the right to sell drugs on certain street corners.
The district attorney's office could seek an injunction that encompasses multiple rival gangs and gang groups in one neighborhood.
"It just depends on if we have enough evidence to prove it in court," Mariscal said.
Modesto City Councilman Dave Geer represents the areas in the gang injunction zone in south Modesto and the west Modesto neighborhood targeted for a new injunction. He said he realizes an injunction in west Modesto is still a few years away, but just discussing the possibility could produce some positive results.
"We've got to do something to get these gangbangers to back off," Geer said. "Just the threat of the injunction might be enough to get these guys to fly straight."
The district attorney's office is considering two other areas for the next injunction zone: Modesto's airport neighborhood and the unincorporated neighborhood north of East Hatch Road and east of Highway 99 between Modesto and Ceres.
Mariscal said he favors west Modesto because of "the amount of gang members, the reports of crime, the quality of life and the concentrated gang activity in that area."
Modesto police Capt. Mike Harris said west Modesto would top his list, but the airport neighborhood could use the gang injunction as well.
Harris said west Modesto and the airport neighborhood each have many hardworking residents who live in fear of gangs.
"I wish we could do (gang injunctions) everywhere," Harris said. "It has to go where the biggest problem is. We can't just arbitrarily pick an area."
Harris said a new injunction zone in west Modesto could include the area bordered by Highway 99, Carpenter Road, Maze Boulevard and the Tuolumne River. But he said creating boundaries would be up to the district attorney's office, which would spearhead the effort for a new gang injunction.
Investigators and prosecutors would have to analyze crime statistics, gather feedback from neighborhood residents and review gang intelligence before the district attorney's office could make a choice.
Once that happens, Mariscal said the district attorney's office would begin to build a case against the gang members to be listed in the injunction.
That process is extensive and time-consuming. Launching into another gang injunction in the next few years would be a tall order for prosecutors and investigators who are dealing with increasing caseloads and tighter budgets.
"To get a new gang injunction within the next two years would be a miracle," Mariscal said. " ... There's just not enough resources right now."
Mariscal and Deputy District Attorney Marlisa Ferreira were the key architects in building the case against the Deep South Side Norteños.
It took them more than a year before the civil case appeared in court. Ferreira argued the gang was terrorizing the south Modesto neighborhood west of Crows Landing Road and south of the Tuolumne River.
The district attorney's office won its case, and now the injunction makes it illegal for 53 members of the gang to hang out together, wear gang colors, go out after 10 p.m. or engage in other gang-related activities in the 2.5-square-mile area.
Prosecutors have identified 11 other active members of the gang who will be served with the injunction. The gang has an estimated 150 members.
As in south Modesto, city officials hope a gang injunction will inspire west Modesto residents to take back their neighborhood.
Modesto City Councilman Dave Lopez said it seems like a natural progression to seek a gang injunction in west Modesto. The area's Weed and Seed program has established a network of volunteers who have worked to fight blight and crime in the neighborhood.
"It would be great to bring a gang injunction to the west side and regain the neighborhood for the citizens," Lopez said. "There's an army of citizens ready to take back the streets."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.