Pressured Down a Path

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For 12-year-old Joey Mendoza, sources of gang influence were all around — on his neighborhood block and in his own home.

“He was trying to do something different by playing football, but he lived in a neighborhood where Norteños know that’s a Sureño neighborhood,” said reformed gang member Willie Stokes.

Mendoza was walking home to his Lower Ocean neighborhood on Aug. 8, 2012 when he was shot and killed.

He was at the intersection of San Lorenzo Boulevard and Bixby Street when five young men pulled up to him in a car and shot him twice in the back, killing him on the sidewalk. All five of the suspects were documented gang members from Watsonville between the ages of 15 and 19.

Stokes, who coached Mendoza in football the summer before his murder, said he came from a background with heavy gang involvement, though Mendoza himself was not a gang member.

“Joey was a kid whose family was all gang-entrenched,” Stokes said. “He lived in a neighborhood full of gang members. Those are his friends, that’s who he hangs out with … but because of the neighborhood and the family gang ties and the friends, automatically you’re labeled as a rival gang member.”

Willie Stokes began selling drugs at the age of 15, and after spending 17 non-consecutive years in prison, he decided to start his own non-profit organization, called the Black Sheep Redemption Program (BSRP). BSRP is dedicated to redirecting adolescents off the path of gang influence. Photo by Aimee Hare.
Willie Stokes began selling drugs at the age of 15, and after spending 17 non-consecutive years in prison, he decided to start his own non-profit organization, called the Black Sheep Redemption Program (BSRP). BSRP is dedicated to redirecting adolescents off the path of gang influence. Photo by Aimee Hare.

Stokes is an ex-member of the Latino prison gang, the Norteños. After he spent 17 non-consecutive years in prison, Stokes decided to focus on preventing youths from joining gangs with his non-profit organization, the Black Sheep Redemption Program (BSRP).

The most prevalent gangs in the Santa Cruz area have traditionally been Latino prison gangs, the Norteños, or “Northerners” in Spanish — associated with Nuestra Familia (NF) from Salinas — and their rivals, the Sureños, or “Southerners” in Spanish, who are associated with the Mexican Mafia from Los Angeles.

Felipe Hernandez is a representative of the community-based non-profit Barrios Unidos (BU), or “united neighborhoods” in Spanish, which is dedicated to preventing youth street violence in Santa Cruz. He discussed one of the main reasons why gangs continue to thrive.

“One of the reasons why [gangs exist] is we have immigrants coming into a specific community,” Hernandez said. “[Gangs are] a type of support group in a way.”

Stokes said another motivation for joining a gang is to overcome economic hardship. When children see their parents in low-skill, high-stress jobs, struggling in the face of poverty, they may try to help out and provide their families with an additional source of income. This income may take the form of a paycheck from a minimum wage job or money from drug sales.

DEFENDING LA RAZA

Stokes said during his time in the Nuestra Familia, he made a minimum of $4,000 to $5,000 a week just by selling drugs.

“You hear about the glamorous side — the money, the partying, the girls, the cars and all that,” Stokes said. “But once you get into it, you start seeing the other side of it. The things they want you to do, the crimes they want you to commit.”

To persuade young Latinos to join the Norteños, members convince potential recruits that by joining they contribute to a higher purpose by furthering the betterment of their neighborhood, family, raza, or race, Stokes said. The NF calls this “the cause.”

Many Norteños are willing to sacrifice their lives for “the cause” — either to prison or to death itself. Stokes explained his relationship with the Norteño cause while in the NF.

“I was willing to die for it, to spend my life in prison if need be,” Stokes said. “That’s how brainwashed I was at the time because of these rules and these laws.”

The “rules and laws” Stokes refers to are those of the NF constitution, which lays out the goals of the organization and the roles of its members, including its captains, lieutenants, generals and soldados, or “soldiers” in Spanish, the street-level Norteños.

Article III, section IV of the NF constitution says, “A familiano will remain a member until death or otherwise discharged from the organization. He will always be subject to put the best interest of the organization first and always above everything else, in or out of prison.”

PIPELINE TO PRISON

Gang crime in Santa Cruz experienced a significant decline in the past year, but the persisting crimes have been ones of violence.

FBI Uniform Crime Reports from 2012-2013 show there was a 43 percent decrease in gang crime in the city of Santa Cruz, said Santa Cruz deputy police Chief Steve Clark.

“Unfortunately, the gang crimes we’ve had have been violent,” Clark said. “They’ve been homicides, stabbings and shootings, so they get a lot of attention … But in terms of the overall gang activity and the gang incidents that we’ve seen, we’ve seen a reduction.”

Deborah Elston is the leader of Santa Cruz Neighbors (SCN), a non-profit dedicated to facilitating conversation among Santa Cruzans. Elston said local media attention makes it appear as though crime is more prevalent than it is in reality.

“Our awareness is so heightened … everybody thinks the crime is worse,” Elston said. “I don’t know that the crime is worse personally, but the awareness level is way higher than it has been.”

Infographic compiled by Maren Slobody.
Infographic compiled by Maren Slobody.

Gangs commit two different major types of crime, Clark said.

The first type involves crimes that help support or fund gang operations and members. This can include drug sales within the gang or charging taxes to outside parties so they can sell drugs in a gang’s territory. Clark said gangs may also commit crimes more serious than drug sales.

“They commit crimes like robberies, thefts and burglaries to fund their ‘enterprise,’ if you will,” Clark said.

The second type of crime gangs commit is violent crimes of intimidation to ensure dominance in particular parts of town.

“It’s very territorial and turf-like, so they’ll go out and commit crimes of violence — beatings, stabbings and shootings,” Clark said, “Those are typically gang-on-gang types of crimes. You don’t usually see gangs randomly beat somebody up who they don’t suspect is a rival gang member.”

Gang members can not only be prosecuted for committing drug or violent crimes — in 1988, California legislature decided the sole act of being in a gang is a crime. Gang enhancements were introduced with the passing of the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act.

“[Gang enhancements] depend on the individual and the crime, but they enhance the crime if the prosecutor feels it’s appropriate … It could mean a harsher penalty,” said Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee, who has been involved in gang crime cases for 30 years.

When charged with gang enhancement, a person’s prison sentence can be extended by any amount between two years and a lifetime, depending on the severity of the crime.

According to a study done by the University of Southern California, the STEP Act has been criticized as infringing a person’s First Amendment constitutional right to the Freedom of Association, as well as Fifth Amendment due process rights because of the unconstitutional vagueness of terms such as “criminal street gang.”

For many soldados, going to prison for “the cause” is an honor. In his book “Testimony of a Black Sheep,” Stokes explains that while the street Norteños risk their lives to rival Sureños on the streets, the NF officers sit in their protective custody cells, collecting their steady flow of income.

Adolescents in these gang ridden, low-income communities are lured into the gang culture by the idea of fast money, and the belief that the reason they are selling drugs is not to generate profit for criminals in Pelican Bay, Stokes said, but to bring honor to the neighborhoods and families they watch firsthand suffer from poverty.

SEEKING FAMILIA

“People who migrate end up getting separated from their families, so folks end up looking for family somewhere else,” said Barrios Unidos representative Felipe Hernandez. “A lot of times, youngsters end up looking for street families.”

Approximately two out of every five gang members in the U.S. is under the age of 18, according to a 2011 report by the National Gang Center.

UCSC psychology professor Margarita Azmitia specializes in adolescent development. Several of her projects involved studying problem solving skills of children, adolescents and young adults, as well as how these groups manage life transitions.

Some of the factors making youth susceptible to gang influence include poor school performance, low income and difficult relationships at home — all of which allow the gang to play the role of a family, Azmitia said.

Adolescents in low-income communities have less resources available to them, leaving them at a disadvantage compared to adolescents from wealthier backgrounds.

“What is different, of course, is the options you have available,” Azmitia said. “Options like the kinds of schools you go to, the kinds of neighborhoods you live in and the options you see in your future.”

Barrios Unidos (BU), or “united neighborhoods” in Spanish, is a community-based, non-profit organization dedicated to preventing street violence in Santa Cruz. Some of BU’s resources include a Juvenile Hall Transitional Program, an Adult Re-Entry Program and Counseling Services for both individuals and families. Photo by Aimee Hare.
Barrios Unidos (BU), or “united neighborhoods” in Spanish, is a community-based, non-profit organization dedicated to preventing street violence in Santa Cruz. Some of BU’s resources include a Juvenile Hall Transitional Program, an Adult Re-Entry Program and Counseling Services for both individuals and families. Photo by Aimee Hare.

The lack of funding and resources for schools in low-income communities can leave students struggling academically. With this struggle comes discouragement, causing them to look for other means of gaining respect.

“A lot of [youths who join gangs] are three or four grades behind academically,” Stokes said. “They go to school and can’t do the work, so they don’t feel like they belong. What do they do? They drop out. They don’t feel capable in this area academically, so they think, ‘At least over here, I’m somebody. I get the respect.’”

One of the biggest hindrances to an adolescent’s education can be their own family, if the family is entrenched in gang culture. Youths born into families with heavy gang membership may have few academic role models, thus further limiting their opportunities.

“Some of them are growing up in situations where their family members are already gang members,” said SCN leader Deborah Elston. “They don’t even know there’s a different way of life that exists, so they don’t even understand they might have an option to do something different.”

When youths feel they have no one else to turn to, they may sometimes do whatever it takes in order to get accepted into a peer group, Azmitia said, whether it includes committing a crime or representing the Norteño symbols — the color red and the number 14.

This is what happened to twelve-year-old Joey Mendoza.

“Joey was out acting like a gangster and he got confronted by some real gangsters. That’s exactly what happened,” said Santa Cruz deputy police Cheif Steve Clark. “Unfortunately, he was so steeped in that and he saw that as how he needed to define himself. I feel like that’s really at the heart of what creates these gangs.”

Changing the Path

Several organizations focused on community involvement in Santa Cruz have resources for youths troubled by gang influence. Among them are the PRIDE Program with the Santa Cruz Police Department, Fight for Life with the Black Sheep Redemption Program, the Juvenile Hall Transitional Program with Barrios Unidos and the BASTA Program with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, to name a few.

Programs like these work to redirect adolescents off the path of gang activity through various tactics — classes on social awareness and personal accountability, individual and family counseling and even exposing adolescents to the life they may be headed toward by escorting them through the jail booking process, Clark said.

Santa Cruz County District Attorney Bob Lee said one of the most crucial things is keeping adolescents busy during “the critical hours” of 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., the time between the end of the school day and their parents’ work day. The BSRP addresses this issue at its Peer Tutoring Center and Literacy Center in San Juan Bautista, where adolescents get help with their schoolwork and are provided with a safe space to socialize.

Another organization focusing on individuals influenced by gangs is Barrios Unidos (BU). It was founded to address matters affecting the Latino community, including deportation and citizenship, with an overall goal to provide support for those affected by gang violence.

“BU was also formed to uplift our voices to create an avenue of dialogue, a safe space,” said BU representative Felipe Hernandez. “This is actually a neutral space at the center, so we have both Norteños and Sureños.”

Non-profit organization Barrios Unidos runs a full-service screen printing enterprise called Barrios Unidos Productions (BUP). BUP focuses on “training, teaching and providing at-risk youth with job readiness skills in a safe and nurturing environment,” according to the Barrios Unidos website. Photo by Aimee Hare.
Non-profit organization Barrios Unidos runs a full-service screen printing enterprise called Barrios Unidos Productions (BUP). BUP focuses on “training, teaching and providing at-risk youth with job readiness skills in a safe and nurturing environment,” according to the Barrios Unidos website. Photo by Aimee Hare.

Just as BU neutralizing the gangs’ rival status is an example of a community peacemaking initiative, Clark said although the law enforcement is responsible for arresting criminals, it is also the community’s duty to catch the problem early and put an end to it before it becomes the law enforcement’s responsibility.

“It only begins to be a police problem when the community fails to raise people in a way that is responsible,” Clark said. “It really is a whole community problem to deal with and to have things supporting families and kids so they are in good, healthy activities with an attitude of no tolerance toward gangs.”

As seen in the NF Constitution, in most cases, once someone joins a gang, he or she is a member until death. Stokes is one of the few outliers who was able to not only successfully leave the gang life behind, but form his own non-profit, the Black Sheep Redemption Program, which focuses on preventing adolescents from making the same mistakes he did.

Every day before leaving his house, Stokes cautiously checks under his front steps and around the corner to see if there are Norteños waiting for him, to take revenge on him for leaving the NF.

“I know one day my gang is going to catch up to me,” Stokes said. “I’ve accepted that. And so my whole thing is, how many kids can I save before that day happens?”