This column was contributed by San Benito County Sheriff’s Office Captain Eric Taylor. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors.
First off, I appreciate the comments and feedback I have received thus far. Not all positive, but I can take the good with the bad so keep the lines of communication open at email@example.com.
In the final installment of this series (read Chapter One and Chapter Two), I want to explain what I see are the top concerns for us here locally as it relates to Hispanic criminal street gangs. My first two columns were not meant to act as an “excuse” for criminal behavior. Having an understanding for the history, ideology and philosophy of these criminal street gangs should assist us all to be creative about solutions.
There has been a real push in California to look at certain crimes differently. For example, prostitution is now often combatted through the angle of human trafficking and commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). “Trauma Informed Care” is being used to help us get to the root of the problems of addiction, sexual assault and victimization. And it is working.
Why then can we not combat criminal street gangs in the same manner? There is a hierarchy of unsavory people at the top of the food chain in the Hispanic criminal street/prison gang world. I am never one to “give up” on the possibility of people changing, but some of these gang leaders are beyond reach. They are controlling the activities on the streets of our communities. They control the trafficking of people, narcotics and stolen goods. They direct murders, burglaries, robberies, auto-theft and prostitution. They use their “soldiers” to do the grunt work. They recruit the same as the military or Google does; “Join us and your life will be better.”
But what they offer is family, social activity and relationships. Think of it this way: In college, a certain group of people join fraternities and sororities. They are not truly interested in anything “Greek” or in “Greek culture.” They want access to the best parties, instant friendships, support and an active social scene. Fraternities and sororities are supposed to make your college life “better.” Gangs are no different. They too offer access to the best parties, instant friendships, support and an active social scene. But instead of your parents paying your dues in cash, you have to “put in work.” And the other difference is once you are in, it is nearly impossible to “get out.”
We have young men and women, boys and girls, in our very own community who are lost. They have no family support. No access to “cool stuff.” They don’t have the means to get new clothes or get invited to the best parties. So along comes a local gangster. Seeing the vulnerable young person, they prey on their wants and needs. We all have a need for nourishment, social activity, family and mostly love. I was fortunate to grow up in a solid home. My parents were high school sweethearts and best friends. My sister was supportive. We had a very strong relationship with our extended family. I was loved and was reminded of such often. Nearly every gang member and associate I have encountered in my career was lacking many of these same things. Many of us are fortunate to not be able to relate with what these kids have experienced.
Many of them live in chaos. Absentee parents, abuse, addiction and poverty. They are ripe for the picking for someone that shows them “a little love.” And they are programmed that in order to show their appreciation for what they are being provided, they need to be “good soldiers.” They have to go perform criminal acts. Once they are sucked in, they cannot say no. Because saying no puts their very lives at risk.
In Watsonville, it was not uncommon for me to chase and arrest a gang member one night, spitting in my face and accosting me, then the next night giving that same kid a ride through a rival neighborhood because their parents were relocated there through section 8. We didn’t even talk, I would just pull up, motion to get in the patrol car, and drop them a few doors down. No conversation, just an understanding it was about survival. Most often they would lay down to not be seen and labeled a snitch or coward. I saw the same kids who stabbed rivals and acted all tough in front of their friends, terrified and appreciative of some caring shown toward them. That is why I feel I am in a position to shed light on a different side of these kids. Some of them are absolute punks, but the vast majority are funny, charismatic and in search of acceptance.
In closing, what we need here locally is a team of trained professionals, from multiple disciplines, to combat the growing threat of gang activity in Hollister, San Juan Bautista and San Benito County. We need a “street team” to interrupt behavior. They need to gather intelligence on the current local trends. We need to establish intelligence on who the people are that are recruiting and using our youth to be their soldiers. We need to team up with our District Attorney to prosecute gang crimes aggressively as a deterrent to behavior.
I am not proposing an aggressive, tactical team in black cars that go out and “take back the streets.” Many communities have these teams and though they have value in some places, that aggression is not needed here. We need a team that can do some proactive work to identify what is going on, who is responsible and identify the kids we can save. It is not about putting kids in jail, it is about keeping them out of the morgue. We need to work with First 5 San Benito, Community Solutions and Hollister Youth Alliance to get these kids the help they so desperately need. We need to provide real training to our educators to identify early warning signs so we can intervene before it gets out of control. We all need to come together to build confidence in one another so we can interrupt behavior, hold offenders accountable, save lost kids, and dismantle the hierarchy that is preying on and trafficking our kids. We are lucky to live here. This is a safe, good community. Let’s all work together to keep it that way.