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Gang activity increasing in Tahoe/Truckee area

Charles Levinson, Sierra Sun News Service

KINGS BEACH – He says his name is Crunchy Black.

It’s not the name his mother gave him. He approached me on his bike last Tuesday when he heard that I was asking about gangs in Kings Beach. Even through his dark Mexican skin I can see the purple rings of a black eye.

“You wanna know about gangs in Kings Beach?” he asks. “I got jumped by Surenos from Incline last night.”

He was walking alone and they cornered him because he was wearing a red shirt, though he denies an affiliation with any gang.

“They asked me if I was Norteno and I said no but they jumped me anyway,” he said. They left their card, three folded blue bandannas, on the ground.

That was Monday night. The previous Saturday, according to corroborated reports from various Kings Beach gang members, a fight broke out at a Kings Beach trailer park when rival gangs began flashing gang signs.

In the past few months gang graffiti has been appearing on fences, rocks and structures throughout the Kings Beach grid. The North Tahoe law enforcement community is taking notice.

Deputy Dave Hunt of the Placer County Sheriff’s Office said they are starting to see “a lot of young adults involved in gang activities.” Besides the increase in graffiti, they are responding to fistfights and getting more calls involving weapons, such as knives, sticks and bottles, he said.

Dan Ingalls, the school resource officer for North Tahoe High School and Middle School, has also witnessed an increase in gang activity within the schools.

“Last school year there was some activity going on that was apparently related to gang affiliations,” Ingalls said. “There is obviously gang affiliations being displayed at school through wearing of symbols and colors and groups of individuals hanging out together.”

Dan Flores, the Placer County probation officer for North Tahoe, who before coming here worked on a Los Angeles gang unit, tells a similar story.

“We’ve been talking lately about how we’re going to have to step it up pretty soon,” he said. “We’re beginning to see signs of it cropping up again both in terms of dress, and graffiti in and around the community.”

The sheriff’s office has already stepped it up. They are paying close attention to the gang situation, talking to parents of suspected gang members and confiscating bandannas, hats, belts and any other apparel typically viewed as gang regalia.

On the basketball courts there is a red shirt, a couple pairs of red shorts and a red baseball cap or two. Until recently the red was everywhere, according to a 16-year-old who calls himself “Creeper.”

“A few months ago the whole courts, the whole beach, was wearing red,” Creeper said.

The History

Red is the color of the Nortenos, symbolized by the number 14, and meaning northerners. Blue is the color of the Surenos, symbolized by the number 13, and meaning southerner.

The Nortenos and the Surenos are well established Hispanic gangs in California that date back nearly 40 years. Almost all Hispanic gangs in California affiliate with either the Nortenos or the Surenos.

The Surenos began in prison in the early 1960s when a group of Los Angeles gang members formed an alliance in prison. Known as the Mexican Mafia, or La eMe (the letter M in Spanish), they quickly grew in stature and by the mid-1960s had assumed control of most of the heroin trafficking inside California’s prisons, according to Bill Valentine’s “Gangs and Their Tattoos: Identifying Gangbangers on the Street and in Prison.”

As they hailed mostly from Southern California, members of the Mexican Mafia began referring to themselves as Surenos and adopted the number 13, since “M” is the 13th letter of the alphabet (Nortenos use “14,” since “N” is the 14th letter of the alphabet).

At the same time the state’s prisons were receiving large numbers of Mexican inmates from the more agricultural northern regions of the state. The Surenos regarded the northerners, many of who had been farm workers, as inferior because they lacked the street smarts of their Southern Californian counterparts. The Northerners organized and began calling themselves “Nuestra Familia” or Nortenos.

Tensions between the two factions came to a head inside the walls of San Quentin in 1968. “The Shoe Wars” began when Hector Padilla, a Norteno, and Robert Salas, a Sureno, shared a cell together. As the story goes, according to Valentine, Padilla had a prized pair of shoes which he polished daily.

Another Sureno saw the pair of shoes unattended in the open cell and stole them only to find out later they didn’t fit. He gave them to Salas without telling him to whom the shoes belonged. When Padilla saw Salas, his roommate, wearing his shoes he accused him of stealing them and a fight ensued. Padilla was killed and the incident soon escalated into an all-out war between the rival gangs.

In theory north and south is divided somewhere around Bakersfield, though gang members travel and when they do they bring their allegiances. Both Nortenos and Surenos can be found throughout California.

Back in Tahoe

It is hard to define the boundaries in Lake Tahoe, or delineate the territories since the community is so small and interaction is unavoidable. In the past few months the Nortenos have been big in Kings Beach. Red has suddenly become everyone’s favorite color, according to both law enforcement and current as well as former gang members.

Many of the older Kings Beach gang members, now in their early 20s, affiliate themselves with Sureno, though the younger generation has adopted Norteno. According to some of the older gang members this is attributable to the ordinary sibling desire to distinguish themselves from their older brothers.

There appears to be minimal conflict between the older Surenos and the younger Nortenos in Kings Beach. On the basketball court there are two brothers. The older brother is wearing blue shorts and is a long-time Sureno. His little brother wears a red shirt and claims Norteno. In this instance the conflicting allegiances seem of little concern to anyone around.

For the Nortenos who say they own the beach and the basketball courts in Kings Beach, a bigger concern are the Surenos from Incline Village. Those are the ones that jumped “Crunchy Black,” and “Creeper” said that most of the “Scraps (Surenos) who are doing s- now are from Incline Village.”

Wanna-bes?

As opposed to the big cities, here the allegiances are not as strong, the gangs are not as organized, and the violence is not as serious as in the bigger cities.

Deputy Hunt said the sheriff’s office believes the Kings Beach gangs are “wannabe gangs.” But a similar attitude may have led to tragedy five years ago, the last time there was a similar surge in gang activity in the area.

In 1995 a 16-year old Tahoe Vista resident and gang member was hospitalized with serious head injuries resulting from an altercation with a rival Sureno gang, known as the Banquetes.

He was hit in the head with a 2 x 4 and developed a blood clot in his brain. He still suffers side effects from the injury today, according to his stepmother, who wished to remain anonymous.

She said that at that time no one took the gangs seriously.

“Everyone denied that there was any real formal gang activity,” she said. “‘They just want to be like Reno and L.A. gangs,’ they said. The sheriff’s department kept saying they’re just wannabes. They’re not real gangs. But when somebody picks up a 2×4 and hits somebody in the head intentionally that’s not wannabes.”

Meet Pequeno, a former member of the now-defunct Banquetes gang that hospitalized that rival gang member six years ago. The tattooed 21-year-old has been bounced back and forth between East Los Angeles and North Tahoe all his life. He was “jumped in” to his first North Tahoe gang when he was 13 years old. He spent much of his juvenile years and some of his adult years in jail for fighting, violating probation and a concealed weapons charge.

Clad in blue, Pequeno is tried and true Sureno. I asked him if the situation today is likely to escalate.

“Last time things got heated in 1995 someone ended up almost dead,” Pequeno said. “We left him mentally retarded from breaking a 2×4 upside his head.”

I ask him if he is proud of that.

“It was either them or us,” he said. “We had to defend ourselves. I prefer it be somebody else than me.”

Is it for real?

Crunchy Black and Creeper are both 16 years old. One attends North Tahoe High School, the other Tahoe-Truckee High School. Though both have gang pasts, Crunchy in Fresno as a part of the notorious Fresno Bulldogs and Creeper with the Nortenos in Sacramento, both said they are done with the gang life.

They laugh at the sheriff’s efforts to crackdown on gangs in the area and wonder if it will be effective.

“They tell me not to wear red, so I wear blue. Why you wearing blue, they ask? Because you told me not to wear red. Don’t wear blue either. So I wear green. Why you wearing green, they ask?” Creeper rolls his eyes, but says that if it works it is a worthwhile sacrifice. Why do they want it stopped?

“People will say the Mexicans, they’re all bad,” Black Crunch says. “That’s what’s happening at school. Some Mexicans got into a fight with some white boys and they said the Mexicans, they’re bad. It’s true for some … but not all Mexicans.”

Crunchy Black and his mother moved to Kings Beach from Fresno when a family member was killed by a rival gang.

“She doesn’t want me to end up like that, but I guess it’s the same here,” he said pointing to his black eye. “The thing is going to turn out like L.A. There’s gonna be killing and s–. It’s not good. People are not thinking what they’re doing. They just wanna be cool.”


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