Pubdate: Sun, 24 Feb 2002
Source: Santa Maria Times (CA)
Copyright: 2002 Santa Maria Times
Contact: 1-805-928-5657
Author: Heidi Laurenzano
Note: Staff writers Jamine Marshall and Rick Tuttle contributed to this story.

Series: Gangs: Behind The Headlines: Part 1 of  5


Longtime residents know there have been gangs on the Central Coast since 
the 1950s. Yes, even here in the idyllic part of California that seems far 
away from the type of urban crime that plagues areas such as Los Angeles 
just 200 miles away.

And though media reports over the decades linking gang members to shootings 
and drug trafficking have highlighted the more sensational incidents 
related to gang activity here, the fact is the problem is cyclical.

Deaths suffered at the hands of gang members climaxed in the mid-to late 
1990s with three shootings in one year. All the shootings were motivated by 
a long-standing turf rivalry between Santa Maria and Guadalupe gangs.

After a 1997 murder at Waller Park in Santa Maria, Santa Barbara County 
Superior Court Judge James Jennings pleaded for a stop to the violence.

"An accident of fate makes one person live in Santa Maria, the other in 
Guadalupe," said Jennings.

Since that time, many have worked to diffuse the rash of gang-related 
crime, including lawmakers and law enforcement agencies. New legislation 
and the formation of gang task forces, coupled with a better economy, have 
helped lower the gang-related crime rate.

Throughout the years, there has remained a constant of largely nonviolent 
gang activity on the Central Coast, peppered with periodic violent crimes 
committed by gang members, many from the Los Angeles area.

For the most part, the most violent gang offenders don't live on the 
Central Coast. They're mostly associates or "wannabes," based on the basic 
lack of nonviolent crimes they commit.

According to Urban Dynamics, a gang research organization, wannabes are at 
the fifth level of the gang structure. The first through fourth, in order, 
are leaders, hard-core members, associates and fringe members.

Those who stick to associate and wannabe status are involved in "cliques" 
according to Urban Dynamics.

"Very seldom is the gang at full strength," the report said. "Exceptions to 
this  would be times of conflict " The handful of shootings and robberies 
committed in the region over the past 30 years serve as proof of this 

Jennings, a criminal court judge for 35 years in Santa Maria until 1997, 
said he was always reluctant to sentence reputed local gang members to the 
California Youth Authority. Instead, he sentenced them to a boys camp, 
juvenile hall or probation. Jennings said he feared sending Santa Maria and 
Lompoc youths to CYA because he didn't think they could defend themselves 
against the big city gang members.

"The gangs around here aren't nearly as tough  " Jennings said.

A major gang activity on the Central Coast is the sale of drugs, which 
provides a way to make money.

Methamphetamine and marijuana are the most popular illicit drugs sold by 
gang members. The older or hard-core gang members buy or make the largest 
amounts of meth and sell to those who divide up the drug into smaller 
units, said a source at the San Luis Obispo County Gang Task Force who 
requested anonymity. The drugs go through four or so levels before they 
make it to the street level.

"It's not going to go away," the source said. "They make a whole lot of money."

Drugs are also firmly entrenched in gang culture. For example, a lyric from 
a Santa Maria rap band called Central Coast Clique says, "Keep dropping 
hits and taking toasts. Drinking sh--, and pumpin' out smoke." Hits is 
likely a reference to smoking marijuana.

Young people join gangs for a multitude of reasons. Law enforcers from 
Lompoc to the Five Cities said inner-family, multi-generational gang 
membership is one of the No. 1 reasons young people get involved in gangs. 
Others factors include being latchkey children in single-parent households 
and seeking approval, a sense of belonging and leadership opportunities.

Starting in the mid-to late 1990s, members started getting younger and younger.

"We're finding that many gangs are recruiting (members) from junior high 
(schools)," said Ed Lupo, a law enforcement instructor at Hancock College.

Sources also said the younger gang members are committing more serious crimes.

"The difference in 12-year-olds in the 1970s and 12-year-olds now is night 
and day," said Foster. He said some of the crimes include assaults with 
deadly weapons and drug trafficking.

Foster said they're getting involved at the behest of older members because 
they don't fear punishment. They know they won't receive harsh adult 
sentences such as that provided under the three strikes law, he said.

Other minors don't see serving time at juvenile hall as harsh punishment. 
Foster said some would rather stay there than at home. And when they're 
older and they commit the same caliber of crime, they don't understand 
what's in store for them when they're sent to state prison.

The incidence of female gang involvement is also on the rise, said Lt. 
Larry Davis of the San Luis Obispo Sheriff's Department. He said he's 
seeing more girls engage in narcotic offenses, running away from home and 
lashing out at parents and at school in a violent manner.

Davis blames much of the problem on parents not being there, or being gang 
members themselves.

Crimes committed over the years illustrate just how much gang activity and 
membership has changed over the years.

Turf wars in the 1980s to mid 1990s used to be the gang-related crime of 
choice as opposed to drug trafficking. Since then, dealing drugs has become 
the most popular gang-related crime.

Central Coast gang members may commit a lot of the same types of crimes, 
but the number of gangs in each city varies.

The court system has identified three active gangs in the Santa Maria 
Valley, said Cpl. Craig Ritz of the Santa Maria Police Department's Gang 
Task Force. Two active gangs have been located in southern San Luis Obispo 
County. Three active gangs have been identified in Lompoc, said Sgt Tom 
Walton, a member of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department 
problem-oriented policing unit.

Lompoc police Chief William F. Brown Jr. explained that the gangs in his 
city fall into on e of three categories. The first is made up of imported 
members of gangs. Brown explained that parents who try to stop their 
children from participating in gangs move from urban to more rural areas, 
thinking this will solve the problem. What often ends up happening is the 
child continues the gang behavior and finds new gang members to associate 
with in the new community.

The second category is generational, also common in Santa Maria and 
southern San Luis Obispo County. The third category involves urban gangs 
expanding enterprises into rural communities, said Brown.

The latter type is also cropping up throughout the United States. Between 
the 1970s and 1990s, gangs started spreading to states and rural areas that 
had never seen gang activity before, according to a recent Department of 
Justice study. Gang growth occurred most markedly during that time period 
in Florida, Washington and Indiana. California came in 19th.

Ed Miller, head of Santa Maria's FBI field office, said he thinks urban 
gang members might see rural communities as ripe places to commit crimes.

Three violent incidents were committed within the past five years on the 
Central Coast by urban gang members, including the 1997 murder of a woman 
at the Vandenberg Federal Credit Union Branch in Lompoc, and two Los Padres 
National Bank armed robberies in the summer of 2000 in Pismo Beach and 
Atascadero. Most recently, a reputed gang member from Los Angeles shot a 
man outside a nightclub in Santa Barbara in December.

Miller said suspects, while driving on Highway 101 corridor, might see the 
Central Coast as vulnerable.

"There may be some opportunity, some vulnerability," he said. Miller also 
pointed out that gang members traveling from Los Angeles to the Bay Area 
may, for whatever reason, decide to pull off the freeway and rob a bank.

That's about the only contact the Central Coast has with genuine, 
inner-city gang members. Two law enforcers in southern San Luis Obispo 
County, however, said there's some relationship between urban gangs and 
those in their area.

Foster said there are some links of drug cartels and organized crime 
between the Mexican mafia and local gangs. Incarcerated Mexican mafia 
leaders are capable of directing gangs from behind bars because of their 
power and influence over gang members, said Davis.

Another less-active type of gang on the Central Coast has ties to white 
supremacy. Walton said they're not very organized and haven't been 
criminally active lately.

Mongolian gangs were common in Lompoc in the mid 1970s, but moved out after 
marrying women outside of the gangs, said Jennings.

Overall, gang activity has been decreasing in recent years. Experts cited 
several reasons, including new, tough state laws and a better economy.

One of the best tools law enforcement has at their disposal is California 
Penal Code Section 186.33, also known as the gang enhancement statute.

The statute, passed in 1993, can add eight years or more to prison 
sentences for 25 different crimes, including fights, graffiti, retaliation 
and turf violence, armed robberies and burglaries.

For example, a carjacking sentence without the gang enhancement lasts eight 
to 10 years, said Ritz. With the gang enhancement, the sentence can be 15 
years or more.

Another lifesaver for law enforcement has been the three-strikes law, 
police officials said. Foster said gang member usually don't have much of a 
problem serving limited sentences, but longer ones aren't as tolerable.

"I've had gang members look me in the face and say, 'You broke our back,'" 
said Foster.

Technology is also helping law enforcement keep track of gang members, Ritz 
said. Calgangs. An online database accessible by all agencies, keeps 
records of each and every person suspected of being a gang member.

Gang members giving false identities don't get too far, Ritz said. The 
database is searchable not only by name, but also by tattoo image and 
location. The feature serves as a very helpful identifier, he explained.

Special probation orders are also helping to clean up problem areas of 
Santa Maria, Ritz aid.  A few years ago, judges started ordering 
probationers to stay out of the West Newlove area. That area is no longer 
plagued with gang activity, Ritz said.

And during crowded weekend festivals at which gang members tend to 
congregate, agencies from outlying areas team up to provide stronger 
enforcement, said Lompoc police Detective Allen Chisholm, a liaison to 
Santa Barbara County's informal gang task force.

Informants have also been helpful in providing information to law 
enforcement, Ritz said.

Law enforcement can't take credit for all of the decrease in gang activity. 
Some of the changes have come about from within communities.

Ritz said gang activity is slowing down in Santa Maria because those who 
used to be in rival gangs are getting married. Once they do, the rivalry 
usually dissolves and allegiance to gangs gives ay to parental 

In Nipomo and Oceano, residents are starting to take pride in their 
communities, which helps combat gang activity, said Davis.

"A better influx of people are working to make a change," he said.

School-based programs taught by law enforcement such as Drug Abuse 
Resistance Education, or DARE, can be effective in deterring juveniles who 
seem interested in gangs.

"If we can take one kid and turn their life around and plant the seed in 
his or her head and heart to change their life, then programs like DARE are 
worth the effort," said Davis. Ritz said he's been working on a gang 
presentation to give in local classrooms.

But the most effective tool for keeping kids out of gangs is parental 
influence, said Foster.

Foster suggested that parents be involved in their kids' lives, no matter 
how nosy it makes them. He said violating their privacy can't be an issue, 
considering the object he's seen in some kids' rooms.

"I've found everything from bomb equipment to drugs " he said.

Tomorrow: The Crime Factor

[Sidebar table: From (note:]

All gangs have identifiable levels of membership. These levels of 
membership indicate status within a gang and act as organizational 
maintenance systems. There are actually six levels of gang structure.

1. Leadership: The leader(s) of a gang determines at what level of the 
criminal activity the gang will function. Characteristics of the leader(s) 
are reflected in the day-to-day activities of the gang. The leader is all 

2. Hard-Core: The hard-core gang members are usually the older gang 
members, the individuals who are culturally and criminally enmeshed in the 
gang and are at risk of being so for life. Most violent gang activities 
emanates from the hard-core gang members. Hard-core gang members usually 
make up about 10 percent of gang membership.

3.  Associate: The associate gang member has usually made a personal 
commitment to the gang culture and is dedicated to achieving the level of 
recognition needed to attain hard-core status.

4. Fringe: The fringe gang member is still able to function outside of the 
gang structure and has not made a commitment to a life in the criminal gang 
culture. This type of member drifts in and out of the gang and seems to 
lack direction.

5. Wannabes: Wannabes are not actually gang members. They are youth who 
view the gang as an exciting place to be, a place where they could become 
"somebody." Wannabes may emulate gang dress, graffiti, hand signs and other 
gang cultural symbols, and they may associate with known gang members, but 
they have not yet been accepted into the gang.

6. Cliques: Very seldom is the gang at full strength. Exceptions to this, 
of course, would be times of conflict or possibly at social functions. What 
is most often seen as "the gang" is usually a clique from within the larger 
gang. The clique is a group of associate, fringe, and often, wanna-be gang 
members, who gravitate around one or more of the hard-core gang members. 
This somewhat resembles a gang. From
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