Gang Violence In San Diego's North County - What's Being Done?
CAVANAUGH: The search continues for the gunman who shot four people in an Oceanside park three weeks ago. Thirteen-year-old Melanie Virgen and Edgar Sanchez were killed. Two other teens were injured. In a tragic irony, the teenagers were visits a grassroots memorial for teens killed at the same spot almost two years ago. It's not known if gangs were responsible for these murders, but there's no doubt that gain violence is an ongoing problem in the North County. Joining me to talk about the investigation into the murders at Libby Lake Park and efforts to control North County gangs are my guest, Captain Ray Beckler, an investigator with Oceanside police department. Welcome. BECKLER: Thank you very much. CAVANAUGH: Donald Stump is Executive Director of North County Lifeline. Welcome. STUMP: Thank you for having me. CAVANAUGH: And Agner Medrano is a formerly gang member and now a pastor for the communities of at-risk youth. MEDRANO: Thank you for having us. CAVANAUGH: Captain Beckler, the Oceanside police department recently distributed fliers trying to find out more about these shootings. BECKLER: They were distributed around the lake where the homicide happened. And we were trying to generate some witnesses that are just reluctant to come forward. It did yield some good results. We had a couple people come forward and give us some good information. However we still need people to come forward and help us to find better leads. Right now, we're investigating all the leads that we have. We have some good potential leads, but we're still asking people -- anybody that has seen anything to, please call. CAVANAUGH: The appearance of the fliers was rather dramatic, pictures of these two lovely young people, and then "who murdered these kids?" BECKLER: Right, yes. We're trying to generate some emotion behind that. We had a picture of the two victims that were killed, and a picture of a vehicle. A witness had seen that type of a vehicle with four potential suspects getting into after the homicide and taking off down the street. CAVANAUGH: Captain, you mentioned that some people came forward after the fliers. Are you following some good leads now in the shootings? BECKLER: It's tough to say which one is actually a good lead. We think we have some promising leads that we're following up on. We've exhausted plenty of leads that people thought were helpful, and we were hopeful on only to find out it led us not where we needed to be. So we're still actively pursuing leads. CAVANAUGH: Do we know anything more about whether or not these shootings were gang-related? BECKLER: We don't have enough to say that they are. A lot of people are asking, just because it was around a gang area. But we don't have enough to say for sure that it is gang-related. CAVANAUGH: And the irony that I spoke about earlier, these four teens, the two who were killed, and the two who were injured were in the park near a makeshift memorial for two other teens who had been killed two years ago. Do we know whether or not they were actually visiting that memorial at the time? BECKLER: Yes, they were. There was a couch there, and a memorial shrine, and dollar is where some of the local kids would routinely gather and hang out and socialize, and that's where they were. CAVANAUGH: I'm going to ask you a larger question, captain. How big a problem are gangs in Oceanside? BECKLER: It's kind of a vague question. CAVANAUGH: Right. BECKLER: Do we have gangs in Oceanside? Yes. Are they problematic at times? Sure. We have at the Oceanside police department an 18-member gang suppression unit. Is it large enough that we're paying attention? Absolutely. But I think as much as we spend time focusing on them in those areas, it suppresses some of that crime activity, but then sometimes things like the Libby lake homicide occurs as well. CAVANAUGH: As a former gang member who now mentors at-risk youth in the North County, how big an influence would you say gang culture is in the North County? MEDRANO: It's a big influence. We have gangs that have been there for 30, 40, 50 years. It's been around the gang culture in the North County, and there's times that the gangs stay quiet. They're not very active. And there's times that they're very active. Certain situations happen within their neighborhood or whatever, and that's how it happens. So it's a big influence. Not just in the North County but throughout the United States. CAVANAUGH: Sure. MEDRANO: So there's something that -- and that's why we're working together with law enforcement, community, faith based, how can we help our communities and make our communities better? CAVANAUGH: You say that there are a number of gangs that dot the I78 corridor? Tell us about that. MEDRANO: I believe there's about 15 gangs all together throughout the North County, and some have been around for 50 years. Some have only been around for five years, six years. And there's some big gangs and some small gangs. It depends what part of the North County. North County is a beautiful place to live. And just like a lot of communities, there's little pockets of individuals that gather together and later on, they become gangs. There's different gangs throughout the North County. CAVANAUGH: Donald, you run a group called North County lifeline. One of the things you do is have outreach to try to stop gangs and help with gang problems. I'm wondering what would you say are the major areas of gang activity in the North County? STUMP: In many of the larger cities, Oceanside, Vista, Escondido is where we have to focus the majority of our prevention efforts. And I think what we really try and do is look at in terms of gang activity really coordinatoring prevention efforts, intervention efforts, and then working closely with law enforcement about suppression efforts. We do a lot of talking, a lot of working together, a lot of meetings trying to figure out with limited resources how can we pull all the stakeholders together and come up with the strategy? One of our primary focuses is prevention and early intervention. What we're trying to do is go to some of those hotspots where gang activity occurs, particularly in Oceanside and Vista and provide diverting activity. So with the younger kid, we want to give them information, we want to give them warnings, and then we want to really give them alternatives. CAVANAUGH: What Donald is talking about is the kind of image I think people have in their minds of gangs, you know, youth gangs, neighborhood gangs, but there's another side to gangs right now that have to do with big business, big criminal enterprises. What kinds of businesses are gangs conducting? BECKLER: Well, two of the biggest profit businesses are drugs and sex trafficking. Sex trafficking has come to the forefront now because the availability of girls selling themselves for money. And these gang members will grab these at-risk girls that are looking for a place to be wanted and taken care of, and they find it in some of these gang members who would work them on the street for money. CAVANAUGH: And is that what he was referring to when he said there are smaller gangs and bigger gangs, and the bigger gangs are largely the ones involved in this kind of trafficking? MEDRANO: Well, yeah, and when you ask that question, more the older gangs, gangs that have been around for the longest, they have more respect, and they have been around for so long. So some of them, the older people, older generation get involved in that kind of crime. And sometimes they utilize the young people in other gangs. So I would say more -- not so much because they're big, but more because they're older, and they have been around so long and they have more respect in the prison system or in the neighborhoods. CAVANAUGH: What are the challenges associated with trying to stop the spread and the influence of gangs in the North County? You mentioned we do what we can with the resources that we have. Do you have the resources you need to keep young people out of gangs? STUMP: Well, I think by working together and coordinating, we've been able to maximize the resources that we have. Law enforcement are great partners. So in terms of the identification and suppression efforts, they've brought together resources from law enforcement agencies all across North County. And they'll share officers to do sweeps and activities to take care of that part of it. And then on the prevention end, I know respond, San Marcos, Vista, and Oceanside we've all worked pretty closely together applying for funding from the state called cal grip, and have hooked together some really strong prevention and early intervention programs. Wonderful model programs in Escondido, beautiful things happening in Oceanside in terms of alternative activities for young kids. CAVANAUGH: Donald, what makes a kid vulnerable to joining up with a gang? STUMP: Well, there's a lot of factors. When we're looking, we definitely look for the hotspot neighborhoods. But if there's a neighborhood that has sort of a cultural entrenched gang there, we definitely want to focus efforts there. Poverty is an indicator in this. So really focussing effort on getting kids in college, to stay in high school, and looking at that long-term to move themselves out of low-income neighborhoods. Then another thing that we try and look at is kids that have -- I don't want to say self-esteem issue, but there's a confidence piece there, and they find a great deal of belonging and support and brotherhood by being part of the gang activity. And I think what we want to do is we want to help find those kids with that kind of risk and attach them to a different kind of brotherhood. CAVANAUGH: Agner, you know about that because of your unique perspective. MEDRANO: Yes. CAVANAUGH: What is it in a gang that some young men are looking for? MEDRANO: Well, there's different, like Don said, different things. When I was looking in a gang was a sense of belonging, a sense of the thrill of being part of something that is bigger than you. And that's what a lot of young people are looking for, being a part of something, belonging to a team. They find it in a gang. And sometimes youth are looking for love. Gang members tell each other, I love you, I got your back, and me and you till the wheels fall off. That's what I was looking for, a sense of belonging. Belonging to a group or something that was bigger than me. And that's what I found in a gang. CAVANAUGH: Yeah, captain Beckler, talking about love, is it a challenge to get families and parents involved in trying to intervene with kids who are at risk in joining a gang? BECKLER: There always is. But I think in the generation of cops that are out there now, the community-oriented policing model fully in tact, we've come a long ways. We've built relationships, establishing and sustaining relationships with families. We can always improve. We can always get better. There's a fear of law enforcement in general that maybe we're going to escort them across the border and those kinds of things. So culturally, those kinds of issues exist. But we try desperately. We have neighborhood policing teams, we have community-oriented policing teams. We really want to get cops building relationships in these areas. CAVANAUGH: And speaking of relationships, as a mentor, as a pastor to the at-risk youth, you approach this in a very nonjudgmental way when you're dealing with members of gangs. MEDRANO: What we try to do with the victory outreach ministry, we're established there in Escondido and also in Vista. There's one outreach there. So we try to approach -- we come in, we have a relationship with active gang members, and we have a relationship with young kids that are trying to go toward gangs. And have that relationship that we're not here to judge you, where you're at, who you are, what kind of crimes you're doing, but we want to approach you and your family as individuals in our community. Yes, when you break the law, then there's consequences and all that, but if you want help, we're here for you. So I try to build a relationship. We put up football games, we have events at those parks where there's crimes. We have rallies, and just to build a relationship with not just the community, but even the gang member Tuesday, it's beautiful when you see when you come together as a community, faith-based. And I remember there was times when the police is cooking the chicken, faith-based is having faith songs going on, music, agencies providing their resources. It's beautiful when gang members and families see everybody coming together. So I think building the relationship with those kids, the ones even when they get out of prison and getting to know them, their name, buying them a Hamburger, something, just letting them know we're here for them when they're ready to change their lives. CAVANAUGH: What got you out of the gang? MEDRANO: What got me out of the gang, I was kind of getting sick and tired of the lifestyle, in and out of jail, I was watching my back, having a lot of enemies and stuff like that. What got me out of it was the -- finding myself in the right environment are of change. I came into 60ry outreach, and everybody was talking about change. I said if they could do it, maybe I could do it. So finding myself in that environment, maybe I didn't want to change, but I found myself in an environment that everybody wanted to change. So like they always say, hang around the barber shop, sooner or later you'll get a haircut. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Captain as we close, I'd like to ask you, how hopeful are you, or are you hopeful that we will find -- that you will find who killed Melanie and Edgar? BECKLER: We have a lot of detectives putting in a lot of time working extra hours and we're committed to finding the killers who did that. I'm very hopeful. I know the community is going to come forward. Somebody is going to say something that's going to lead us to the right place. And I'm very hopeful. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, I want to thank all of you, gentlemen. And first of all, we have more information on our website, including information on the reward being offered for more information in the shooting at Libby Lake Park.
Gang violence is an ongoing problem in San Diego's North County with nearly two dozen gangs claiming turf along the Highway 78 corridor. The recent shooting of a 13- and 15-year-old at Oceanside's Libby Lake Park has Oceanside Police canvassing the area for witnesses. But fear in the community has made many reluctant to come forward.
Two other teens were killed at the same spot almost two years ago. Authorities say that shooing was gang-related.
Captain Ray Bechler with Oceanside Police says the challenge is getting families and communities involved. He says it's made difficult by the fact that many are immigrants who want to limit their interaction with police. The city has a number of programs in place in the area of prevention but also intervention with their "Gang Suppression Unit" where they work in conjunction with the schools of the Oceanside Unified School District working with at-risk youth to deter them from joining gangs.
Former gang member turned pastor Agner Medrano tells KPBS he was lured into a Carlsbad gang at the age of 12. He now mentors at risk kids. He meets one-on-one with gang members to gain their confidence and become a sort of big brother or father figure to them. "We encourage them," he says, " and we try to reach their heart to find out what they care about most - when you get into their heart - then you get to everything else." Agner says it opens the door for gang members to think about other activities they can become involved with - instead of the gang.
There are prevention programs in place throughout North County, according to Donald Stump, executive director of North County Lifeline. They look for kids who might be at risk, as early as elementary school. Stump says it's important to "keep them busy to keep them out of a gang." He stresses that intervention is needed, but it comes at a cost and with budget cuts there's very little funding.
Stump says getting parents involved is crucial. "They need to know what's going on with their kid," he says. North County Lifeline has programs in place to work in this area.