Gang colors flourish in farm country

Glenn County is hardly a place that conjures up images of gang violence. This is a land scratched from the tender Sacramento Valley earth in endless rows of almond trees, nodding fields of wheat, and plains as flat and hot as a baking sheet.

Along Interstate 5 north, it is a rest stop on the way to no place in particular. In an area larger than Rhode Island, there are seven stoplights.

Yet it is here, in this isolated agricultural cradle, that someone stopping for gas was chased and stabbed for wearing rival gang colors. It is here that a teen was killed in a shooting at the local cinema.

The stories are the same across the iron belt of upper Minnesota, the cornfields of Illinois, and the alpine valleys of Utah. Rural America has a gang problem.

What began a decade ago with the widening of the drug trade and the migration of many gang members has now taken root in the heartland. Searching for a sense of belonging and the trappings of a seemingly more exciting urban life, farm workers' sons and high-school dropouts have swelled the ranks of rural gangs, bringing street fights and shootings to areas that had only seen such things on "NYPD Blue."

While gangs remain a more pressing problem in cities, their spread into even the most remote niches of America has upended the small-town idyll of communities nationwide. As a result, these towns are transforming their law-enforcement efforts, seeing gangs as a primary public-safety concern.

"There has been much more activity in rural areas ... in the past 10 years," says Walter Miller, a consultant to the US Department of Justice in Cambridge, Mass.

He himself documented the trend in one study for the Justice Department that traced youth gangs from 1970 to 1998. Most notably, 41 percent more cities with populations between 1,000 to 2,500 people saw gangs arrive by 1998.

The reasons for the jump vary from region to region. In Midwestern towns, law-enforcement officials say gangs in Chicago and Minneapolis have spread their crack-cocaine trade farther beyond beltways. "It's all price driven," says Jim Wright of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force in Duluth. "If you can drive five or six hours and make five times more money, you're going to do it."

The last two murders there have been gang-related, and when a gang member went on trial across the border in Wisconsin 1-1/2 years ago, the prosecutor's house was firebombed. In Mount Vernon, Ill., at the height of its gang problem in 1994, the community of 17,000 had six homicides.

Yet in many parts of the West, gangs seem to have flourished for a different reason: boredom. Here in Glenn County, where a trip to the big city means driving to Chico, gangs offer something to do - an escape from the agricultural depression that grips the county.

Authorities first started seeing gang graffiti in the early 1990s. Since then, a dozen gangs have sprouted among the 27,000 residents. Most are overwhelmingly Hispanic, and for these youths, the county is divided as clearly as Belfast. Orland and Hamilton City are split between the Surenos and the Nortenos - two Mexican gangs born in San Quentin prison in 1968. According to legend, a member of the Surenos moved to Orland, and a Hamilton City resident returned from prison as a Norteno, beginning the rivalry.

It's a typical pattern, says Joan Liquin of the Logan-Cache County Gang Project in Utah. Migration of gang members - either voluntarily or through juvenile-relocation programs - has spurred the growth of gangs in her area. In four years, the number of gang members there has risen from 45 to 330. As in Glenn County, most gang-related crimes have been minor: Thefts, vandalism, and fistfights top the list.

These are charges that Francisco knows well. But the teen hardly seems like a gang-banger. For one, he smiles too much. In fact, he's good-natured and laughing, even when talking about run-ins with the police as a member of the Surenos.

He talks in past tense, though, because - with the help of Glenn County's Project Exito - he has dropped out.

"I just got tired of always getting in trouble," says Francisco (not his real name). "Half the guys I used to hang out with don't like me anymore.... But last time I got out of juvenile hall, I got tired of being there."

Standing nearby, Sal Hernandez and Ulises Tellechea long to hear these words more often. While the federally funded program brings together all sorts of people - from teachers to probation officers - to help at-risk teens, Messrs. Hernandez and Tellechea have the task of befriending as many gang members as possible.

In essence, their job is to hang out. On this day, they drive through Orland on the way to shoot hoops with some students in Hamilton City. At every stop, they talk to as many kids as they can. They plan activities for anyone who wants to come along - with the knowledge that gang ties are left behind.

They've taken one group to a Latino youth leadership conference and another to San Francisco to see Alcatraz and a baseball game. One weekend, they went camping in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The goal is to create mutual trust, and show kids a life beyond gangs.

There are setbacks, Tellechea says, like when a teen he's working with ends up back in juvenile hall - not to mention the fact that Orland and Hamilton City kids still won't do anything together. But many signs are positive, both here and nationwide.

National statistics suggest that rural gang activity peaked in the mid-1990s and is gradually declining. In Glenn County, law-enforcement officials see less graffiti and violence. The stabbing and shooting happened more than a year ago.

And Tellechea is also seeing a difference. "One of the kids asked me to go shopping because he didn't want to wear his gang clothes anymore," he says. "He said, 'I want to dress like you.' "

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