On Nov. 17, 2011, a black Lodi SWAT truck rumbled down the 400 block of East Locust Street. The truck rolled up against a curb in front of an apartment complex and its engine shut off.
SWAT members hopped off the back of the truck, fully uniformed in their helmets and Kevlar vests. Swiftly surrounding the building, their shields up and guns locked and loaded, the SWAT team shouted for someone to open the door to a ground-level apartment unit.
Small crowds had gathered across the street from the apartment and on each of the street corners just east of the building, wondering why Lodi police were going to all this trouble to arrest someone.
In fact, police had already arrested one suspect in the gang-related killing of Shedley Frazier Jr., 24 hours before.
Now they hoped to capture a second.
They quietly surrounded the building before pounding on the door and pulling out the suspect.
There was no struggle. He was handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car. While SWAT searched his home, he stared straight ahead down Locust Street.
But the two who were arrested were not men — they were merely boys, 14 years old.
Lodi police say it is a disturbing fact, but a fact nonetheless: Gang members are getting younger. Middle schoolers now are being pressured to join up, and once in, they are capable of horrible violence. From 2010 to 2011, juveniles arrested in Lodi for gang-related crimes jumped from 67 to 99. The numbers are reflected nationally. Theories range from tough economic times to a lack of parental supervision.
It’s a daunting challenge, but Lodi police are being pro-active, hitting the streets, reaching out to schools — trying to stop these youngest gangsters.
‘It was like Christmas for him’
Detective Rick Garcia pulled up to a group of 10 middle schoolers from Millswood Middle School along with his partner, Detective Steve Maynard.
At roughly 6 feet tall and wearing a Kevlar vest, Garcia marched over to the pack and ordered everyone to sit down. With his arms folded across his chest, he began to talk with the boys — most of whom were wearing some shade of blue — about a fight that had occurred a few blocks away.
Some attempted to mouth off, but Garcia silenced them.
Garcia said he has been acutely aware that those he stops or arrests are not only younger, but their crimes are becoming more serious.
Crimes involving theft or physical injury have become the new “it” crimes, especially for gang recruits who are attempting to move up the ladder to gain credibility within the gang.
Garcia said recruitment starts young — the younger the better for some gangs.
Whether it is the current state of the economy or because a father or mother need to provide for their family, police have noticed a common thread amongst kids being drawn into gangs.
Even though they come from two-parent homes, Garcia said a majority of the parents in Lodi whose children drift toward gangs work at canneries or in the fields, meaning they are already out of the house by 6 a.m. and often do not return until 6 p.m. or later.
That means most supervision is left to the eldest sibling, or the child is on his own.
“Mom isn’t around, dad isn’t around, no one is there to provide a certain level of supervision,” Garcia said. “As a kid, that is like the dream come true. But for those who are growing up in an environment where there is gang activity, it can lead them down the wrong path.”
But Garcia said it is not the parents’ fault for working hard. They have to make ends meet. It is just the extended amount of idle time that is dangerous.
In return for what has been dubbed the “three R’s” — revenue, retaliation and reputation — older gang members require kids to “earn their stripes.”
In October, the gang unit picked up a 14-year-old who had proved to be an ongoing problem. Garcia said they decided to take the boy home and talk with his parents about his Sureño gang affiliation.
While Garcia sat in the car with the boy, he asked him why he was acting out.
Surprisingly, the boy smiled.
“It was so sad to see how excited he was to tell me about why he wanted to be in the gang,” he said. “It was like Christmas for him. He didn’t even hesitate when he told me that he wanted to get ‘jumped in.’”
By the numbers
In 2010, the Lodi Police Department arrested 67 boys between the ages of 12 and 17 for gang-related crimes. Of those 67 individuals, four were 12 years old, three were 13 years old, and nine were 14 years old, according to police records.
But in just one year, things changed drastically.
In 2011, not only did the number of gang-related arrests jump, but police records show a substantial spike in the number of middle school-aged children committing gang-related crimes.
Police records show 99 individuals between the ages of 12 and 17 were arrested in 2011.
In just one year, the number of 12-year-olds who committed gang-related crimes doubled from four individuals to eight. The number of 13-year-olds arrested increased by a factor of nearly seven, and the number of 14-year-olds arrested nearly doubled in one year.
But what is more shocking is the serious offenses these juveniles are committing.
In 2011, three middle school-aged juveniles and one high school-aged juvenile were arrested on charges of attempted murder. One 14-year-old was arrested on charges of murder. Three high school-aged juveniles were also arrested on charges of first-degree robbery.
Those numbers are sharply higher than in 2010. In fact, in 2010 only one person was arrested for attempted murder — a 17-year-old.
Why the increase?
Lodi detectives say numerous factors could play into the increase, including dabbling in drug sales such as marijuana or even Oxycodone. “Beefs” between rival gang members could also be a source of increasing gang problems.
For example, Garcia said gang members tax drug dealers who sell in their area. So even if they do not directly sell the drugs, gang members make a profit. If a drug sale goes wrong, problems could arise.
But these problems are not just in Lodi. Across the United States, violence stemming from the actions of young gang members is on the rise.
In a June 2011 data analysis by the National Gang Center, crimes involving young gang members saw an increase between 2008 and 2009.
The center provides research about gangs, descriptions of anti-gang programs and links to tools, databases, and other resources to assist in providing effective community-based gang prevention, intervention and suppression strategies.
The data, collected from more than 2,500 law enforcement agencies, takes roughly two years to analyze, said James Howell, senior research associate for the center.
Howell said law enforcement saw a nearly 11 percent increase in gang-related homicides committed by individuals between the ages of 12 and 17 in 2008-09.
And as in Lodi, the increase was due to drugs or gang conflict. Howell added that gang members returning from confinement also fueled the increase.
“These ‘beefs’ have a lot to do with simply territory or gang status,” he said. “The key factor is to bring honor to the gang. There is no real reason for these crimes being committed.”
A ‘mean mom’ keeping her son safe
Edilia Delgadillo would only talk about gang life to a certain extent in front of her son.
At 29 and a mother of four, she knew her 12-year-old son Carlos would be listening.
Delgadillo attended a gang prevention seminar at Heritage Elementary School with her son on Jan. 25. After the meeting, she eventually ordered him to go help pick up the cafeteria with principal Maria Cervantes before leaning in to talk about the past, her voice almost a whisper.
“He used to come home from his dad’s, and at like 3 or 4 years old he would be throwing up gang signs,” she said. “He had no idea what he was doing. He was just mimicking what he saw. But it is things like that that I have to make sure he isn’t doing. I don’t know who could see him and take it the wrong way.”
Some members of Delgadillo’s extended family are affiliated with gangs. She even had friends who were gang members growing up.
“I was no angel,” she said. “But I have learned.”
At one point, her eyes widened and she began to talk faster when she discussed those few days each year where she is without a car and has to walk her son home from school.
She said she fears going outside, and will not even consider allowing her son to do it.
Sometimes, she said, when Carlos asks if he can walk home from school with his friends, and if he has behaved that week, Delgadillo will allow it.
But unbeknownst to Carlos, his mother will quietly follow behind him in her car, giddy at her craftiness.
She just wanted to make sure he was safe.
“I work at it every day,” she said. “I make sure that when he asks if he can go somewhere with a friend, that I know that friend and that friends’ parents. If I don’t, then I tell him, ‘Nope, sorry, can’t go.’”
Delgadillo said she realizes how enticing the gang lifestyle can be. She said growing up, and even after Carlos was born, a friend or a family member would randomly show up with bags full of food or toys.
Such surprises at the time were great, she said. No questions were asked, or any suspicions about how someone got the items were dismissed.
But as Carlos got older, and as Delgadillo grew into her role as a parent, she said she recognized how dangerous associating with gang members can be.
Delgadillo is determined to keep Carlos out of gangs.
Whether that means no cellphone or no video games, as long as Carlos understands that Delgadillo means business, she said she is doing her job right.
“I know [Carlos] may see it sometimes as me being a mean mom, or too overprotective, but I am not going to stop making sure he is OK,” she said. “I want him to grow up, to go to college. We talked about [going to Arizona State] the other day, and afterwards I had such a great feeling. I don’t want him to get sidetracked.”
A call to action
At 2:20 p.m., the bells at Millswood Middle School and Lodi High School ring.
Students pour out of classrooms and begin the trek to the Eastside. They hardly notice that they are being followed.
Sitting in an unmarked city vehicle in the parking lot of an apartment complex, Lodi Detective Carlos Fuentes watches as a group of boys and girls make their way down Lockeford Street.
A patrol car passes by, and Officer Ryan Holz, also following the students, nods in acknowledgment before heading up the street where he parks and watches as well.
When the students are out of Fuentes’ line of vision, he pulls out into traffic and merges up to another parking lot to monitor the middle-schoolers.
Day after day, the gang unit and school resource officers follow students from Millswood and Lodi High, a new step being taken to ensure no gang violence occurs along a busy street in the middle of the afternoon.
“They know we are here, and sometimes [rival gang members] will even pick fights right in front of us, knowing we will break them up,” Fuentes said. “It’s like they do one thing, but hope for another.”
Along with this new supervision, the 12-week GREAT program, in its fourth year, has been started in four elementary schools in Lodi, and police hope to eventually expand it to all Lodi elementary schools.
The Gang Resistance Education And Training program is a gang and violence prevention program built around school-based, police officer-instructed classroom curricula, which focuses on preventing youth violence and gang membership for children in the years immediately before the prime ages for introduction into gangs.
In classrooms, Holz said kids role-play with officers and talk about things they see and hear from friends or family about gangs or gang-related topics, such as weapons or drugs.
And while it is too early to tell statistically if the program has been successful in Lodi, Holz said national stats from other school districts show promising results.
“The message is still the same,” said Holz, who teaches the program at Lawrence Elementary School. “We are breaking down the barriers between the police and kids. ... We are showing them that we are not what the older gang members make us out to be.”
The Lodi Police Department is also looking to add other programs to reach out to young gang members.
Police Chief Mark Helms said he is hoping to try to incorporate something like Stockton’s Operation Peacekeeper, which utilizes youth outreach workers to engage gang members and help persuade them to leave gangs.
Targeting “what each individual needs,” be it rehab for drug use or therapy because of problems at home, those who work in Operation Peacekeeper have been largely successful in helping to reduce gang involvement, Helms said.
In the meantime, the fight continues.
On Thursday, 21-year-old Lodi resident Eric Lopez Ramirez was shot and killed just off Lodi Avenue right after 8 a.m.
His suspected killer? A 16-year-old boy.
The shooting was the third homicide in six months, and it was the second time in three months that someone died at the hands of a teenager in a gang-related crime.
Contact reporter Katie Nelson at email@example.com.