Born and raised in Mendocino County, Mendocino County Detective Sergeant Luis Espinoza has spent the last eight years in local law enforcement, most recently in a small group specializing in gangs: investigating, arresting, heading off adolescent boys (90 percent of county gang members are male) on the brink of going down the often one-way gang-life path. Espinoza estimates there are at least a hundred active gang members in Mendocino County, nearly all affiliated with either the Norteños or Sureños gangs, which began in California’s prisons in the 1970s.
“These gangs started in prisons, sometimes referred to as the University of Hard Knocks,” Espinoza explained. “You have to associate [with a gang] when you go to prison.” The two gangs started out with rough geographic boundaries, with Sureños in southern California and Norteños in northern California, generally north of Bakersfield. It’s a geographic distinction that has all but disappeared over the years and is especially non-existent in Mendo.
“Those lines are gone,” Espinoza said. “Up here areas are less defined. Members of the two groups could be living in the same block.” He added that sometimes they even work together. “Green wins over everybody,” he said. “Money is a motivating factor for everyone.”
He also said that gang members keep lower public profiles these days, including not flaunting their gang colors – blue for Sureños, red for Norteños, and that his estimate of “at least a hundred” active county gang members does not include other groups loosely affiliated with the two core gangs, two of which simply go by Northeners or Southeners. Espinoza said that despite the relatively small number of known gang members in a county of only 90,000 persons, in some ways they are more lethal and public concern is greater. “There are fewer gang members now than there used to be, but they are more violent: more fighting, shootings, and stabbings.” He said they make their money through drug sales, marijuana growing operations, theft, prostitution, and human trafficking. “With social media a person recruiting for prostitutes could be a phone call away,” the detective said.
I recently talked with one Northener serving time in the Mendocino County Jail. He was ok with having his picture taken but didn’t want to use his real name. He chose “Bill” for this article. Had I not known ahead of time that he was a Northener I never would have guessed it if I ran into him on the street. He looked like the kid next door. He was wearing his gang’s color – a bright red t-shirt – that I was told was simply a coincidence, that inmates don’t wear their own clothes in jail. He also had “introduction tattoos” on his hands, one of which was the four dots that are a key symbol of Norteños gang membership.
Detective Espinoza said he tells parents that these tattoos are tip-offs that their adolescent boys have taken their first steps to gang affiliation. When I asked Bill how many times he had been incarcerated I was sure I had heard him wrong when he said “at least 50 times.” I asked if he didn’t mean 15. Nope, 50 it is, a lot of time behind bars for someone just 31 years old. One was a multi-year stint in San Quentin for “breaking someone’s arm and leg. I don’t remember how it started,” he said.
Bill spent his first few years of life in Redwood Valley before moving to Cloverdale, where he grew up. He is an oldest child in his family, with four younger sisters. His childhood reads like a sad, all-too-familiar laundry list of bad things that happen to kids growing up in violent homes with drug-and-alcohol-addicted parents.
His early years were spent in an environment of gross domestic violence between his warring parents. They split when he was seven and were each later sentenced to five years in state prison for domestic violence — with no early outs for either one of them. Bill said a nanny was assigned to take care of him and his younger sisters. “I was bitter but I let go of it,” he said, adding that at one point he was diagnosed as bipolar and put on psychiatric meds. “They [the drugs] made everything worse,” he said.
Bill’s affiliation with the Northeners began in ninth or tenth grade; he said in many ways it was a good thing; he said the gang “gave him a lot of security, like a family.” Overall, he was surprisingly upbeat, and said he has hopes and dreams for his future just like anybody else. Bill said his goal is to be “a successful businessman” and run his own shop as a car mechanic, a goal he doesn’t see as incompatible with his gang membership. He said he plans to settle down with his fiancée, mother to two of his four children, who lives in Potter Valley. “She is very supportive,” he said, adding that he does worry about his kids. “What makes me depressed is my kids,” he said. “I’ll tell my kids not to join a gang.” The only question he would not answer is what would happen to him if he ever tried to get out of the gang that has been his home all these years. “I’d rather not say,” he said.
One who did get out of his gang and lived to tell the tale is Pastor Jerry Rivera, pastor to his flock of 50 at the Assembly of God Church on North Barnes in Ukiah. He was born and grew up in Gilroy, “the garlic capital of the world,” he laughed.
Like Bill, Pastor Jerry joined the gang life with the Northeners when he was young – just nine years old. By the time he was eleven he was all in; it was that year that he also did his first line of crank, which led to his 14-year meth addiction. Also like Bill, Pastor Jerry’s family was dysfunctional: five kids, abusive alcoholic father, mother who worked all the time. His gang became his family. “You find brotherhood; you find we’re all down for the same thing. Like the military, we all had each other’s backs. It’s about power and dominance,” he said. They supported themselves with all manner of criminal activities. “I was involved in everything you can think of: drugs, stealing, fraud, home invasions, and sexual promiscuity. I even stole from my mother and my brother.”
Pastor Jerry’s ticket out came all at once following a spiritual awakening familiar to anyone who’s attended a 12-step program. He said he was touched by a force much greater than the force that kept him tethered to his gang. “I felt like I was being shocked by lightning from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet,” he said. “He called me to preach the gospel.” So his homies let him go, but not without the warning that he could never come back. “My wife Regina was scared like crazy but I never got beat up,” he said. That awakening then took him to lead parishes first in Boonville and now in Ukiah. “I have a deep passion for broken people,” he said. “There’s so much brokenness here.”
Moving beyond individual circumstances, Detective Sergeant Espinoza told me that societal forces in a poor county like Mendocino can make matters worse. “Everybody works,” he said. “We put too much time into being there financially instead of being there emotionally.” He believes that the persuasive tug of materialism and instant gratification also makes the gang life attractive for the susceptible. “The glamour is possessions,” he said. “Some kids are jealous of others who have more possessions. There’s this rush to be successful early, the mindset that ‘I want money, fame, and riches now’.”
Espinoza said that parents ask him all the time about how they can tell if their kids are at risk of joining a gang. “I tell them to look for changes in mood, clothing, friends, language, secrecy, getting in fights; that it’s lots of little changes that tell you they’re doing something they shouldn’t be doing.” He said he also tells them that he’s never known a young gang member starting out who played sports, or who was involved in activities outside of school, that building a life with meaningful activities can inoculate a kid against the pull of belonging to a gang.
On the positive side, Espinoza said that he knows some kids who have changed and become successful, who have “had the intestinal fortitude to say goodbye.” He himself coaches baseball, basketball, and spends time with kids. “It’s a nice change from what I do,” he said. Do the sometimes daunting odds of helping a troubled kid turn his life around ever get him down?
“Never,” he said.