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GANGS IN GREELEY: Living in a gang neighborhood

Cesar Ceballos spray paints over a gang graffiti on the fence next to his house at 16th Ave and 6th Street. Dealing with problems such as graffiti is a part of life for Ceballos and many other people living in neighborhoods with high gang activity.

Jesse Fanciulli, (Bio) fanciulli@greeleytrib.com
April 30, 2005 - When gangs are a problem in your neighborhood, you might hear gunshots in the middle of the night, like the ones that woke Ann Ratcliffe, 61, from sleep in her north Greeley bedroom on a summer night two years ago. The next morning she found bullet holes in the house next door.

A police officer might show up at your door, like the one who came to Susie Garcia's home in southeast Greeley. The officer wanted to know if Garcia noticed that the west wall of her house was marked with gang graffiti. No, Garcia, told him, she didn't see the freshly spray-painted "Sureño 13" -- which identifies one of Greeley's gangs -- on her house.

When gangs are big in your neighborhood, you are probably afraid. So afraid you won't let your grandkids out after dark, like 76-year-old Alice Renner, who locks herself inside her northeast Greeley house every night. So afraid, you will not confront the neighbors who give you belligerent looks as they swagger through your front yard instead of using the sidewalk. Monique Trujillo, a 37-year-old mother of three, stays inside when the thugs in blue shirts and bandanas cut across her lawn in the 1800 block of 6th Street.

"They walk through my yard like they own the place," Trujillo said of the gangbangers. "They give you that hostility, that 'I'm going to walk through your yard whether you like it or not.' I am not willing to say anything to them because I am not willing to die for it."

She and her husband confronted one of them about walking through their yard once, and a few days later, she read about him in the newspaper.

He is a suspect in a gang-related murder.

When gangs are big in your neighborhood, you're likely to see your property values decline. You might wake in the middle of the night with blue and red lights bouncing around the walls of your bedroom. You will deal with an emotional Molotov cocktail of anger and fear.

Mike Carlie, a sociologist and author who studies gangs, explored the relationship between gang activity and neighborhoods as part of his research for his 2002 book, "Into the Abyss: A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs."

Carlie's research supports the idea that the victims of gang activity are not just the rival members who wind up with bullet and knife wounds: The victims are the unlucky souls who live in areas marked by gang activity.

"These are the people who find their property vandalized, burglarized or damaged by gunfire. They are the ones who have a hard time selling their houses because", Carlie said, "real estate agents and potential homebuyers are scared away by the telltale bars over the windows and the graffiti -- a way gangs mark territory".

"Few, if any, of the residents of a gang-infested neighborhood can escape the negative consequences of a gang's presence," Carlie said.

Following are accounts of what it's like to live in the Greeley neighborhoods where gang activity festers.

LIVING AFRAID

Alice Renner, a grandmother of 15 and great-grandmother of 11, bought her Billie Martinez Elementary School-area home 57 years ago.

She raised her five kids in this house, which is now cluttered with almost six decades of memorabilia.

Back when her children were growing up, this was a good neighborhood, Renner said. She thought nothing of letting her kids play kick the can and hide-and-seek after dark; she used to sit on her porch and take in the twilight.

A police officer used to live nearby, Renner said, and a county judge made his home a block away. A judge wouldn't dare choose to live in this neighborhood now.

"It's certainly not like it was," Renner said. "I wouldn't permit the grandchildren to play out there today. In fact, we don't even sit out there after dark anymore."

"Out there" is Renner's neighborhood, where at least five gang-related shootings have occurred in the past year and a half. Out there is where she sees kids roaming the streets long after midnight.

"What are they doing out there at 2 and 3 in the morning?" Renner asked. "Certainly not any good."

Renner isn't sure who vandalized her lawn ornaments or who's responsible for breaking into her neighbor's truck and stealing $300 worth of tools.

But, like so many people who live in gang neighborhoods, Renner blames the gangs for a good portion of the crime.

Her suspicions aren't unfounded: Gang members are more far more prone to violence and commit a disproportionate amount of crime, according to the 1997 Rochester Youth Development Study.

"These kids today don't even have respect for their teachers. They don't even have respect for the cops," said Renner, a former Greeley-Evans School District 6 bus monitor. "It's a hell of a mess."

It's a mess that Renner responds to with locks and chains on her doors and bitterness in her heart.

"It all changed," Renner said of her neighborhood. "Why did it all change?"

Twenty-five blocks to the south, Joann Aguilar and Susie Garcia ask the same question.

Like Renner, these longtime residents of the Greeley Mall-area watched gang activity change their neighborhood for the worse. In the past 18 months, three gang-related shootings have occurred within blocks of their homes.

"This used to be a pretty safe neighborhood," Garcia said. "I used to go to the mall and not even lock the door."

Not a chance that will happen today. Not after Garcia's house was broken into and her car were windows smashed out three times. Garcia's neighbors moved away after their fence, pickup truck and car were tagged with gang graffiti. Her own house has been a canvas for graffiti:

Someone wrote "Sureño 13" on the west side of her home about a year ago.

"I didn't know about it until the police showed me," Garcia said. "My first thought was, 'Why would kids do something like this, destroy someone's property?' "

Aguilar, who lives across the street from Garcia in the 1900 block of 30th Street Road, has faced similar violations. She suspects gang members are to blame for the air compressor stolen from her husband's work truck and the graffiti that covers the west side of her fence. Not long ago, someone stole her son's dirt bike. Aguilar's daughter later found it covered in gang slogans including "north side" and "vato loco."

"It's sad," Aguilar said. "A lot of things happen."

Feeling powerless

The sense of powerlessness that residents such as Aguilar feel bothers Greeley police officer Mike Prill, an investigator with the gang unit.

Prill said he hates that people don't feel safe in their own homes.

"I became a cop because I can't stand bullies," Prill said. "I don't want people to feel scared."

But gang members create such overwhelming unease for their neighbors that some are afraid to report criminal activity. Monique Trujillo, a 37-year-old janitor and mother of three, is one of the silent ones. Trujillo lives in the 1800 block of 6th Avenue. She grew up on the northside of Greeley, and Trujillo says she can spot a gang member when she sees one.

They are the thugs in blue jerseys who cut through her yard, fire guns from their back porch and get into brawls late at night. They are the ones with car stereos that rattle the windows in the wee hours of the morning and the ones who stare her down, especially when she wears red.

Last fall, Trujillo heard a fight that ended with a gunshot. "I have never been terrified. I am as stubborn as the next person. But I thought, 'They shot a gun.' ... I automatically fell to the ground I was so scared." Then Trujillo checked the rest of her family, to make sure they were alive.

Afterward, she went to her friend, a University of Northern Colorado campus police officer, and asked, "What can I do about this?"

He told Trujillo she had to see the person fire the shot and get a description. In other words, she could do nothing.

"I love my husband and my children, and I wanted to do something to protect them, and there's nothing I can do. There's nothing I can do," Trujillo said. "The police aren't going to be camped outside your door 24 hours a day."

Neighborhood influences

Fear that racks people who live in areas with pronounced gang problems goes beyond the gunshots and graffiti. They are afraid of how the neighborhood will influence their kids, and for good reason. Many sociologists agree that living in an area with gang problems is one of the biggest influences on a child's decision to join a gang. The children who live in the northeast Greeley neighborhood near Island Grove Regional Park, for example, see the risks of gang membership -- but they are also subject to the temptations.

On the bitter cold evening of Dec. 30, the usual cluster of kids who live at Island Grove Village at 14th Avenue and 1st Street began the evening congregated in their usual hangouts on the housing project lawns and basketball courts.

About 8 p.m., a bullet changed the tone of the evening, drawing the kids' attention to the coldest realities of living in this neighborhood.

Police and paramedics rushed to find James Goslin, 34, dead of gunshot wounds in his Island Grove Village apartment. The kids gathered on the peripheries of the yellow police tape and watched paramedics wheel Goslin's body by on a gurney.

The murder later proved to be drug-related, but the suspects, Matthew Alfaro, 21, and Casimiro Rodriguez, 29, of Greeley were both known gang members.

Kids at Island Grove Village said they didn't know the murder suspects, but their familiarity with gang activity in the neighborhood goes beyond cursory awareness.

They have older siblings and cousins in gangs so they know the colors. They know that 14 is the number that represents the Norteño gang, and 13 represents the rival Sureños. Cops say that neighborhood affiliations don't necessarily dictate which gangs kids decide to join -- family ties are more influential. But still, in this north Greeley neighborhood, some of the kids at Island Grove Village can rattle off derogatory terms for the gang commonly associated with the south side of town.

Rats, scraps, hoodrats, surats.

The kids at Island Grove Village know the lingo and the means to violence: the baseball bats painted red, known as scrapbeaters.

Island Grove Village property manager Dick Maxfield and his staff say they have no tolerance for gangs.

Maxfield trains his staff to be observant for gang colors, supplies them with "Stop the Violence" handbooks, cleans up graffiti with lightning speed and has evicted tenants for gang activity.

"Boy, I'll tell you, we don't mess with them," Maxfield said. "... Ever vigilant, that's our byword."

Island Grove Village, a low-income housing program run in conjunction with a local church, organizes activities for kids that are wholesome alternatives to the gang influences that are part of the neighborhood. A bus bound for the Boys & Girls Club picks up young tenants at the site; the library Bookmobile makes Island Grove Village part of its route; on-site classes, preschool and activities such as the annual family picnic are all part of a system to dilute the gang influences in the area.

Yet the children of the complex are not immune. They see the cars, the girls, the money, the sense of belonging that comes with gang affiliation. They know that gang membership commands respect in the neighborhood.

As they gathered near the yellow tape, a couple of them exchanged banter about their gang ties.

"My cousin's in a gang," said 10-year-old Jasmine Vizcaino, who said her cousin in a member of the Sureños.

A boy who claims his brother is with the Norteños fires back: "He's lucky my brother is on the ankle monitor."

None of the dozen or so kids who gathered outside the murder scene admit a desire to join a gang.

"It's scary," Jasmine said. "You might get killed."

A fear of early death seemed to be on the minds of the kids at Island Grove Village the night of the murder. But other influences may pull stronger after the yellow tape is gone. In a 2001 report, the Koch Crime Institute pinpointed characteristics that define neighborhoods with high rates of gang activity: Gangs are still largely populated by young people from disenfranchised neighborhoods characterized by overcrowding, high unemployment, high drop-out rates, lack of social and recreational services, and a general feeling of hopelessness.

Take a glance at census information for the Greeley neighborhoods that have experienced the most gang-related violence in the past 18 months, and you'll see the socioeconomic factors described in the Koch report.

Behind the statistics are the kids at Island Grove Village, some of whom wear gang colors and talk the lingo.

Thirteen-year-old Enrique Columbos sports red and black shoelaces as a sign of respect for the Norteños. The shoelaces are a sign of the neighborhood Enrique calls home.

"Gotta represent," he said.

Fighting Back

Sociologist Carlie supports the idea that neighborhood traits that foster gang activity can be reversed -- but only if residents are willing to take up the cause.

In other words, rather than barricading themselves inside after sunset, Carlie encourages people in gang-saturated areas to start Neighborhood Watch programs, explore ideas for more youth activities and arrange meetings with police.

Ann Ratcliffe, 61, and her neighbors are a testament to what can happen when a neighborhood takes action against gangs.

A shotgun blast prompted Ratcliffe to action in the summer of 2003. For months, problems had been surfacing in the house across the street, eventually culminating in an arson that police think was retaliation for a gang-related shooting.

"We knew we were dealing with a gang. We saw the red colors," Ratcliffe said.

On the night the gun blast woke Ratcliffe from sleep, she knew it was time to fight back.

"We just started talking to our neighbors," Ratcliffe said. "We had people come out and say, 'Wow, I'm worried about this, and I'm glad you are doing something.' "

Ratcliffe and her neighbors invited officer Prill to give a presentation on gangs, and police made a point to patrol the area at night more.

Residents started learning each other's names and watching out for each other. They started regularly reporting gunshots and graffiti.

A Neighborhood Watch was born.

"There's a lot going on around here, but if you know people, it helps," said 50-year-old Virginia Savage, who helped organize the Neighborhood Watch. Savage's partner, Denise Hall, is chairwoman of the Neighborhood Watch chapter.

The women live in a home that still bears traces of the gunfire that spurred the neighborhood to action two years ago.

Last year, on National Night Out, an about 150 people in the neighborhood gathered for hot dogs and a show of solidarity against the crime and gang activity that threatens the neighborhoods northeast of 14th Avenue and 5th Street.

Today, problems linger. Gang graffiti still mars fences and alleyways. There's still work to be done.

But Ratcliffe has noticed a change.

When she rides her bike in the area, people wave back. She's met some nice people through all the meetings with her neighbors.

She's not sure if gang activity has declined or simply that fewer people in the neighborhood are paralyzed by the fear.

She suspects it's the latter.

"You deal with fear in here," Ratcliffe said, motioning toward her heart. "The fear is our own. Getting people together helps deal with the fear."

For all the bitter fruit that gang activity bears, the irony is that gangs also can be seeds of positive change, if the neighborhood fights back.

 

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