It's a sound that echoed around local neighborhoods more than 1,800 times in 2008. Sometimes the sound is identifiable as a car backfiring, fireworks or other harmless occurrence. Sometimes it is something much more dangerous: gang gunfire.
On Jan. 16, 2008, near the corner of Yori Avenue and Roberts Street in Reno, three gang members spotted a boy who was wearing blue clothing. Thinking he was a rival gang member, the three tried to stab him and then drive over him with their car as he tried to escape.
Nine days later, on Lincoln Way less than a mile from the Sparks Marina, the suspect in the Yori/Roberts attack and another person were shot multiple times by someone close to the stabbing victim.
On June 12 of this year, rival gang members opened fire on each other in busy, after-work traffic in front of a preschool in Sparks.
On July 10, a 16-year-old said he was shot twice while at a party on Kings Row in Reno after getting caught in the crossfire of a fight. Most of the partygoers were reportedly gang members or associates.
Organized gangs and the problems they often spawn can go largely unnoticed by the public in northern Nevada. The only contact many people have with gangs comes in the form of graffiti or a news clip about a crime believed to be gang-related. Many people move from larger cities to the Truckee Meadows because they believe the smaller population and small-town lifestyle will be gang-free.
The opposite is true. The factors that might make the area immune to gang activity have made it a perfect breeding ground for gang members.
"There's nothing to do around here, kids-wise," said 24-year-old Chris Martinez, a former member of the South Side Locos who now lives in east Reno with his wife and five children. "This is a gambling state, there's nothing to do."
Local law enforcement and community leaders have been monitoring gangs in the area for more than 20 years. The Daily Sparks Tribune has spent the last eight weeks conducting interviews on all sides of this issue to understand why people join gangs, who gang members are, what government and private citizens are doing to help young people avoid gang membership and how the system and community are helping or failing these at-risk youths. This and three other editions of the Tribune this week will be dedicated to telling the stories of these people and groups in an effort to give the community a better understanding of the issues surrounding gangs in the Truckee Meadows. Expanded coverage will also be available at www.dailysparkstribune.com/pages/gangs.
A well-armed family
The Washoe County Regional Gang Unit (RGU), a coalition of local law enforcement agencies, defines a gang as "any combination of persons organized formally or informally that has a common name or symbol, engage in a pattern of delinquent behavior or criminal activity and associate together on a regular basis, or claim affiliation with a known gang."
Gang members have a more personal definition.
"If (my gang) were to die out, we'd always be 'familia,' " said Pelón, the “shot caller” of a local gang.
Lt. Shannon Weicking, a 16-year veteran with the Reno Police Department and a recent addition to the local gang unit, said she understands the camaraderie of the gangs, but says those family roots are not firmly planted. When it comes to trouble with the law, she said, the gang family will turn on itself.
"They're family when times are good, but when bad times come up they don't follow what my notion of family would be," Weicking said.
Gangs and crime
When gangs get violent, the reasons vary. Territorial disputes, crossing out a rival's graffiti, an unfriendly expression or even cases of mistaken identity result in violence.
While the violence might be inexcusable under the law, those who work with gang members say there are reasons it happens.
"You know how you come to work and you put in your work, you study, you do the research, you write a kick-ass story, you get your boss' attention and everybody's looking at you because you're it? Man, it's no different. Those kids want that identity," local anti-gang activist Roberto Nerey told the Tribune about why young people join a gang. "They want to prove loyalty. They want to show that they totally respect and have a lot of love toward the people they surround themselves with and the only way they can create that image is by going out there and putting in the kind of work."
Nerey added, however, that the kind of work often involves violence and crime.
However, in one such violent incident in May, Nerey's own son was shot and wounded by suspected gang members simply because he was near a car similar to one the gang members were looking for.
"I’ve seen a lot of crazy things, been around a lot of crazy things," Martinez said. "A lot of people are too afraid to go to the hospital to report things; they just deal with their wounds. (We did anything) from smashing people’s kneecaps with sledge hammers, beating people down, robbing car stereos. Then it became the drug problem for the gang. We all got into methamphetamine. Then we had to rob and steal and shoot at people to get our drugs, rob dealers. I slowed down for a little bit after some of my friends went in for extortion and corrosion and a lot of bad things, kidnapping. I slowed down a little bit."
Not a new problem
Sheila Leslie, a member of the Nevada Assembly, worked for many years in gang intervention and co-authored a report on them in 1999. In it, she stated that at the dawn of the 1990s, "Local law enforcement agencies and schools were just beginning to come to terms with the influx of youth gangs and corresponding criminal activity. Many of the leaders of the community were still in denial about the existence of youth gangs despite overwhelming evidence of their existence."
In 1991, the Reno Police Department developed an automated database to track gang-related incidents. Also in 1991, the Children's Cabinet Institute published Leslie's report, "White Paper: Nevada's Youth Gangs," in response to the threat of increased criminal activity by youth gangs in Nevada.
As a result of that report and its recommendations, the nonprofit Gang Alternatives Partnership, known as GAP, was formed in 1993. GAP ran several gang intervention programs, including the Fourth Street Youth Center and Sundown Zone. In 1999, GAP published "The White Paper on Gangs in the Truckee Meadows" as a follow-up to Leslie's 1991 study. By that time, the existence of gangs was no longer a matter of dispute, and that year's "White Paper" proclaimed that "significant progress" had been made in battling the causes of gang activity.
Despite the progress in outreach, the GAP's report in 1999 said more needed to be done.
"Although much has been accomplished since 1991," the report said, "it is vital that the community redouble its efforts and commitment to youth in the years ahead in order to effectively address the increasing adolescent population and the special needs of these teens as they grow into adulthood."
Since that time, the story is mixed. In recent years, gang crime is down but membership is up. The population of Washoe County grew 20 percent between April 2000 and July 2008, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, with Reno and Sparks growing 14 percent and 26 percent respectively. County-wide statistics on gangs began being kept in 2005, and from December 2005 to December 2008, gang membership outpaced the population growth at 27 percent — from 1,468 to 1,864.
Leslie said that although current statistics show that the gang problem seems to be level, it is still in need of attention.
"The gang problem may get a little bit worse from unemployment pressure on immigrants and their need to work legally," Leslie said last week. "The economic crisis we're in right now may feed the gang situation. We haven't seen that yet but we may see it in the future."
In its annual report released in June, the RGU reported that while gang membership is up nearly 10 percent, gang-related felony crimes were down slightly from 2007 to 2008, and the number of felonies has been relatively level since 2005. Misdemeanor crimes were up by more than 3,000 from 2007 to 2008 because of graffiti incidents, and there were 300 more shots-fired calls.
Gang members continue to be well-armed, the report continues. A few years ago, gang members might be involved in fights using a baseball bat or knife, but now the report says gang members have armed themselves so as to surpass other gangs' weaponry. High-quality semi-automatic handguns are prevalent and the trend of multiple bullets being fired at each shooting continues. In 2008, there were 10 drive-by shootings, up from five in 2007, and 1,827 shots-fired calls, up from 1,572 in 2007. Guns are obtained during burglaries or bought illegally on the street, the report said.
Total gang membership in the Truckee Meadows rose from 1,704 in December 2007 to 1,864 in December 2008. Local law enforcement reports also state that more than 90 percent of gang members are men. Female membership decreased slightly, from 179 members to 160 between 2007 and 2008.
With a count of 1,414, Hispanics by far represent the largest ethnic group among local gang members, 76 percent of the total, followed by 292 white members, 58 American Indians, 43 blacks and eight Asians. Of all gang members in 2008, 71 percent were adults and 29 percent juveniles. Adult men make up 90 percent of gang members, according to local statistics, though membership among juveniles is up.
Battling the trend
Efforts to curb youth gang activity are present at federal, state and local levels of government. The FBI tracks large-scale gang activity and its National Gang Threat Assessment for 2009 reports that gang members are increasingly migrating from urban to suburban areas and are responsible for a growing percentage of crime and violence in many communities. While drug trafficking remains gang members' biggest criminal activity, according to the FBI, gang members are increasingly engaging in illegal alien and weapons trafficking.
At the state level, Nevada has laws in place targeting drive-by shootings and other such gang activities, as well as punishment enhancements for crimes committed with gang connections. The Nevada Legislature in 2009 again targeted gangs. Senate Bill 142, passed by legislators and signed by Gov. Jim Gibbons, criminalizes recruitment of minors into gangs, making it a low-level felony. Convicted offenders could be imprisoned for one to four years and face fines of up to $5,000. Adult gang members who use or threaten violence against minors to coerce them to join, remain in or rejoin a gang can be convicted under the new law, which takes effect Oct. 1.
Another new law, put into action by Assembly Bill 154, requires school districts in Nevada to establish policies barring criminal gang activity on school grounds. Previously, school districts had the option of enacting such policies and many did with bans on gang-affiliated clothing.
The Washoe County School District strives to identify and intervene with students showing signs of gang membership. The district encourages students who may be considering joining a gang and at least one parent or guardian to attend the school police's Gang Resistance Intervention Program, a two-hour class offered bi-monthly to educate parents and teens about the history of gangs and their inherent dangers.
"The biggest thing is prevention and education because you’ve got to get the parents involved," county school police chief Mike Mieras said. "A lot of parents don’t realize how serious (gang involvement is) and what it can lead to."
The RGU and school district police say that school safety is a top priority, and one of the two full-time detectives who work for the school district is dedicated to gangs.
"The big thing with schools, the number one thing, is school has to be safe because if it’s not safe, no matter how great the teacher, you can’t really reach those kids unless they feel safe," Mieras added. "If a child doesn’t feel safe, they don’t come to school and if they don’t come to school, they aren’t learning."
Sometimes, families try to do their own intervention with relatives who are drifting toward gang membership. Juan and Jesus Guillen are two young brothers from Reno who are growing up in the midst of strong gang activity at Hug High School. Jesus, 17, has been trying to keep Juan, 14, from becoming a gang member. Their mother is a single parent who works a lot and used to run with gangs herself and is trying all she can to protect her sons.
"I do feel like I am making the wrong decision," Juan said about joining a gang, "but it's not an easy decision to change."
"I can't tell him anything because he won't listen to me," Jesus said, adding that he still feels the need to watch out for his younger brother.
Reno leaders have gone to great lengths to clean up neighborhoods where gangs thrive. The Montello/Oliver area, located in Ward 3 represented by Councilwoman Jessica Sferrazza, has been the target of much attention and money. Through numerous grants, the city acquired and demolished blighted buildings that had become havens for drug dealing and other gang activities. Sferrazza and other city leaders are also eyeing areas of Wells Avenue and Neil Road as needing clean-up efforts. While those at city hall tout the success of these efforts, some activists on the street say the problems have not gone away.
Sferrazza says she believes gang problems can be wiped out one neighborhood at a time but adds that at some point residents have to step in. That is where individuals like former gang members Nerey and Pastor Pedro "Pepe" Gonzales play an important role.
"In the ministry we’re involved in, we do specialize in gang members and the reason we’re effective is because we understand where they came from because we’ve been there," said Gonzales, who is now head of faith-based Victory Outreach in Reno. "So we know why they joined the gang. Some do it out of fear, some do it for protection because they know if something happens, they can always run to the guys and say, 'This is what happened, let’s take care of this.’ Some do it for prestige because people see them and say, 'Oh, watch out for them.' People get a little aura around you because they fear you and think you're crazy. Some do it because they want to be a family or they're tired of being rejected. They get away from there and they end up getting into the gang."
End of gangs or a dead end?
For those who do fall into the illegal aspects of gang membership, the law enforcement and justice systems come into play, creating a volatile mix that can result in repentance and rehabilitation or distrust and hatred. In suppressing gang activities, county RGU officers often use plain-clothes activities, numerous forms of surveillance and "strong enforcement" to drive home the consequences of such activities.
"By incarcerating gang members that commit crimes, it impresses upon the gang subculture that the police and the justice system will do their job and the community will not tolerate violent gang behavior," the 2008 gang report says.
The carryover influence of police corruption in gang members' native countries and a cultural distrust of the police create an invisible wall between officers trying to solve crimes and gang members who feel they must take care of their own problems.
Through it all, gang members, police, city officials, intervention groups and individuals carry on as they have for years. The poverty and need for belonging that drive people to gangs are still present, and the blight, crime and trouble that often accompany the gangs keep cities and agencies and reformed gang members struggling to counteract a tide that seems to never stop swelling.
"These kids are in need and all they want is to be heard and the harder they are, the more violent they become — the more, really, they're saying, 'Come help me,' and I think we're missing that," Nerey said. "So, again, we as a community need to start focusing on those two things: violence in our community and the racial tension that's occurring. I think that if we started there, for whatever level, for whoever does it, we would be better."
"We're never going to get rid of gangs all together," Leslie said, "but if we don't have alternatives for kids, its effect on the community is tremendous in terms of crime, in terms of dropouts, in terms of a healthy community."
Tribune reporters Jessica Garcia and Cortney Maddock contributed to this article.
This week’s stories about local gangs
Today: Overview of gangs in the Truckee Meadows
Wednesday: Profiles of current and former local gang members
Friday: Tattoos, graffiti and other cultural aspects of gangs
Next Sunday: Prevention, intervention and enforcement