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The gang plague

The gang plague


Gilroy’s constant police battle is one
reason Hollister is suffering

Pinnacle Staff Writer

The woosh of cars on U.S. 101 is nonstop at the
trouble spot on East Eighth Street where Gilroy
Police Sgt. Greg Flippo parks his car.
The cream-colored apartments he eyes have seen
better days, even before a few of the city’s most
hardened gang members moved in and built a
Sureño stronghold, marked by the young men who
guard the building’s entrance.
The sound of Tejano music beckons Flippo to an open garage, where a man leans against a car
aloofly smoking a cigarette. Flippo notes that the man’s Hawaiian shirt and baseball cap are blue, the
colors sported by gang members newly arrived from Mexico. The rival Norteños are second or third
generational and wear red.
The music grows louder as Gilroy’s gang expert walks toward the garage filled with balloons, party
lights and suddenly nervous partygoers. One rushes into the house, the screen door slamming behind.
“You guys staying out of trouble?” Flippo asks.
The Sureño stares. He has an eight ball tattoo on his stomach and a probation order hanging over his
head that makes him searchable at any time and Gilroy police, as part of a comprehensive crackdown
on gangs, make sure they take advantage whenever possible.
The man exhales a trail of smoke as Flippo walks away.
“He’s been in and out of the system already. He’s only 23,” Flippo said as he walks back to his car.
The idea behind ACT is to make criminals, specifically gang members, feel unwelcome in Gilroy. It
works as evidenced by the growing gang presence in Hollister, where many have fled.
“They’re just looking for reasons,” said one scowling Sureño, who declined to give his name, “to put
you into the system.”
All-out war
For the last 10 years, the Gilroy Police Department has waged war on its street gangs, sending
hardcore gangsters to look for friendlier towns, new neighborhoods or to prison. To this end, the
GPD created the Anti-Crime Team. The department spends $1 million a year and devotes eight officers
to the unit. ACT is nearly half the size of a similar team in San Jose, with a population of 917,971 23
times larger than Gilroy.
Tough enforcement comes at a price to neighboring communities. Gilroy officers routinely learn of the
Garlic City’s most active criminals fleeing to Hollister. Gilroy’s taggers, tracked by police, are spraying
graffiti in Hollister.
Graffiti, drive-by shootings, beatings, stabbings, beer skips, murders without obvious motive all are
indications of gangs taking hold in a town. Hollister, where one murder a year is common, currently is
investigating four unsolved murders, two believed to be gang-related. Still, not a single officer is devoted
full-time to gang enforcement.
General crime trends citywide have remained relatively stable, but Hollister Police Chief Bill Pierpoint
confirmed that local gangs are getting tougher.
“I don’t know if it’s jumped or not, but (gang-related) crime seems to have gotten a little bit more
violent,” he said.
Pierpoint’s part-time gang expert said gang membership is not growing, but the sheriff and district
attorney-elect strongly disagree. Unlike Gilroy, Hollister police do not track gang-related crime, so
trends and statistics are impossible to come by.
Gilroy police are pleased they have driven some gang members out of the Garlic City, though they
feel badly for departments whose cities don’t allocate funding to mount similar fights.
“I hate to say it but a lot of them wind up in Hollister,” said Flippo, who runs ACT.
San Benito County’s District Attorney-elect agrees.
“It’s like Jello,” said John Sarsfield, currently a Monterey County prosecutor. “If you press on it, it
squishes out everywhere else. They’re as mobile as the rest of society.”
Suppression’s Side Effects
The statistical trend for assaults, a common way gangsters solve their disputes, has gradually risen in
San Benito County since the late 1990s. Statistics from the state Attorney General’s office show that
from 1996 to 1998, there were between 130 and 150 assaults reported countywide. That number shot
up to 302 assaults by 2000 before dipping back to 193 assaults last year.
“Sometimes, I used to drive through Hollister on my way home from work and say, ‘Oh sh--, there’s
so and so,” said Gilroy Detective Dan Zen, a former member of the gang team.
A little more than a year ago, Zen spotted one of Gilroy’s most wanted criminals standing in front of a
fast-food restaurant in Hollister. Two days before, ACT had turned the Garlic Capital upside down
looking for the suspect, he said.
While no one keeps statistics on gang migration, Gilroy Sgt. Kurt Svardal also has noticed the trend.
“We used to go to Hollister to do our follow-ups, when we did our victim one day, suspect the next,”
said Svardal, a former ACT member.
Svardal also said he routinely heard from probation officers that their charges had gone to Hollister to
get away from ACT. In almost every case, it was a hard-core gangster.
“You get rid of them and sometimes your gang problem goes away,” he said. “You get a very strong
hardcore gang member, he is going to fight for his cause, territory, no matter what.”
Blame for part of Hollister’s tagging explosion also goes to graffiti vandals from Gilroy, which has
cracked down severely on tagging. Each tag is photographed and then interpreted by ACT Officer
Chérie Somavia, who has tracked dozens of Gilroy taggers for prosecution. The Pinnacle gave Somavia
a batch of graffiti photos taken in Hollister to examine.
“Some of it is definitely stuff I recognized from Gilroy,” she said.
While the graffiti itself is not always gang-related, the perpetrators are often looking for gangster
acceptance, a chance for them to gain fame among their peers.
Why Hollister?
The reasons gangsters like Hollister are the same reasons thousands of other families have moved to
town over the past decade lower housing prices and a scenic community. Gang members also say it’s
easier to live where police and the courts don’t hound them.
One reason is that the HPD is grappling with a serious staffing shortage reportedly as many as a
dozen officers, a figure Chief Pierpoint said he did not feel comfortable comfirming. The shortage is due
to injuries and vacant positions the department has had trouble filling because of higher salaries paid in
neighboring communities.
Not a single officer is assigned to gang enforcement at this time, even though HPD brass think an
anti-gang team could be useful.
“The idea of a taskforce is good, but the ability to support is not there because of personnel body
issues,” said Pierpoint.
In addition, District Attorney Harry Damkar, who leaves office next month, has never used the state
law that allows tougher gang-enhancement charges on crimes. The law means that beatings, stabbings,
even thefts can bring more jail time if a gang member was involved. He said linking gangs with crime is
impossible without cooperation between judges, police and his office something that has not yet
“We have no certified gangs in San Benito County,” he said. “Certifying a gang involves a series of
legal procedures. It’s a legal definition. You need police officers experienced enough. You really need
more resources dedicated to it.”
The Blue-Red Fault Line
The Central Coast’s gang world is split along a social fault line that runs from Salinas through southern
Santa Clara County to San Jose, with dozens of cracks running off the main vein into Hollister,
Watsonville and Los Banos. The difference is cultural.
Gangs are in almost every major California city. Norteños express their loyalty with red belts,
shoelaces and shirts, while Sureños do the same with blue. Many Gilroy Norteños even have tattoos of
Garlic bulbs on their necks. The Norteños outnumber the Sureños in Gilroy, Morgan Hill and Hollister,
but the reverse is true in California prisons the focal point of gang culture.
Keeping track of all the petty feuds dividing gangs could be a fulltime job. Sometimes the Norteño
and Sureño gangs hate each other. Sometimes the Norteños from Gilroy hate the Norteños from
Watsonville. Sometimes, there’s what police call a “cool down” period. There are even anecdotes of
Sureño and Norteño families showing up at each other’s funerals after a murder to pay respects.
Then some Norteño girl falls in love with a Sureño gangster and it’s war all over again.
Gilroy has had serious gang problems since the 1970s. The highways and more reasonable cost of
living than other Bay Area cities make it just as appealing to criminals as it is to families, say police. In
1977 the infamous Nuestra Familia prison gang made the town a major base of racketeering and a
stopover on its heroin-smuggling route. That year police in and around Gilroy found themselves
grappling with 13 murders in a town of 17,200. Eventually the FBI forced the Nuestra Familia into
retreat, but the prison gang’s criminal way of life stayed behind.
Many longtime beat cops in Gilroy say the kids they deal with now are the offspring of criminals they
dealt with when first joining the force 20 or 30 years ago.
Like any city, the gang problem in Gilroy ebbs and flows depending on who is out of jail, but
hardcore gang members have always accounted for a disproportionate amount of criminal activity,
police say.
In the early 1990s, when ACT’s Flippo was a detective, fences turned into graffiti message boards
and violence grew more intense.
“A majority of my caseload was gang-related stuff at that time,” Flippo said. “I mean we had the
drive-bys, the stabbings and everything else, and it was just becoming very overwhelming.”
A student was stabbed to death in broad daylight on the high school campus; five innocent bystanders
were sprayed with bullets during a drive-by shooting at a local gas station.
The community was shocked. Police brass lobbied a reluctant Gilroy City Council to create ACT.
They finally agreed.
ACT doesn’t just focus on gangs; it goes after every type of crime trend from DUIs during the
holidays to a check forgery operation last spring. The ACT team also puts together a list called “The
Lucky Seven,” a monthly handout of the city’s most active criminals.
To keep the team efficient and flexible, Gilroy’s unit has a narcotics expert, a juvenile crime
prevention officer, a probation officer and several investigators. During the weekdays, they roust kids
from loitering on campus grounds after school and investigate gang-related crimes. At night, they go
after nests of gangsters. A recent enforcement target was an apartment complex on the 100 block of
North Pierce Street, where a group of Norteños moved in during the fall of 2001.
“For awhile, we couldn’t drive through here and not arrest someone,” said ACT Officer Jeff Guerin,
as he patrolled the complex.
By January 2002, calls for police and fire services on Pierce skyrocketed 100 percent over the
previous year. Every weekend officers made arrests for assault, drug dealing and check forgeries. The
violence peaked in late February, when four Norteños allegedly drugged and sexually molested a
13-year-old runaway. When the girl agreed to testify, her family received death threats. The case is
pending. The Norteños who weren’t jailed were evicted in early March, again sending them elsewhere.
“A lot of our more predominant gangs, because of the work we’re doing, they’re getting spread out
and that’s good because it makes it a lot more difficult for them to operate,” Flippo said.
Now ACT is targeting the Sureño apartment buildings on East Eighth Street. The ringleaders there,
too, will be evicted now that Flippo has met with landlords to make them aware who their tenants are.
Of course, gang members hate ACT. On a chilly November Monday night, three young Sureños
stood watch in a V-formation in their usual spot on East Eighth Street. Eyeing the road, they described
being outnumbered 20 to 1 by Norteños and being unable to walk only a few blocks from home into
Norteño territory. They aren’t, they said, worried about drive-by shootings on their block like one that
happened the night before the conversation took place. In that incident, a carload of young men
screamed “Norte” and fired two shots at a Sureño walking through the intersection of Howson and
Church streets.
“The constitution says equality doesn’t it?” one Sureño said. “(ACT) should give other neighborhoods
a hard time too. It’s discrimination against a certain type of people.”
While some hardcore gangsters chased out of Gilroy end up in neighboring Morgan Hill, it’s not as
easy for gangs to gain a foothold there, according to Chief Jerry Galvin, for obvious reasons
demographics and housing costs.
“We certainly have the gang influence just like every place else,” he said. “When we see any gang
activity, we take immediate action. We work closely with Gilroy PD all the time.”
Galvin said his department rarely has contact with San Benito County law agencies. For example,
while detectives from southern Santa Clara County police agencies meet regularly to discuss criminal
cases, they rarely meet to discuss cases with police across the San Benito County line. He’s not sure
San Benito Law Enforcement Grows Uneasy
Whether San Benito County’s current gang activity is a result of Gilroy crackdowns, San Benito
County Sheriff Curtis Hill can’t say. But he does agree the county’s gang problem is growing worse.
With a large Latino population on which to prey, Hollister is particularly vulnerable to the recruitment
efforts of hardcore gangsters for what he calls “brown on brown” violence. The local population is 55
percent Latino and the median family income is less than $60,000 annually statistics very similar to
Hill says it’s time to become more proactive, especially in charging criminals.
“We, as a community, really need to get on the suppression side. One of the deficiencies we’ve had
here in recent years is the lack of gang enhancements on that type of behavior,” Hill said. “It’s all in the
penal code, it’s all there. This town is still small where we can do that, easily, easily.”
Both Hill and the Hollister Police Department’s part-time, in-house gang expert, Sgt. Jim Weathers,
admit that without statistics, they don’t know how bad the gang problem is in San Benito County.
Officials have been long aware there is a problem, however. San Benito County Jail intake officers
ask inmates about gang affiliation and separate them accordingly. About 15 percent of the jail’s average
120-man population belongs to gangs at any given time, said Lt. Pat Turturici. The number of inmates
looking to join the gangs usually hovers around 6 to 7 percent, he said.
But what scares Turturici even more are the signs he sees outside the barbed wire fences.
“Everyday, it’s getting worse,” he said. “This little town, it’s not as safe as it used to be.”
No gang experts on the street
There isn’t a single police officer assigned to patrol Hollister’s streets on weekend nights that knows
how Hollister’s street gangs work. Weathers is the only officer with a working knowledge, and he has
been assigned to day shift to cover staffing shortages until at least January.
Weathers inherited the gang expert role when he transferred from a small police department in
Monterey County eight years ago. He described the HPD’s approach to gangs this way:
“We get a call, we respond to it,” he said. “Our officers are mostly call-to-call anyway. If we happen
to see a trend we’ll try to focus our efforts there. We don’t have a gang unit. The availability is not there.”
Hollister has one major Norteño group with two offshoot groups, he said. Like all towns in California
with a gang problem, at least a few hardcore members are linked to a prison gang called Northern
Structure, similar to Nuestra Familia.
Hollister’s four hotspots for gang activity remain fairly constant: the 50 block of Hawkins Street
downtown, the Del Rio Apartment Complex on the southwest side, the vicinity of East and First Streets
on the northeast side and Villa Hermosa on the northwest.
Weathers said, however, that it’s difficult to zero in on a particular block or park as being gang
dominated because the town is so small.
“I would say there are probably about 20 hardcore Norteño gang members. By that I mean they’ve
done serious felony crimes. Whether they’ve done time for them or not is different,” Weathers said.
Weathers guesses there could be 80 to 100 wannabes looking to pass over the hardcore threshold.
Hollister could have five tagging crews, but Weathers said that’s a guess too. Nobody is deciphering
gang graffiti those messages on walls, fences and alleyways that stake out territory.
“It’s hard to say because we just don’t keep good numbers on them. We don’t have the availability to
do it or the time,” he said. “We’ll occasionally see gang members from Gilroy. Not generally in large
groups. We have some in town that are gang members from San Jose. I see transplants from Salinas,
Watsonville, Santa Cruz.”
As for Hollister’s Sureños, they’re vastly outnumbered and none are hardcore, he said.
“Southerners here basically band together to protect each other from the northerners,” he said.
The litany of gang-related crimes
The man who shot Jose Luis Sanchez, a 38-year-old father, at a quinceanera party at the Hollister
Community Center a year ago has gang affiliation, police said. HPD brass also believe the murder of
Jesus Sandoval, 23, in September at a local car wash was gang-related.
“Somebody had heard them ask if he was a scrap (a derogatory word for a Sureño),” Chief Pierpoint
said. “He was asked if he was a gangster and then hit in the head with a pipe.”
Sandoval, one day out of Mexico, presumably was unfamiliar with the term. The killer fleeing the
scene was described as a 25-year-old Hispanic male.
The scrap question is a dangerous one. On Nov. 19 a carload of teenagers asked a 14-year-old
Mexican boy in front of his apartment on Hollister’s Rancho Drive if he was a “scrap.” One of the
teenagers jumped out and stabbed the boy in the leg with a box cutter.
Police also suspect a gang member stabbed a clerk at the 7-11 on San Benito Street while skipping
out of the store with beer in early November. A surveillance photo shows that the knife-wielder was a
young Hispanic male with a Mongol-patch haircut, a type of crew cut save for a patch of stringy hair in
the back that is popular with gangsters.
“I would venture to say most of our beer skips are perpetrated by gang members,” Weathers said.
“Our gang members create a disproportionate amount of crime for this town, a lot of which goes
Logistics are partly to blame for unreliable gang statistics in Hollister. It’s impossible right now, for
example, for the HPD to glean the number of drive-by shootings an almost universal indicator of gang
violence that have occurred over the last 10 years or even the last five years because the information is
on different computer systems, according to the records department. Perhaps it’s possible to pull out
how many drive-by shootings there have been over the last two years, though it would take time and
there isn’t a process on how to go about it, Records Supervisor Jeannie Tyler added.
Often the HPD doesn’t learn of a crime until a hospital nurse calls to say someone walked in with a
suspicious injury such as a knife wound, Weathers said. And when the police go to the hospital and
interview the victim they might get no cooperation, which means no crime report to file.
“A lot goes unreported, I don’t know how much,” Weathers said.
Weathers has heard the rumor that a Norteño extortion ring has targeted some Mexican markets in
town, but would give no further information. Anecdotal evidence suggests Mexican nationals are
routinely targeted on payday for robbery by Norteños, he said.
“Some of them will tell you, ‘Yeah, I’ve been robbed, I’ve been robbed lots of times,’ but you can’t
keep statistics on stuff that isn’t reported,” Weathers said.
Gang-related crimes mean harder-to-solve cases, ACT’s Flippo said, because witnesses fear
retaliation and are reluctant to testify. The last three unsolved murders in Gilroy, for example, are all
believed to be gang-related. That makes six unsolved gang murders between Hollister, Gilroy and
Morgan Hill.
“The biggest thing is the witness intimidation, so you don’t have witnesses as likely to come forward
and tell you what they saw because they fear these guys will somehow find out,” Flippo said.
Meet the New District Attorney
San Benito County District Attorney-elect John Sarsfield, a Monterey County prosecutor,
remembers when the people of King City realized they had a gang problem six or seven years ago. It
took a shootout on Broadway the equivalent of a shootout on San Benito Street in Hollister or
Monterey Street in Gilroy and it has changed King City forever, he said.
One by one, Sarsfield saw the gangs encroach into sleepy small towns across the Salinas Valley, and
those communities are still grappling with the effects: parks where kids can’t play, companies that decide
they’d rather do business elsewhere and skyrocketing hospital costs to pay for injuries caused by
violence. Last weekend alone, Salinas recorded four gang-related murders.
“(Gang violence) can spill over and it does,” Sarsfield said. “The thing to remember is (Salinas is) only
half an hour away.”
Sarsfield said one of the reasons he ran for the D.A. was to stop a community he loves from denying
it has a gang problem. He wants to see a stronger emphasis on prevention programs.
Like Hill, Sarsfield also wants to see local law agencies cooperate with each other and take the gangs
head-on with a heavy suppression effort. Sarsfield wants to lock up hardcore gangsters with gang
enhancement charges that automatically force them to serve 85 percent of their sentences.
“That’s one of the first things that’s going to change,” he said. “If you look at the straight numbers, my
understanding is gang problems are getting worse. Certainly tagging is getting out of hand and that goes
hand in hand with it.”
The potential consequences of doing nothing are not worth the gamble, Sarsfield said. Communities
suffering from gangs and graffiti see crime rates go up, and once the gangs get a foothold it becomes
extremely difficult to get rid of them, he said. When he walks through downtown, he sees young men
wearing red from head-to-toe. Sooner or later it won’t be just the clothing that’s red, he said.
And it takes only one major shooting, stabbing or assault to set off a violent competition. Those four
murders in Salinas started over a friendly pickup game of football.
“In class I like to use an analogy that it’s like cancer. You don’t want to ignore cancer,” Sarsfield said.
The Catch-up Game
It’s hard watching any kid drift into a gang, Gilroy’s cops will tell you. Round and round they drive the
streets, cruising the hot spots and the low-income neighborhoods.
Even with ACT, Gilroy still has two to three active Sureño gangs and five Norteño gangs. The
numbers fluctuate, but there are sometimes more than 150 hardcore gangsters. Then there are the
associates: drug dealers, drug addicts, older career criminals and flocks of misguided youngsters looking
to belong.
“If you want to go all the way down to the little youngsters now in middle school that are very
influenced and want to get involved (500 gang members) could be a very safe number,” Flippo says.
“And it’s unfortunate because we are seeing it all the way down even to the elementary school level.
These kids already want to fly colors. They all want to grow up like big brother or their neighbor or
Flippo jokes that gangs give him good job security, but he often ponders the youngsters he
“There are so many different reasons why kids get into gangs, but No. 1 is just that sense of
belonging,” he says. “That peer pressure is just awesome. Kids get sucked up into it, and it’s sad,
because it can totally screw up their lives. I see all these younger kids; they’ve all got dreams and goals.
They’re still thinking about jobs, houses and family, like all of us, but they get into that lifestyle and it’s
usually prison. It’s a cold hard fact.”
As he drives and talks, Flippo spots a familiar face a Norteño riding a bicycle without a reflector
crossing the railroad tracks at Old Gilroy Street. The Norteño covers his glazed, red eyes as the
unmarked car stops.
He holds in one hand a bottle of liquid detergent for his aunt and in the other a crank pipe.
Flippo digs a neatly bent screwdriver out of the Norteño’s jeans pocket, then sits the man on the
sidewalk as he paces back and forth asking about the glass pipe. The Norteño murmurs something
“Liar!” Flippo yells. “I’m not arresting you because there’s no residue in this pipe. If there was one
speck of residue in this I’d be taking you in.”
Flippo raises the pipe to shoulder level and drops it on the cement. He sweeps the glass shards off
the sidewalk with his foot, keeps the screwdriver and tells the Norteño to take home the detergent. It
seems clear the screwdriver was used to pry open car doors or windows.
Afterward Flippo hooks up with Officers Jim Gillio and Guerin and they drive back to East Eighth
Street for ACT’s third visit of the night. The Sureños hang out on a wall under a broken streetlight.
Some Sureños have dropped in from Morgan Hill, and ACT members think trouble could be brewing
with the Norteños.
“I thought you weren’t going to hang out here anymore, dude,” Gillio says to a 15-year-old Sureño
chatting with a girl. “What’s up?”
Meanwhile, Guerin takes a knife from a kid looking to be in his early teens.
“That’s not the type of thing you use to clean your nails,” Guerin says as he pulls out the
teardrop-shaped blade.
The officers leave to do bar checks, then come back to East Eighth Street after the 11 p.m. curfew,
where they spot the same Sureño with the same girl, this time on a picnic bench. Gillio sits next to them
and lets out a small breath.
“What’s your mom’s number?” Gillio says to the Sureño.
Gillio tries to keep the Sureño talking as Guerin escorts the girl home.
“You know if you ever want to come to the other side of the law we make pretty good money and
get to talk to nice guys like you all night,” Gillio says.
When the Sureño’s mother drives up, Gillio explains the situation in Spanish as she stares at her
mortified-looking son and apologizes repeatedly. Then she wags a finger in the boy’s face.
“You are not supposed to be out here. Did I tell you or didn’t I tell you?” she says to her son in
“No, you told me,” the Sureño replies meekly.
The Sureño gets in the car with his mom and they drive away.
“He’s got the nicest family in the world,” Gillio says.
After the young girl tries to trick Guerin at the wrong house, the officer finds the right one a few doors
“How was the mom?” Gillio asks.
“She was furious,” Guerin says. “She doesn’t want her daughter hanging out with a gangster.”
The officers are lucky this time. Guerin says there is nothing more disheartening than to call a parent
after curfew and get a “so what” answer.
“What can you do at that point?” Guerin asks. “How can you expect them to be any different?”

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3 major gangs, not 2

In addition to the Sureños and Norteños, there's another gang involved, spreading fear and violence in their effort to control turf and dominate the other gangsters: the police.

Their crimes include an endless spree of intimidation, assault, kidnapping, grand theft, racketeering, and sometimes even murder.

Like any gang, sometimes this violence is retribution for actions taken by the target - sometimes deserved, sometimes undeserved. Other times, these actions aren't really aimed at the target at all, but rather at simply terrorizing the other gang members into submission, so that the Pig gang can gain control of this corner or that sidewalk, and strut around as the top dogs of the day.

It's all just a turf war. For millions of years, predators have formed packs and fought blindly for territorial dominance. Today is no different.



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