On March 17, 2007, gunshots rang out near a Menlo Park high school, about a half-hour before classes let out. Edgar Cibrian, a 17-year-old member of the Sureño gang, was lying on the ground on a quiet neighborhood street, soaked in blood, with bullet wounds to his leg, lungs and liver. Somehow, he survived.
The shooter, a member of the rival Norteño gang, was arrested and sentenced to 110 years to life in prison.
Another Sureño walking with Cibrian, 18-year-old Martin Patino, dodged the bullets. Less than one year later, while doing time in a San Mateo juvenile facility, Patino helped 17-year-old Josue Raul Orozco, awaiting trial for the alleged killing of a rival gang member, escape.
“It’s a small world, isn’t it?” Deputy District Attorney Joe Cannon said of the connection.
Such connections are part of a web of crime and gang membership in the Peninsula — nearly 2,000 members within 50 different gangs — that the San Mateo Countywide Gang Task Force is working to expose and untangle.
Recent efforts by law enforcement to not only arrest gang members but to draw connections between their criminal activities have been key in mitigating the gang problem in San Mateo County in the last three years, said Sgt. Tom Gallagher of the Gang Intelligence and Investigation Unit.
The unit was formed in 2005, following a spike in gang crime as well as a scathing civil grand jury report that said the county lacked centralized information about gang information and activity.
In San Mateo County, gangs are at the center of numerous crimes, including drug dealing, auto theft, graffiti, assaults and homicides, Gallagher said. The violent crimes usually fall into the gang-on-gang category or involve a person suspected of being in a gang, he said.
The problems with gangs were not limited to certain cities or geographic areas but were widespread throughout the county. The intelligence gained from gang units was not being shared across borders, and it seemed the gangs themselves had better communication across the county’s jurisdictions than police.
With crimes frequently connected, long prison sentences for gang individuals are not enough to stop gang activity, Cannon said.
The San Mateo County Gang Task Force includes members from each of the city’s police departments, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the probation department, as well as state parole officers and federal immigration officials.
Police in each city now swap intelligence on gangs, including information on how they cross city borders, where they hide out and any other information — from their narcotics operations to the types of weapons they use and share.
“Before the gang intelligence unit, we only had knowledge from the cops on the streets, but now we are able to really track gang activity and work with other regions to determine how well we’re doing,” San Mateo police Chief Susan Manheimer said.
Now, while homicide rates are increasing in neighboring municipalities, such as San Francisco and Oakland, the rate on the Peninsula is dwindling. There were 40 killings in the county in 2005, 28 in 2006 and just 14 in 2007, according to county data.
“We believe the increased intelligence-driven efforts in the county by GTF has reduced the overall rate,” Gallagher said.
The effort has also resulted in more than 1,600 gang-related arrests since 2005 and the removal of dozens of firearms from circulation among gang members.
“Many members share the firearms, and when the task force gets a hold of those guns, they not only find links to other crimes, but they prevent further shootings from happening,” Cannon said.
Despite successes, gangs are still active in the county’s major cities, including South San Francisco, San Mateo, East Palo Alto, Redwood City and Daly City.
In June, the probation department for San Mateo noted in its budget request memo that an “increase in gang activity may require additional staff support.”
“You do what you can to keep it from reaching the level of San Francisco, San Jose or Oakland,” Cannon said. “That’s our goal.”
Nearly half of the county’s gang members are Hispanic and associated with the rival Sureño and Norteño gangs, a police official said.
Sureños are part of a criminal organization with roots traditionally in Southern California, while Norteños have traditionally been Northern California-based.
Children as young as 12 are joining gangs, with most of those who associate with gangs in the county falling within the 12- to 23-year-old age range, said Sgt. Tom Gallagher of the Gang Intelligence and Investigation Unit. Fewer in number, the older adult gang members are part of the upper hierarchy of the gang, he said.
In a sign of their youthful generation, gang members have taken to using the Internet and social-networking Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook not only for communicating with one another, but also carrying out crimes, Deputy
District Attorney Joe Cannon said.
Two years ago, a Sureño from South San Francisco went onto MySpace, bragged about his gang affiliation and said he was looking to buy a gun. Some Norteños responded, posing as fellow Sureños, and then beat and stabbed him when he showed up for the sale, Cannon said.
In a case going to jury trial Sept. 15, a woman who witnessed a gang shooting was contacted via MySpace and told to “watch her back” if she testifies, according to district attorney documents.
— Michael Aldax
Figures from the San Mateo Countywide Gang Task Force.
Estimated gang members and associates
Approximate number of different gangs
12 to 23
Age range of most gang members