A second chance at the ranch
Two local youths challenged to give up life of crime, adopt new lifestyle
Editor's Note: In recent years, a steady stream of young Latino youths have joined the Sureno and Norteno gangs in Mountain View. In fact, police say, gang activity has been at its highest point since the mid-1990s, when the number of "gang-related incidents" reached 90 per year.
Police say they keep track of most local gang members, and some of the more hardened high school-aged members are sentenced to the county program in Morgan Hill known as the William F. James Boys Ranch.
Last week, Voice reporter Daniel DeBolt toured the ranch with county Supervisor Liz Kniss. His interview with two inmates there who are Mountain View gang members begins here, and a story about the county's challenges with the ranch program is below.
This is the first in a series of stories on gang activity in Mountain View. Other installments will focus on how local youths, schools and nonprofit groups are organizing to combat gang activity in Mountain View.
Pascal, a former Los Altos High School student, is in his fourth term at the William F. James Boys Ranch in Morgan Hill, a county detention facility for 15- to 18-year-olds. An undercover cop caught him selling methamphetamines in a stolen car, and he has had to repeat the program for probation violations and participating in gang fights at the ranch.
He came to Mountain View from Mexico when he was 3, but still speaks with a thick Mexican accent. Living in the neighborhood framed by Ortega Avenue, California Street, Escuela Avenue and Latham Street, Pascal's family always spoke Spanish at home. And like many young Latinos whose families recently immigrated, he is a member of the Sureno gang.
The only other Mountain View gang member at the 64-bed ranch is Jesus, a shy Sureno from the Sylvan-Dale neighborhood. He was busted stealing car stereos on Bernardo Avenue in Sunnyvale. (The Voice is using only first names to protect the youths' identities.)
Backing up claims made recently by police and community members, Jesus and Pascal say that Mountain View youth continue to join gangs after the murder of Alejandro "Alex" Fernandez, 17, in 2004. Both Pascal and Jesus say they were friends of Fernandez.
"The people it happened to are still mad," Jesus said about the unsolved case. He and Pascal believe the murder was done by the city's Norteno gang. It was reported in the Voice at the time that Fernandez, a Los Altos High School student, was trying to turn himself around after being involved with the Surenos. Gang activity was on the rise then, police said, but was only half as bad as at its peak in the 1990s.
But ever since the death of Fernandez, Pascal and Jesus say, there has been no shortage of young kids ready to be "jumped into" the Surenos, for protection and a sense of belonging not found at home or elsewhere in the community.
"It's like a family," Jesus said.
Jesus and Pascal say claim are many more Surenos than Nortenos in Mountain View. Police disagree, saying they see a fair number of each.
According to San Jose Pastor Tony Ortiz, a former gang member who now comes to Mountain View and elsewhere to speak about gangs, Nortenos favor all-red attire, including hats and bandanas, and the number 14, while the Surenos wear similar gear in blue and use the number 13. Other gang signs include tattoos, hand signals and nicknames.
Gangs looked fun
Sitting in a ranch conference room in green sweat pants with tattoos on his neck and arms, Jesus said he grew up with his uncles as his main father figures — and they were Surenos. While he was flunking out of middle school and his future seemed uncertain, gangs provided protection, drugs, money and excitement. Nothing could compete with the attractiveness of gang life.
Jesus and Pascal must deal with a large number of Nortenos at the ranch. Pascal said he's been called a "wetback" and a "beaner" by Nortneos, who are typically Latinos that have lived in the U.S. for several generations.
Another Sureno gang member from San Jose said he learned how to steal cars while at the ranch and was eventually caught stealing cars and burglarizing a home to help support himself and his single mother.
"I've always known there were other ways of doing things," he said. "But everything I've ever done has been out of necessity."
Call for more programs
Neither Pascal nor Jesus believe there are enough programs for at-risk youth in Mountain View. Jesus said a simple sports program could go a long way towards gang prevention.
Last year (after the two had already been sent to the ranch), Mountain View police Chief Scott Vermeer re-started the Police Activities League, a program that provides sports and recreation activities for at-risk youth. Participants are selected by school officers at Graham and Crittenden middle schools and at Los Altos and Mountain View high schools.
Still, community groups like the Peninsula Interfaith Action are pushing for more youth programs in next year's city budget. The group also wants a new teen center.
"Every night gangs gather outside my house," wrote Mountain View High School student Zhazil Gurbiel in a PIA press release last week. "One night I awoke to gunshots and the police came to my door looking for the [suspect]. I'm afraid it's just going to get worse if you don't have alternatives."
City Council member Tom Means, who is on the council's youth committee, said there are lots of programs in Mountain View for young people, but that at-risk youth "need to be pushed a little bit into these programs."
"There are tons of sports programs," he said. "The problem is these kids are kind of isolated, and they kind of isolate themselves."
As he goes through the intensive small-group counseling at the ranch, Jesus said he's become "confused" as he questions everything about his former life in gangs. And he is uncertain whether what awaits him outside will allow him to really change. He will leave the ranch next month.
As for Pascal, he said he wants to become a police officer someday.
E-mail Daniel DeBolt at firstname.lastname@example.org