By Michelle Fitzsimmons
City News Editor
Norteños and Sureños. Northside Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz East Side. Brown Pride Santa Cruz and Mara Salva Tucha. The Skins and The White Power Gang. There may be more, but these are some of the gangs of Santa Cruz.
Gang presence is everywhere, and membership is all-inclusive.
“They cross racial lines, cross class lines, cross everything,” said Nora Rahimian, program director at Barrios Unidos, a Santa Cruz-based organization founded to prevent gang warfare. “In Santa Cruz, we have a diversity of gangs.”
The city and county have seen an increase in the number of gang-related crimes, including homicide, in recent years.
“This is a very real and very significant problem in our city, but not unique to our city,” said spokesperson Zachary Friend of the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD).
Friend said that for the past several years, the SCPD has been part of a joint gang prevention effort with law enforcement agencies across the Central Coast, stretching from Sacramento to Fresno.
Gangs do not limit themselves to one territory, Friend said, and cross-county cooperation is needed to apprehend suspects and prevent criminal activity.
“There are no specific boundaries these gangs abide by,” he said. “For whatever reason, we have people travel into our county and commit crimes. We’ve had gang members living outside of the county come to commit homicide.”
Gang prevention advocates, such as City Councilmember Tony Madrigal, have noticed gangs moving north, out of areas like Monterey County, where more rigorous anti-gang efforts have been implemented.
“More out-of-town people might see Santa Cruz as a territory for recruiting and distributing drugs, or engaging in other crimes,” Madrigal said. “I don’t want Santa Cruz to be a center and a target for criminal activity.”
Live Oak, a small town nestled between Santa Cruz and Capitola, has erupted into a hotbed for gang activity and violence during the latter half of 2008.
In August, two Live Oak teens stabbed a man from Watsonville because he was wearing a red hat, the color of the Norteños. On Oct. 28, a teenager was stabbed in the neck after an altercation with a group of nine other teens. Neither man died, but the violence of these crimes and others signal a tangible threat to the safety of the community.
While the SCPD and other agencies have been doing what they can to react to gang violence and crimes, Madrigal has voiced the need for preventative and intervening efforts to discourage new members from joining gangs and helping current ones get out.
“We need to have more after-school activities to keep kids out of gang life,” Madrigal said.
Madrigal used to work for the now-defunct Kids and Teens Exploring Nature, a nonprofit that took underprivileged youth on camping and hiking trips. He related the story of an 11-year-old boy who had a talent for art.
“He asked me, ‘Could I make a living doing art?’ I told him, ‘Of course!’ These are the types of questions kids should be asking,” Madrigal said. “Not asking, ‘Should I carry a big stick, or bat, or knife, or what do I do when someone steps up to me?’ These are not the questions you want kids to be asking.”
Many problems stem from the presence of gangs in a city, Madrigal said. Areas with high gang activity tend to become a target for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, such as the ones that took place in Santa Cruz in 2006.
Furthermore, the local economy is adversely affected by gang presence.
“Gang violence is an issue in our community in general because it also affects our economy,” Madrigal said. “If people don’t feel safe in Santa Cruz, people won’t come to Santa Cruz.”
Ramadian said Barrios Unidos’ counseling programs focus on healing, reconciliation, and restoration as a path to community and spirituality.
She pointed out the unique nature of Santa Cruz’s efforts to curb gang activity and offer alternatives to kids tempted into the gang lifestyle.
“In Santa Cruz,” Ramadian said, “we are really blessed to have law enforcement that believe in alternatives to incarceration.”