Rival gangs compete for territory, recruits
Daily News Staff Writer
December 20, 2005
Peninsula residents may not realize it, but they’re living in the middle of two turf wars: one for their streets and another for their kids.
Hundreds of local young men and women claim fealty to two rival gangs, one with deep roots in the Bay Area — and the other seeking to move in. This year alone, tensions between those gangs, the Nortenos (Northerners) and the Surenos (Southerners), led to at least 15 homicides on the Peninsula and dozens of assaults, shootings and carckings.
Just before the violence erupted this summer, residents in many neighborhoods noted a spike in gang-related graffiti, as members “tagged” cars, walls and street signs with their individual marks: N, 14 or XIV for the Nortenos, M, 13 or VIII for the Surenos. Gang members wear these marks as well, getting their hands and bodies tattooed with numerals or dots — three or four on one hand, and one on the other, according to Redwood City Police acting Sgt. Mark Pollio, head of that city’s street-crimes team.
In both cases, the tags are a sign that a gang is staking its claim.
“It appears there are more Surenos moving into town and there’s an ongoing conflict between them and the Nortenos,” Pollio said. “Redwood City has been mostly a Norteno town.”
In East Palo Alto, 13 homicides had been committed by suspected gang members by the Labor Day weekend, prompting curfews for all residents under the age of 18. Three were killed in gang-related incidents in Redwood City this summer, including Victor Barajas, a 16-year-old who was killed in a retaliatory attack on Heller Street Aug. 22.
“This is essentially a low-crime area,” said San Mateo County Sheriff Don Horsley. “We don’t compare to San Francisco, but we have seen a significant, for us, increase.”
This fall, local police departments began to teach residents how to identify gangs, partly to quell fears about their activities, and partly to help parents detect signs that their children might be interested in joining.
A sudden interest in wearing nothing but red clothing suggests an association with Nortenos, blue with Surenos. For this reason, many local schools banned both colors on school grounds in the fall.
But it takes more than colors and numbers to create gang allegiance, according to police. The California penal code describes a gang as having an ongoing association of at least three members who have a common name or sign, and who engage in criminal activity. That activity ranges from drug sales and burglary to kidnapping and homicide.
People join gangs for good reasons, according to Redwood City Det. Dan Smith. Larger gangs are structured and organized, providing discipline, protection, support and friendship to youth who may feel they don’t have other options.
“Immigrant children come into our schools and have a tough time keeping up,” Horsley said. “When they fall behind, they feel there’s nothing for them. The gang is something that makes them feel important and empowered and that has tremendous allure.”
That allure doesn’t just affect youths in poor neighborhoods — there are members in Portola Valley, according to Horsley. But it does seem to be reaching younger and younger children.
“Kids are being recruited earlier, at our middle schools, both boys and girls,” according to San Mateo County probation officer Tim Gatto.
And they have an array of gangs to choose from, primarily based on territory. In Redwood City alone nearly a dozen subfactions vie for members, including the Norteno-based Little Mexico Gang, Rolison Road Gang and North Side Locas, and the Sureno-based Heller Street Boys and Carnales Locos Surenos. The Tongan Crips are also aligned with the Surenos, according to Pollio.
San Mateo offers other neighborhood-based gangs, including West Side 18th Street, West Side Tonga and the Shoreview Eastside Crips, according to Fred Haney, supervisor for the San Mateo Police Department’s neighborhood response team.
Unlike in Redwood City and East Palo Alto, gang tensions declined in San Mateo in 2005, Haney said. That city’s violence was contained to a pair of non-fatal drive-by shootings and an assault on North Amphlett, long a hotbed of gang activity in San Mateo.
“We have been fortunate,” Haney said.
San Mateo saw a spike in gang activity in the early to mid 1990s, declining in the latter part of the decade as older members left gang life and established families. Violence surged again in 2003 and 2004, but didn’t reach the levels of a decade ago, Haney said.
He attributed the decline to a truce between the city’s two major gangs, West Side Mateo and West Side 18th Street. “It’s been very effective.”
Gang strife rises and falls from year to year, but also from season to season. It often spikes in the summer months, then declines as younger members return to school or full-time work, according to Haney.
This year, law-enforcement efforts put more anti-gang officers on the streets, and the county task force arrested 190 known active gang members for new offenses or parole violations, along with 44 mid- to high-level drug dealers, according to Horsley.
“We have seen a noticeable decrease,” he said. “Crime dropped 40 to 60 percent.”
Those suppession efforts will continue through the winter, according to Horsley. As existing gang members are removed from the streets, new recruits are popping up all the time, owing to their appeal as well as the way gang life is portrayed in popular music, videos and films.
“I’m not going to blame music for everything, but if you look at MTV, it glamorizes gang life,” Horsley said.
This article originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily News.