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TMCNet:  South Modesto residents wary of gangs despite 2 years of change

[January 01, 2012]

South Modesto residents wary of gangs despite 2 years of change

Jan 01, 2012 (The Modesto Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Two years after enactment of a gang injunction intended to protect south Modesto residents routinely terrorized by the Deep South Side Nortenos, neighbors have mixed feelings when asked if their neighborhood is any safer.

Authorities said 150 gang members had nearly 20,000 law-abiding residents paralyzed with fear. Despite being the target of frequent crimes, they wouldn't call police and sheriff's deputies, fearing cooperation would lead to retaliation.

The injunction was supposed to change that.

The district attorney's office filed a civil lawsuit and was granted the injunction against 20 known Deep South Side Nortenos in September 2009 -- the only gang injunction ever approved in Stanislaus County. There now are 103 names on the list.

Authorities insist the injunction has loosened the gang's grip on the neighborhood.

"The gangsters hate it," said Froilan Mariscal, a gang investigator with the district attorney's office who grew up in south Modesto. "There's too much heat. Nobody wants to hang out in 'The Deep' no more." Raul Mejia, 59, said he doesn't feel any safer. He has lived for 18 years in a small home on Dallas Street, just south of Hatch Road. He said life for him and his neighbors has not worsened, but gang activity is as bad as ever.

Some residents do say the streets are calmer. They, like authorities, will admit gang activity hasn't disappeared, but say the situation has improved.

Maricela Lizarraga, 42, has lived on Lassen Avenue for seven years. She spent many nights looking out her front window, watching gang members draped in red clothing as they hung out at the nearby street corner.

"You could hear them late into the night," Lizarraga said in Spanish. "It would soon be followed by sounds of fighting, windows smashing or gunfire." She hardly hears those sounds anymore. Lizarraga said gang members don't appear to be roaming the streets at night, and the nearby street corner hasn't been the criminal breeding ground it once was.

"I can actually sleep well now instead of being frantic all through the night," she said.

Neighborhood gripped in fear The neighborhood, west of Crows Landing Road and south of the Tuolumne River, is predominantly unincorporated land filled with small homes and dusty streets with no curbs and gutters. Two-story tract homes in subdivisions sit on the neighborhood's northern and southern flanks.

The area is overwhelmingly Latino, reflected by the Spanish that is spoken and the Mexican culture evident along Crows Landing Road, its main commercial strip.

For residents such as Mejia, it's a neighborhood that remains gripped with fear.

Residents are wary of drivers in unfamiliar vehicles as they pass their homes, fearing they might be looking to buy drugs, commit a burglary or fire a gun.

Five years ago, just a few houses from Mejia's home, a teenage boy was injured in a shooting -- the same day one man was killed and another wounded in separate drive-by shootings. The brazen attacks occurred in broad daylight within 90 minutes of each other.

When Mejia sees an unknown vehicle slowly drive by, he doesn't stick around to find out who it is. Even with the gang injunction, his guard is still up.

"If you pass by slowly twice, it means you're looking for trouble," Mejia said in Spanish. "I'm going to head back inside my house. You don't wait around for something bad to happen." Many residents don't speak openly about gangs to outsiders or let their children play outside after dusk. One woman, who declined to give her name, said she feels safer now, but she remains vigilant.

She said she now can walk over to her neighbor's house for a late-afternoon visit because gang members no longer hover around her block. But she continues to walk her daughter -- a second-grader at Bret Harte Elementary -- to and from school every day.

"I don't feel so worried anymore, but I'm not going to let my child wander around this neighborhood," she said while waiting outside the school, less than two blocks from her home. "There's still danger out there." Loitering gang members used to scare away customers from Alex Kassim's Swaids Market on Butte Avenue, a heavily trafficked road that leads to the heart of the neighborhood -- the Hanshaw Middle School campus on Las Vegas Street, The Salvation Army Red Shield Center next door and Bret Harte just around the corner.

Positive change for business Kassim often found his small store covered with gang graffiti. Gang members hung out under a shady tree across the street. They were close enough that customers would just avoid the store, he said.

"We got tired of that," said Kassim, who has operated the store for 20 years. "Now, thank God, there's a lot less of it." Some families even go to the store in the evening, something that was unheard of before. He said it was incredibly rare to see a woman or children going to a neighborhood store at night.

"It has changed, honestly," Kassim said. "As a businessman and someone who works in the neighborhood, it has calmed down." Authorities say the injunction has disrupted gang activity and reduced the gang's ability to intimidate residents.

The people listed in the injunction, 25 percent of them teenage boys, think it's just a form of harassment by law enforcement, according to Deputy Public Defender Greg Spiering.

"The objective of the gang injunction is to make it more easy to criminalize their everyday activity," said Spiering, who has represented some of those on the list. "If these guys were real bad guys, they'd be in jail or prison." The injunction declares the gang's public behavior a nuisance. Violators are arrested if they are caught engaging in any of 14 banned behaviors within the designated boundaries.

Critics argue the injunction marks young men permanently as criminals without providing the appropriate ability to challenge the court order.

"I have real problems with the gang injunction," said Modesto defense attorney Robert Chase. "It applies severe restrictions on these young men without any real due process of law." Deputy District Attorney Mar- lisa Ferreira was assigned to build the case against the gang and argue for the injunction in court. She prosecutes most of the cases related to it.

She said the county has faced challenges to its constitutionality in court, mostly based on the 10 p.m. curfew and how those on the list were notified.

"So far, we have not lost on any of those issues," Ferreira said.

Injunction threat or punishment? The people listed on the injunction have extensive criminal records and are known members of the gang. The youngest listed is a 15-year-old boy and the oldest is a 34-year-old man.

Members have changed the gang's name to try to confuse law enforcement. The gang also is known on the street as Deep South Side Modesto, Deep South Side Youngsters and Deep South Side Locos.

There have been 109 arrests for injunction violations. Sixty-six people have been arrested, meaning many of them have been arrested more than once.

Violating the injunction is considered a misdemeanor. Stanislaus County Public Defender Tim Bazar said it's not likely a misdemeanor offense will result in jail time. He said overcrowded jails have turned the injunction into an empty threat of incarceration.

"There's really no way you're punishing anyone with a misdemeanor," Bazar said. "It's more of a threat than a real punishment." Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said his department has made room for violators to serve the full term of their sentences -- which could be as much as six months in jail, but typically are about 60 days.

Aside from jail time, convicted injunction violators can receive three years of probation that includes some of the same restrictions in the injunction. Only now, the probationer would be subject to these restrictions everywhere, not just inside the injunction zone.

"Regulating the activities of gang members is always good for the community, no matter what," District Attorney Birgit Fladager said.

Crime has dropped Gang injunctions have been used in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, the Sacramento area and Fresno.

In Stanislaus County, prosecutors said crime dropped in several categories, including aggravated assault, burglary and theft. The reduction measured crime in the 22 months after the injunction to 12 months before it went into effect.

The district attorney's office chose south Modesto because it was the most plagued by gangs and their violence. While there are other crime-filled neighborhoods in need, Fladager said her office has no plans to seek other injunctions.

"This is a particular area where this gang had a stronghold," she said. "Their activities were incessant. Our intention was to clean up that area." Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or (209) 578-2394.Editors' note: This is the first part of a two-day series examining the impact of Stanislaus County's first-ever gang injunction.

___ (c)2012 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.) Visit The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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