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Anti-gang coalition targets Nortenos, Surenos

Feds, state, counties join East Palo Alto police to dismantle gangs associated with infant's death

Federal, state, county and local law-enforcement agencies have joined East Palo Alto police to dismantle gangs blamed for a 3-month-old infant's killing, police announced Wednesday (July 6).

Vowing justice for Izack Jesus Jimenez Garcia, killed as a result of a feud between the Norteno and Sureno gangs on June 5 in East Palo Alto, the agencies' officials announced a concerted plan to dismantle the in the Bay Area.

More than 70 officials from agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. and California Attorneys General, San Mateo County District Attorney's Office and County Sheriff, California Department of Corrections and local city police departments took part in the half-day-long conference, which was closed to the media but opened afterward for a press briefing.

East Palo Alto police Chief Ronald Davis said the collaboration is in response to the death of Izack, who was allegedly shot in the head by 17-year-old Fabian Zaragoza, a purported gang member. Zaragoza allegedly mistook Izack's family for gang members who beat him May 31 in Redwood City.

Izack's parents, Oscar Jimenez and Ivonne Garcia Lopez, both 22, were also shot but were not critically injured. Their 4-year-old son was not hurt. A 16-year-old youth is also a suspect and was arrested on weapons charges but has not been charged with the shooting, police said.

Davis said the law-enforcement agencies are holding the Nortenos and Surenos responsible for Izack's murder.

"The murder of a 3-month-old is completely beyond humanity. There has to be a response to it so that every shot caller, every leader -- regardless of whether he or she is in prison -- has to know when something like that happens, the world comes down on them," he said.

The coalition began identifying key leadership within the gangs during Wednesday's meeting, he said, and will put pressure on the gangs from Daly City to San Jose. Law enforcement will focus on disrupting the cash flow of gang leaders, whether those leaders are in or out of prison, he said.

The amount of money leaders can generate -- even from within prison walls -- can be astounding, said Kent Shaw, acting chief of the state Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, after the press conference.

"Ask the Department of Corrections how much money is on the books of some of these gang leaders in prison," he said, adding they might have $20,000 to $30,000 at any one time in a prison bank account.

Many gangs started in prisons, and San Mateo County Sheriff Greg Munks said roughly 20 percent of the 1,000 prisoners in that county's jails are validated gang members. There are 58 counties in California with similar problems, he noted.

The problem of how to control their activities will only grow as the state realignment of prison populations pours thousands of inmates into the county systems. Many of those prisoners will undoubtedly be gang members still working their outside connections, he said.

In response, the countywide Gang Task Force and county Gang Intelligence Unit have been focusing on the gang dismantling for about four weeks, he said. The gang task force has taken more weapons off the streets than last year and is targeting specific gang members and using intelligence gathering.

Reaching inside the prisons and on the streets, the approach will include Operation Ceasefire, a state-funded program that identifies gang members and calls them in for face-to-face discussions about their activities, Davis said. Police work to get a commitment from the gang members to renounce the gang life in exchange for job counseling, medical and social services -- or face zero tolerance and long prison terms when they commit crimes, he said.

On June 27, the department conducted parole and probation sweeps throughout the city. A "call in" is planned with Nortenos and Surenos for July or August, he said.

Munks promised that despite crowded jails and municipal budget crises, the county would not waver in its pursuit and prosecution of gangs.

"My jail is currently overcrowded, but we will always make room for these violent gang members regardless of what happens with the state realignment or the overpopulation in the jails," he said.

Gangs pose a far larger threat to communities now than when they were small, loosely organized bands fighting over neighborhood turf, Shaw said. Transnational gangs and their violence flow across borders and resemble a more Mafia-like, organized-crime power structure than in the past. The Nortenos and Surenos are extremely well-organized, he said.

That organization, and the large amount of financial resources it can generate through drugs and weapons trafficking, poses a challenge to law-enforcement agencies with dwindling budgets, the agencies' officials acknowledged.

Shaw said about $71 million from the state budget has been eliminated from the Department of Justice's Division of Law Enforcement, which could shut down the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement and Bureau of Investigations and Intelligence.

Munks said every agency has had its budgets drastically slashed. But that just means they will have to work smarter and pool resources, agency officials said.

"We're talking about millions of dollars that have been cut from our respective budgets in San Mateo County. But we have not wavered in our commitment on this gang violence, and we just have to prioritize," Munks said.

"There are some things that we are not doing in our community that we should do, but where we draw the line is when it comes to people who threaten our communities with violence and threaten our youth by recruiting them into this gang lifestyle. Regardless of how bad it gets, the No. 1 commitment is the safety of our citizens," he said.

Palo Alto police Chief Dennis Burns, whose officers assisted Jimenez and Garcia Lopez as they rushed to Stanford Hospital with the dying infant in their bullet-ridden car, said his department is committed to the effort.

"It shocks the conscience," he said of the events of that night. "It's not just the loss of the family but of the entire community. Just because a crime occurs in another county doesn't mean that we shouldn't contribute."

The department has taken part in previous joint operations, he said. He plans to sit down with gang task-force commanders, he said.

"Crime knows no borders. Whether it's violent crime or gangs or drugs, they transcend jurisdictional boundaries," he said.

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