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North County Comes To Grips With Gang Problems

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— Some might consider San Diego's North County to be an area of scenic coastlines, quaint main streets and suburban homes. However, police say underneath that pleasant exterior lies a severe gang problem.

KPBS SPECIAL COVERAGE

San Diego Gang Stories

As part of an ongoing series called San Diego Gang Stories, KPBS focuses on how gangs are affecting lives in all corners of the North County. (Story continues below)

Gangs in San Diego County

Top 5 Cities In SD County With The Most Gangs

  1. San Diego 89
  2. Oceanside 13
  3. Lemon Grove 8
  4. Chula Vista 6
  5. National City 5

Maria Russell is on the porch of her Oceanside home. Her dark skin is a stark contrast to her white hair. Russell lives on the east side of Oceanside which is nicknamed Posole after a Mexican soup.

However, posole has another meaning. Varrio Posole is the name of the street gang in Russell's neighborhood. It is one of 13 gangs in Oceanside. The initials "VP" are tagged on mailboxes, fences and walls.

“I see some of the older men hanging on the street corners and waiting,” Russell said. “They have a certain call, like a whistle, to warn each other if the police is coming.”

The North County Gang Task Force says there are close to 30 documented gangs in North County. About half of those gangs are in Oceanside.

Escondido has the second highest number in the North County with four gangs. San Marcos and Solana Beach each have two gangs.

Police say these gangs were formed years ago to protect certain ethnic groups. Others are transplants from Los Angeles.

Police and gang members say these groups are present in almost every North County city -- from Escondido to Encinitas.

Jose is a documented gang member in Oceanside. He asked KPBS not to use his real name because he fears retaliation.

Jose was born into a gang family. He was known as a maniac, the crazy one. He says most of the gangs in North County are Hispanic, Samoan and black.

“When you're going to do your stuff, you got a chance of dying,” Jose said. “You got to accept that because you're doing it for your cause -- our community. We don't want people coming over and chasing down a Mexican and beating him up because he's a Mexican.” .

However, Jose and gang specialists say gangs are now about protecting their money, not their turf.

North County gangs are criminal enterprises helping to smuggle weapons, push prostitutes and deal drugs all over the country.

Jose says older gang members, who are often strung-out on drugs, are recruiting kids at younger ages to do their dirty work in North County, whether it’s a stabbing, shooting or robbing someone.

He says some are as young as 12 or 13 years old.

“There is saying, ‘Get them while their young,” Jose said. “(Older gangsters say) you can still brainwash them. Get them used to juvenile hall. Get them used to the system.”

Sheriff's Deputy Tim Clark and his partner patrol neighborhoods in Vista. The Vista Home Boys gang controls this city. They're also known as the Vista Heroine Boys because they use and sell the drug.

Deputy Clark says gang injunctions have helped to get certain violent gang members off their neighborhood streets.

But he says the unintended consequence is gang members are now taking their crime and violence to other cities in North County such as Encinitas and Carlsbad.

“We got gang members from Oceanside, San Marcos and Escondido moving to Vista, and vice versa. (Gang members are) moving from city to city. (Injunctions) are spreading out all the gang members. There is a potential for a bigger problem.”

Clark says hybrid gangs are developing as a result. That's when rival gang members actually work together to commit crimes. Police say two or three years ago these rivals would have killed each other on the streets.

The North County Gang Task Force continues to take a regional approach to combating gang activity which looks at the problem beyond the boundaries of a city.

Law enforcement from different North County cities are working together to pinpoint, arrest and charge gang members.

But Clark says they still have a lot of work to do.

“Gangs are gangs,” Clark said. “(Gangs) are not going away. If we can put a damper on them and keep the violence down, prevent stray bullets from hitting citizens, and get drugs off the street, then no one gets hurt.”

City officials across the North County hope a study they've commissioned from SANDAG will shed new light on the changing gang problem in their communities. That report is expected to be released later this month.

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