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Sonoma County was once known for it’s lazy wine country retreats, but now, violent gang-related crimes are pressuring the county to take measures to prevent them from continuing. It is estimated that 2,000-3,000 gang members are in twenty active gangs currently on the street. The biggest gangs—and most troublesome—are the Hispanic Norteños and Sureños. But Sonoma County also has Asian, white, and black gangs as well. Most of the gangs are in Santa Rosa, but they are showing up in rural places too. Gang members are now committing most of the homicides in Sonoma County. Other gang-related criminal activities also include drive-bys, drug trafficking, petty thefts, and graffiti.
Historically, gang-related activities has taken place in major cities, but gang turf wars and influx of new recruits from immigrants and targeted youths have made the problem spread into less populous cities and rural counties. Additionally, with the recent influx of immigration and the lack of social support for many immigrant youths, gang membership has seen an increase in Hispanic involvement. In a National Juvenile Center survey, it was estimated that 49% of gang members were Hispanic, 37% Blacks, 8% White, and 5% Asians.
When asked about the perceptions of gang participation, 59% of youths identified as juvenile delinquents indicated that peer pressure and the absence of family bonding were the main factors of perpetuating gang participation. Most groups also surveyed gang participation as a way of seeking protection. Other reasons include family breakdowns and school failure.
"Carlos," 18, is a member of the Norteños. Polite and soft-spoken, Carlos tried to stay neutral to the gangs when he first entered high school. Yet every day he felt pressured to pick sides. If he hung out with people in one gang, he was hassled by the other. Even the color of his clothes was an issue.
"Basically, if you are Hispanic, you couldn't wear red because one day the Sureños be talking shit to you, and the next day, you couldn't wear blue because the Norteños be talking shit to you," he says.
Eventually, Carlos picked sides by default. He became friends with some Norteños, hung out with them and was soon known as one of them.
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“Mario”, a teen part of the Sureños gang, says "I needed the support and the love that I wasn't getting at home." Statistics support the fact that gangs are most prevalent in areas where there are many single-parent families (particularly without fathers), where parents are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, and/or where parents are not supportive or supervising their children.
Youth who perceive particular deficiencies in their lives often seek to compensate by joining gangs. Gang-life offers a loyal support group of peers, who both understand and value each member in a way that parents and other relatives cannot, attracts adolescents in the throes of self-doubt, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness. Beginning with gang initiation, however, intimidation and a new kind of fear that feeds on violent exploitation of others lead youth away from the mainstream and into byways and back alleys where weapons, drugs, delinquency, and crime replace schooling and responsible citizenship. Although gangsters may seek freedom from the pressures of society, school, parents, etc.,"...they are the ultimate conformists within the contexts of their gang rules...'Violations' (physical beatings) are regularly meted out to those who violate the gang rules."
Once inside a gang, a member instantly becomes aware that he has to follow the rules and do what he's told--or pay the price. "Right away, you can notice the person who's a higher rank than you," says Carlos. "He has the word, because if anything happens, he would be the one to tell us go do this, go to this neighborhood and do this." One of the hardest thing to do after joining a gang is getting out of it. The brutal truth of gang life is that the only way most gang members leave the gang is in a body bag. Some do manage to move on to a better, peaceful life. It might be because they reach a level of maturity that allows them to see the dangers of gang life in a different light. If they have family or get a good job and a home, they want to protect those things.
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