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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
THE YOUNG AND ARRESTED: Aila Malik, executive director for Fresh Lifeline for Youth, at the group's Milpitas office. Her organization is partially funded by the mayor's gang task force and is trying to slow the trend of younger and younger recruitment in area gangs.

Toy Soldiers

Behind the statistics is the story of why San Jose gangs are getting younger and more violent

By Erin Sherbert

PETER was born into a gang. Even before he was in middle school, the San Jose teen was told what to wear and who to hate. By the time he was 9 years old, he was a full-fledged member of the Crips, alongside his cousins and uncles.

Being in a gang wasn't too bad, he says, until he got into high school. That's when his fellow gang members started asking more of him; before he knew it, Peter was leading gang riots and getting into fights. Eventually he spent some time in jail.

That was when he decided to get out.

Now, Peter, 19, works closely with the Fresh Lifeline for Youth, an outreach organization. What he sees now is kids getting drafted into gangs as soon as they are old enough to leave the house.

"The kid is a scapegoat," said Peter, who didn't want to use is last name. "Cops don't bother them, they leave them alone because they are kids."

Recent media reports have tracked how San Jose's gang activity is on the rise, but what's even more disturbing is the story of how and why more gang members are setting their sights on San Jose's youth. They scour the playgrounds, parks and even school campuses, asking kids as young as 9 years old to commit to the gang lifestyle.

It's not just about expanding their gang influence—they're also looking to avoid jail time. With California's three strikes law and stiffer punishments for crimes associated with gangs, older gang members are starting to draft young kids to do the job.

"I think the best way to put it is warfare," said Hector Gonzalez, who runs a youth outreach program in San Jose. "It's like in Nicaragua getting young 12-year-old kids—you are preparing your troops."

Changing Motives

Until recently, San Jose could brag about its low crime rate and minimal gang violence. But during the last six months, that's changed. The city recently lost its title as the safest big city in the nation, slipping to the No. 3 spot. And gang-related crimes have been on the rise, particularly violent crimes.

This year, there have been 32 murders, 13 of which have been confirmed as gang-related, according to San Jose police. The most recent murder was Nov. 23, when a gunman fired shots in garage, killing two people and injuring one. Police are still investigating what they believe was a gang-related shooting.

Gang violence is even spilling over into the schools. In early September there was an attempted homicide, when a student was stabbed in the chest at San Jose High School.

On average, it is kids between on the ages of 15 and 17 committing these crimes.

The underlying motives of gang violence are changing, too. Gangs are no longer fighting strictly over drugs and turf; the violence is also rooted in domestic disputes and love triangles gone awry among rival gang members. When these conflicts escalate, gangs are resorting to violence more now than ever before, said Angel Rios, deputy director of San Jose's Parks and Recreation Department.

"It's very disheartening," said Rios, who is a major player in the mayor's gang task force. "It makes our job more difficult because then we have to amp up our conflict resolution and our domestic violence intervention a la gang style."

The recent swell of gang violence in San Jose has been intense enough to persuade Mayor Chuck Reed to ask the council to approve an additional $1 million for gang prevention and intervention programs this year.

With that additional money, task force leaders are literally geo-mapping the whole city, looking for problem areas as well as reallocating resources to address younger populations who are increasingly susceptible to gangs. They want to extend community center hours, offer more after school programs and work one-on-one with the middle schools, talking to kids about the consequences of gangs.

The city's gang task force was created more than a decade ago, when then-Mayor Susan Hammer wanted to tap into resources that would help tackle the city's growing gang problems.

At that time, the mayor's philosophy was straightforward: stop the violence. The emphasis was law enforcement and jail time. But that vision has evolved over the years to include more prevention. Former Mayor Ron Gonzales pushed for a new task force philosophy: "reclaim our youth," with intervention and prevention as the centerpiece.

When Reed was elected to office this year, he continued to aggressively champion San Jose's gang task force program, which has been emulated across the nation.

The task force now funds more than 20 community organizations, all of which play a role in attempting to keep kids out of gangs. Some of the programs include tattoo removal, conflict resolution, substance abuse counseling and after-school activities aimed to keep kids busy at all hours, such as midnight basketball.

"We cannot arrest our way out of a gang problem," Reed said. "Unfortunately, the kids are getting into gang activity earlier and earlier into life."

Getting to Kids First

In previous years, gang prevention tactics were reserved primarily for high school kids. But what community leaders are feeling is that their resources need to stretch beyond that population as they watch more young kids get mixed up in gang life.

"I think that perhaps we didn't realize the need for younger kids to be served in gang intervention," said Aila Malik, executive director for Fresh Lifeline for Youth, a legal mentoring program for probation youth. FLY is partially funded through the mayor's gang task force, helping as many as 900 Santa Clara County kids every year.

But trying to get to kids before gangs do is no easy task. Younger kids, between the ages of 10 and 14 have different needs; they go through more stages, and negative influences and role models easily influence them, Malik said.

That's why community organizations are looking at how to craft some of their programs to aggressively target middle school kids. That includes more involvement from the schools and getting gang prevention programs started at the elementary school level. The bigger issue with younger kids, Malik said, is to figure out right "cocktail" of services. Before the problem gets even worse.

"I would say no, we won't see younger and younger (kids recruited), but then there is a side of me that says why wouldn't we?" Malik said.

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