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Young Hispanic People Are Squeezed Between Gangs and Cops in California's Central Valley

In some of the drought-stricken region's minority communities, young people suffer from hopelessness that drives them to join criminal organizations run by men living in prisons hundreds of miles away.

by Max Cherney
May 28 2015, 4:00am

Modesto, California. All photos by Jennifer Simpson

On a clear Valentine's Day afternoon two years ago in the rural town of Modesto in California's Central Valley, Jesse Sebourn and Jeanette Robles were hanging out outside an apartment complex when they decided to fuck with some graffiti memorializing the murder of two Norteño gang members about a year earlier.

A couple of alleged Northerners—the term for those sympathizing with the Norteño cause but not fully initiated into the gang—who lived there were not amused. They decided to chase down and pound the outsiders.

After enduring a mild ass-kicking, Sebourn called his dad, Michael, an ex–Aryan Brotherhood member. Together they rounded up a posse of nine—including five women, some of whom allegedly have ties to the Sureños, a rival street gang. By then it was dark. After buying some booze and drinking it in a nearby park, the motley crew allegedly went on a hunt for Northerners.

It wasn't long before they found one. According to prosecutors, the posse jumped out of their vehicles and attacked Erick Gomez, who was with his pregnant girlfriend.

What happened next depends on whom you believe. The prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Brennan, argued at trial that the group kicked and punched Gomez, that Dalia Mendoza stabbed him at least three times, and that Giovani Barocio then shot Gomez, hitting him in the heart with a bullet and killing him. "You are my witnesses—I earned my stripes," the shooter allegedly said, referring to earning a place as a Sureño.

Sebourn's defense attorneys maintain that he and his father were not at the scene and have raised questions about the legitimacy of the North-South beef. They have also argued that Jesse's mental disability, acquired at birth, rendered him incapable of understanding that he was advancing gang objectives. The other defense lawyers and their clients offer varied accounts of who was actually doing the stabbing and beating. Finally, famous defense attorney J. Tony Serra questioned Mendoza's account of the events and argued that it could not be trusted because she cut a deal with the prosecution in exchange for a reduced sentence.

But with Gomez dead and Barocio, the alleged shooter, on the lam—he's believed to have fled to Mexico—the remaining defendants were tried for months in Modesto, charged by the DA's office with murder, along with a gang enhancement charge that made life sentences a plausible outcome. The trial resulted in a hung jury.

The murder, and the the hundreds of other gang-related incidents like it, are the backdrop to the national attention currently being thrust on California's record drought and its struggling agriculture industry, much of which is located in the Central Valley. The small cities—Modesto is home to about 200,000 people—towns, and farms that sprawl across the valley produce a sizable percentage of the nation's fruits and vegetables. But in some of the region's minority communities, young people suffer from hopelessness desperate enough to drive them to join criminal organizations run by men living in prisons hundreds of miles away.

The Sebourn case centers around the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Protection (STEP) Act, a law passed in 1988 that sought to curb the growing problem of gang violence. It's a controversial measure, with legal scholars questioning its efficacy and arguing that minorities are disproportionately targeted for sentences that are greater than their crimes would normally warrant.

All photos by Jennifer Simpson

The Central Valley region has an inferiority complex, one longtime resident told me, and it's not hard to understand why. The swath of land includes the Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley and is home to 3.5 million people. The region has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in California, smog that's among the worst in the nation, and endemic poverty, with the unemployment rate across the region sitting about at about double the national average.

No wonder there's a looming specter here of gang-related crime, which experts often attribute to poverty. Reformed gangster Jesse De La Cruz is one of those experts. Now in his 60s, De La Cruz retired from criminal life after being released from Folsom Prison in 1996. He kicked his heroin habit, got a doctorate—his thesis was on the sociology of gangs—and currently makes a living as an expert witness testifying in gang trials. "There's no doubt that we have a gang problem," De La Cruz says. "But gangs are born from hopelessness, from poverty, from broken families."

Jesse De La Cruz

Stanislaus County, where Modesto is located, is traditionally a Republican place, and Modesto has a population that is about 40 percent Latino. Of course, the widespread practice of employing undocumented immigrants from Central and South America has its own consequences, such as child labor, poor working conditions, and inescapable poverty for new immigrants.

Related: Read more about the harsh conditions faced by young immigrants.

Latino gangs operating in the Central Valley can be divided loosely by whether members claim to be Northerners (Norteños in Spanish) or Southerners (Sureños). Sources I spoke with for this story contradicted one another about the distinction between a Northerner and a Southerner and full Norteños and Sureños. The English phrasing may refer to sympathizers and not gang members, but much like the rest of the underworld, truth is fluid and elusive.

It's clear that the rupture between Latinos living in Northern and Southern California began in state prison during the 1960s. While doing a bid at Duel Vocational Institution, some gangsters from Los Angeles decided to unify the gang members doing time, calling themselves La Eme (or the Mexican Mafia) in order to protect themselves from other inmates, who organized by race. But the alliance didn't last. Underlying tension between the Northerners and Southerners exploded after a murder over a pair of shoes in San Quentin; the Northerners formed Nuestra Familia (Our Family), the Southerners remained La Eme, and the two groups have been quarreling ever since.

Although the Nuestra Familia (Norteño) and Mexican Mafia (Sureño) are primarily prison gangs, members operate on the outside as well. Usually, senior Nuestra Familia members act as regional managers, or oversee cities, resolving disputes between members and managing the drug shipments that make up a significant portion of their revenue. It's important to remember that Norteño and Sureño gangs—there are dozens, if not hundreds, of local chapters in California—aren't by default part of the prison gangs. That requires a separate initiation. In De La Cruz's case, he says, that meant being ordered to shank someone in state prison.

Assistant DA Thomas Brennan in his office in Modesto

Brennan, 49, the lead prosecutor in the case against the Sebourns and their alleged co-conspirators, is a fearsome attorney. Packing a semiautomatic pistol for protection, he describes his lifelong passion for the law with a palpable intensity.

"It's when the gang member commits a violent crime [that] I lose concern for rehabilitation, I lose concern for diversion, because now they've hurt somebody, they've crossed the line," Brennan tells me in the Stanislaus County District Attorney's offices on Twelfth Street in Modesto's downtown. "Once that line is crossed, the hardcore prosecution comes, and I've been doing that since 1999."

A football player in high school, and a veteran—he was military police for six years—Brennan's work on gangs in Stanislaus County has attracted the eyes of the federal government, which swore him in as a special assistant US Attorney in 2008, a position that allows him to take on gang leadership thanks to extra resources. Federal prosecutions generally carry longer sentences and can also mean doing time in other states, which—theoretically, at least—makes it harder for gang leaders to control their turf from behind bars.

Brennan doesn't work alone. One of his investigators is Lieutenant Froilan Mariscal. A Modesto native, Mariscal says that he grew up in the Deep South Side neighborhood—a primarily Latino community, and one of the poorest parts of town. I ask the 37-year-old son of Mexican immigrants why he didn't turn out like many of the troubled young people who join gangs. "Luckily, I had a good household," he replies. "Both my parents were strict with us and showed me the right way of living. Unfortunately, a lot of these kids who get involved in gangs have absent parents, or just were born into the gang lifestyle. That wasn't in my family—they were hardworking people."

Mariscal says that gang crime is holding steady, unlike most violent crime, which has been declining in California and across the nation for years. "The only time there are spikes and dips is when gangs are lying low, when they know the heat is on them," he says.

Brennan credits Mariscal for being crucial in obtaining a legal mechanism called a gang injunction in Deep South Side in 2009. An injunction is a civil action—the city essentially sues the gang—that makes otherwise legal behaviors associated with gang activity punishable with jail time. According to Mariscal, the injunction typically names specific gang members, who are served with a notice informing them of the new rules. For the 43 alleged gangsters named in the legal proceedings, that means a curfew of 10 PM, among other restrictions.

"The gang was so entrenched in that area, and had been that way for two decades, our District Attorney [Birgit Fladager] wanted to use some out-of-the-box thinking," Mariscal explains. "What else can we do to fix this? Because it had been so bad for so long. The gang injunction is a tool."

Injunctions are controversial because of the restrictions they place on the alleged gang members, especially when it comes to the curfew. "I have real problems with the gang injunction," local defense attorney Robert Chase told the Modesto Bee in 2012. "It applies severe restrictions on these young men without any real due process of law." Residents told the newspaper they had mixed feelings—some claiming the injunction had a noticeable effect on their lives, while others were afraid of where it was all going.

"Look around you, it's like the Third World, man. People have nothing." —Jesse De La Cruz

I visited the neighborhood with De La Cruz, the gang expert. Although he didn't grow up there, his boyhood home was remarkably similar. In a thought-provoking memoir entitled Detoured, De La Cruz chronicles his birth in Texas to an undocumented immigrant mother, and a father who was not all that interested in raising him. De La Cruz contracted polio before he was a boy, the virus leaving him with a paralyzed foot and a limp.

After his family moved to California in search of better work and to escape from Texas's radical racial segregation, De La Cruz slowly got to know other guys mixed up with the Norteños, and the prison gang that they pay tax to and take orders from, Nuestra Familia.

After 30 years in and out of the state's prison system, De La Cruz walked out of Folsom's gates determined to stop using heroin. Ambitious to this day, he now says he intends to go to law school as well. But dropping out of Nuestra Familia led to another member of the gang killing his brother in retaliation, he says.

Standing in the tiny parking lot of a corner liquor store, I ask De La Cruz about Deep South Side. He tells me that gang involvement isn't about poverty, but rather the conditions that poverty creates. "It's about hopelessness, bro," he says with a thick California-Spanish accent. "Look around you, it's like the Third World, man. People have nothing."

His point is obvious. Looking in all four directions from the intersection, there are no sidewalks along the cracked asphalt streets, while chickens and roosters are audible all over the place. The houses are small bungalows, many falling apart. A farmer with a pitchfork yells something at me as I examine graffiti of an Aztec eagle, an icon claimed by Norteños but also the symbol of the United Farm Workers, a powerful labor union in the state.

When De La Cruz goes into the store for an ice cream sandwich, he ends up chatting with the Mexican-Yemenese guy named Sam manning the cash register. After De La Cruz mentions his red hat—the Northerners claim red as one of their colors, and the Southerners blue—Sam says that he's sporting the red hat because if he doesn't, he's going to get fucked with. Still, he swears that he's not in a gang.

I'm sitting in a cramped computer lab at the Maddux Youth Center with Ben Wheeler, who runs a group called Seeking Safety. It's part of aftercare for juvenile hall kids, a program designed around recently released youths' emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. A collaboration between Youth for Christ, a religious organization that aims to bring spirituality to kids who are looking for it, and a jobs initiative called Work for Success, the group offers a regular time for at-risk young men to express themselves in an emotionally safe space. The participants, often, have never lived with families that provide emotional safety, and some claim to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The group works through a packet that addresses coping skills, grounding, and strategies to deal with anger. The religious content is light, but definitely at the core of the teaching material. At the end of the class, the seven participants lower their heads while Wheeler says a prayer.

Afterwards, I sit down with Wheeler and a former Norteño named Daniel, who describes how his parents hadn't really been interested in raising him; for the most part his uncles were responsible for his upbringing. His uncles, he says, used to get all the boys to fight one another—it was fun for them to watch the youngsters beat each other up while they watched. As a result, Daniel has trouble feeling compassion for anyone but his kids.

When I ask why he dropped out of the Norteños, Daniel explains that it's because the gang uses young, ignorant people to achieve their own ends—and that they don't care about the collateral damage that they cause.

"The real big issue that I was able to see, and a lot of others were able to see, was that the gangs initially had a purpose," Daniel explains. As he sees it, that purpose was to protect Latinos serving time from the other inmates, and enrich themselves in the process. "[Nuestra Familia] served that purpose, but a lot of those guys ended up in Pelican Bay [State Prison] doing indeterminate [time], they have nothing coming, they can't see their families anymore. But a lot of these guys still take care of their families, they buy houses for their families. How are they doing this? They're doing this by exploiting other people, other youngsters. Keeping the cause alive, so it can benefit them."

One of Daniel's uncles tattooed the four dots on his hand, denoting that he was a Norteño (they claim the number 14, which the four dots refer to). That, along with associating with other gang members in the neighborhood, could theoretically provide local law enforcement with enough evidence to add him to the injunction—or add gang enhancements to any prison sentences he gets slapped with in the future.

"The law leaves it up to the gang experts to identify gang members," Mariscal says, adding that he must be able to demonstrate that a supposed gangster meets two of ten criteria the county uses to prove membership, like wearing colors certain colors, frequenting "gang areas,"or being seen flashing gang signs.

"It's not black-and-white, though," Mariscal insists. "Just because someone is walking down the street wearing red, doesn't mean they're a gang member... We have to be able to articulate why they fit these criteria. We can come up with a gang member in different ways. There's more than one way to do it."

Gang problems are the reason Brennan doesn't offer plea bargains— increasingly common in recent years—to most gang members. He tells me that he doesn't believe it's fair to the general public to let violent gangsters avoid justice.

Of course, defense attorneys in the Sebourn case don't agree with Brennan's approach. "A prosecutor has a duty to administer justice," Greg Bentley wrote in a text message when I asked him about the case. "In our modern-day criminal court system, this includes ensuring voluntary guilty pleas with appropriate sentences are entered by defendant through the plea bargaining process with an eye towards public safety, but also rehabilitation for those who commit crimes, especially when dealing with young people who obviously made poor life choices."

The prosecution against Sebourn and his alleged conspirators cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, including $130,000 to rent a nearby office space that was large enough to hold all of the defendants, attorneys, and bailiffs. Meanwhile, the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department assigned additional deputies to secure the block around the courtroom. This prosecution and others have driven the county's budget for publicly funded defense attorneys $700,000 in the red, for the second year in a row.

Now the DA's office is retrying the case.

"Ignoring [the reality of plea bargains] creates a significant risk that taxpayer money will be wasted in trials like Sebourn's where even those defendants who confessed are not convicted," Bentley wrote.

Sebourn's retrial is likely not going to take place until 2016, leaving those in custody—the shooter remains at large—locked up until that date. (At the moment, about 75 percent of the 1,060 inmates being held in county jail are still awaiting trial.)

Meanwhile, Brennan, the prosecutor, is moving on. After completing the litigation on an unrelated murder case, he says he'll be going to work for the State Attorney's General Office—a role that will allow him to continue working on gang prosecutions. He adds that in the long run, he wants to be an educator, training county prosecutors on how to best defeat gangs in court. But even if he won't be around to litigate the case, Brennan's office plans to charge De La Cruz with perjury for allegedly lying while testifying about the gangs wrapped up in the Modesto murder.

"It was crystal-clear, and the charges will be based on sworn testimony in a jury trial as it appears on the transcript," Brennan argues.

"I didn't testify to anything that's perjury," De La Cruz insists. "I testified to my opinion of the case. He cannot do it." Outside of Modesto, De La Cruz says he's in the middle of working on another case about a gang-related murder. The kid who did the deed received more than 100 years in state prison, a sentence De La Cruz doesn't believe is just.

But guys like Daniel, still living in the same neighborhood, dealing with the same problems, face an uncertain future. With few social programs available, and the road ahead littered with challenges, young people here are exploited foot soldiers in the middle of a prolonged battle between criminal organizations controlled by hardened gangsters locked in solitary confinement. On the other side is the justice system, which, by design, focuses on locating and punishing people that fall within its wide net. And by the time young people end up in a courtroom facing off against Brennan, or other prosecutors for murder, in some ways it's already too late. The circumstances and context that put them on that road are irrelevant. All that matters now is that they're wrapped up in what the law says is gang warfare.

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