Rodrigo Molina and Eriberto Barajas were riding in a school bus in August talking about their days on competing high school track teams.
The teenagers were new cadets at the Stanislaus Military Academy and were getting reacquainted as they traveled to pick up their military uniforms.
But they also had a dangerous link. Once members of rival gangs, Molina was ordered to kill Barajas about a year before they encountered each other at the academy.
Molina, 19, never carried out that order, and he and Barajas, 16, since have formed a friendship that goes beyond gang colors and turf wars.
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"I see him like a little brother now," Molina said. "I'm happy I actually got to know him."
The pair also have become successful examples for other academy cadets looking for a way out of a criminal life in which they always have to watch their backs.
Stanislaus County Office of Education officials opened the academy in August, offering at-risk students an education in an environment of discipline and structure.
County Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon hoped the academy would offer the cadets an alternative to joining gangs.
"The military structure, it brings down those preconceptions about other people," Changnon said. "They learn more about each other."
The cadets say they receive from the academy the structure and respect they once sought from gangs.
Teens that once were destined for prison or an early, violent death now have plans to graduate from high school and hopes for a career that doesn't involve crime.
Following cousin's example
Molina's life was heading in the opposite direction several years ago. Originally from the San Jose area, he grew to idolize his older cousin.
At age 8, he became intoxicated with the life his 17-year-old cousin lived as a gang member in San Jose. Molina followed his cousin around as he was greeted by people who knew he was in a gang.
"Everywhere I went with him, everyone respected him," Molina said. "I was always around gangs. They just had so much power."
Molina eventually joined his cousin's gang, which ordered him several times to "take out" rival gang members. He said he never killed anyone, choosing fistfights instead.
"I was just too scared," he said.
The street fights created problems for his family as rival gang members started showing up at his home, he said. The danger was too much for his father, so the family moved to Turlock.
He had started distancing himself from gang life by then, focusing on amateur boxing and running for Turlock High's track team. But his education suffered another setback when family problems made him leave his dad's home and stay with relatives in Mexico.
He missed most of his sophomore year and part of his junior year. When he returned, he was sent to Turlock's alternative John B. Allard Community School to catch up. Although he wanted to improve at school, he said he had trouble controlling his temper.
"When I would get mad, I would sock the walls and doors here at the school," Molina said.
He jumped at the chance to join the academy, he said, hoping it would provide the discipline he needed to regain focus and confront his problem with anger.
It was hard at first getting used to drill sergeants yelling at him, but he said it became easier once he realized they were just trying to get him to do things right.
Molina is a master sergeant at the academy, in charge of disciplining other cadets, including those who become involved in gang-related fights.
There have been some fights between cadets, but Molina said cadets are pulled aside and told they have to leave their gang squabbles behind.
Molina wants to attend Modesto Junior College to study fire science in hopes of becoming a firefighter. He also wants to enlist in the Marines for 10 years.
Molina's friend Barajas plans to attend MJC after earning his high school diploma.
Barajas said his attitude toward school has changed dramatically because he can pay attention to the teacher. He no longer has to look over his shoulder and wonder if a gang rival in class is looking for a fight.
"I actually want to wake up and go to school now," said Barajas, who lives in Modesto. "I never thought this could happen to me."
In the academy, the cadets put on their green fatigues and leave their gang colors behind, becoming neutral in an ongoing street war.
"We sit rival gang members in the same class. That might be the biggest step forward for them," said Capt. Raymond Gibson, who served in the Army for 10 years, taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and serves as the academy's company commander.
The academy has former members of the Norteños and Sureños, two Latino street gangs whose members battle across the state for turf and criminal profits. Gang experts have said Latino teens seek a sense of family from gangs.
Quarrels have abated
Their quarrels were known to spill over at Allard, but Principal Alberto Velarde said the academy has changed the violent atmosphere on campus. Last year, the school constantly was locked down because fights erupted between rival gang members.
Many of the students at the school are on probation for committing crimes, so campus officials often were calling probation officers and sheriff's deputies to quell the violence.
"It's different now. The students are engaged (in learning)," Velarde said.
The fights on campus now are few and far between, Velarde said, and the attitude toward the cadets has changed. When they first started marching around in their uniforms, other students on campus would mock the cadets.
"There was a lot of people laughing, saying we're dumb for doing it," Barajas said about his first weeks as a cadet. "I just had to take it in and see how far I could go with it."
A lot of the students who once were teasing the cadets are now cadets themselves. Jasmine Barraga, 17, of Turlock was one of those students.
Her parents divorced when she was 11. Barraga said she became rebellious and ran away.
She became pregnant at 14, but her son died soon after birth. The loss sent her into a downward spiral and she became associated with a gang. She was expelled from Turlock High about four years ago for fighting.
"I hit rock bottom," Barraga said. "I dedicated my life to drugs and violence. They don't know why my son died. I still have a lot of unanswered questions and anger."
She thought the academy could help her but wasn't sure she would be able to follow orders from a drill sergeant when she didn't listen to her parents.
She said there's discipline in her life now that she never had.
Barraga gets straight A's and has a job. She used to fight over anything, but now can take criticism.
She's a platoon leader and sees things in a different way: "When my platoon doesn't listen to me, I know how my parents felt. I know how my teachers felt when I wouldn't listen to them."
She wants to enlist in the Marines and go to college to research genetic birth defects.
Through the academy, Barraga said, she has developed the skills and confidence to stand on her own and stay away from gangs. Though most of the cadets have a past with rival gangs, she says they all find a way to unite.
"When you're in SMA, it's not about which gang you're in," Barraga said. "You come together."
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at 578-2394 or email@example.com.