|Despite two murders in February involving gang members, police say gang-related crime in Mountain View has actually been on a slow and steady decrease since 2005, likely thanks to the efforts of a special unit within the department.
"The slow decrease is, in part, due to the gang suppression team," said police spokesperson Liz Wylie. "It absolutely has had something to do with that."
Police formed the gang suppression team following Mountain View's only gang-related murder in recent years, the shooting of Alejandro Fernandez in 2004. By 2005, a group of specially trained detectives and patrol officers started collectively tracking gang activity.
Police say gang-related crime peaked in 2005 with 71 incidents, nearly double the number from previous years and nearing the all-time highs seen in the 1990s. But then gang-related crime dropped by 6 percent in 2006, and another 7 percent in 2007.
One bust that may have made an especially big impact was the January 2007 arrest of the "zip-tie robbers," a group of seven gang members active in Mountain View who were robbing stores from here to San Jose.
"You will have some very high-end gang members stirring the pot and it tends to get bad," said Bruce Barsi, a former officer of the gang suppression team and current board president of the Community Health Awareness Council, which councils at-risk children and youth. "Maybe these members move on, but the cycle continues. We haven't been very successful at getting at the root of that cycle that keeps repeating."
As criminals like the zip-tie robbers are tracked and prosecuted, police are compiling a list of known gang members in the city, and its number has risen since 2005. Currently, police say, there are 26 registered active gang members in Mountain View, although they say it's nearly impossible to have an exact number, and difficult to distinguish which are serious criminals and which are just "posers" -- young teens trying to fit in.
"We certainly haven't noticed a decrease in gang members," Wylie said. "Their numbers appear to have increased."
The significant gang crimes this year include the non-fatal stabbing of a perceived Sureno in January. Alleged Nortenos George Oseida, 21, and Jacob Dewitt, 19, were arrested and charged in the crime.
There was also an incident Jan. 22 when a gang member took a baseball bat to a rival member and his car, and another on Jan. 14 when a gang member tried to dissuade a witness from testifying about a gang-related robbery. So far this year there have been three "significant" gang-related crimes, police say, down from four during the same period last year.
Even so, worry about gang violence spread through the community on the heels of two murders in February that involved gang members, but were not technically considered to be gang-related. The subject of gangs was a top concern for the City Council last week during a discussion on city goals.
Monique Kane, executive director of CHAC, told council members that "We've seen the gang issues worsen each year for the last six years. Kids are telling us they can't get away from it."
Police said the Feb. 7 murder of 20-year-old Jeffrey Johnson may have had "gang undertones" because it involved at least one gang member, but in fact the shooting, which occurred during a drug deal, probably was not motivated by gang activity. Because the case is still under investigation, police would not disclose further details, although one suspect, 19-year-old Nathan Talarico, faces murder charges and remains in custody.
Last week, police revealed that in the Feb. 26 murder of 17-year-old Jose Merales, the likely motive was a "love triangle": Merales, a Sureno, was apparently sleeping with a fellow Sureno's wife. Police have charged 19-year-old Hugo Garcia, a San Jose resident, with the crime.
Inter-gang violence also occurred last September when Marco Jauregui, 25, of Milpitas, was arrested for fatally shooting Rene Escalante, 24, at Whisman Park in the 300 block of Easy Street in front of two witnesses. Both the victim and suspect were affiliated with the Surenos.
Last year police started to track crimes like these, done by gang members but not considered to be specifically gang-motivated. There were 148 such crimes in 2007, and 105 in 2006. The crimes appear to be significantly down so far this year.
Police anticipate a possible jump in gang activity next month and through the summer, a trend shown in previous years.
But with the gang suppression team at work, the City Council focused on the problem and officers patrolling Rengstorff Park, "We're just hoping for a nice peaceful summer," Wylie said.
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