Lodi gang violence is on the rise, and young men, especially on the Eastside, are recruited into the ranks of Norteños and Sureños. Gang life can be violent, lethal — but also alluring. Escaping gangs is no simple task. Yet three local men did it. These are their stories.
Adam Cortes wants people to become part of the solution
Sitting down for a cup of coffee with his wife Sonia, Adam Cortes sighs and leans back in his chair. He stares off through the window for a moment, and his wife squeezes his arm.
Cortes, in a white buttoned-down shirt and jeans, refocuses and smiles.
He wanted to live the American Dream, Cortes said, when he first stepped foot onto Lodi soil in 1987.
Cortes was only 16 years old. He had come from Morelia, the capital city in the Mexican state of Michoacan, to live with his grandmother.
The city was known for producing drugs and for issues with prostitution, Cortes said.
He wanted out.
“I wanted the American Dream, not the nightmare I was living in,” he said.
And even though at the time he was undocumented and hardly spoke a word of English, Cortes began to attend Lodi High School. There, he made friends with boys who wore shades of blue.
They were Sureño gang members.
But they were his friends, Cortes said. They took him under their wing, included him when they went out on weekends, roaming Lodi until late at night.
They would swipe shampoo and soap from stores.
It became a regular after-school activity, taking things from local markets or liquor stores, because it was something to do.
So what if his friends were in a gang, Cortes thought; it did not mean they would ever hurt him.
However, stealing soap and shampoo was only the beginning.
Soon, when Cortes would hop in a friend’s car with his loot, his friends would start showing off things they had stolen, and it was not soap. Things like drugs and cars quickly became the new hot item to take.
“If you told them ‘Don’t do that,’ they would beat you up because you were a coward,” he said. “So you would go along with them.”
One day, Cortes ran out with some friends to find a fellow Sureño gang member who had been beaten up by rival Norteños in the dead of night.
When Cortes found their friend, the Norteños began shooting. While their friend lay helpless in the street, Cortes’ friends scattered to save themselves.
“I realized I could die today and nobody would care,” he said. “I just could not understand why they were fighting and killing each other,” he said. “Our parents came from the same background. What were we winning (by fighting)?”
Cortes was approached by a man who was a carpenter. The man saw something in him, Cortes said, and offered him an opportunity to learn the trade.
Cortes curved his hands in the air, making sweeping wave motions, as he described how he learned to shape wood, carve it and polish it.
The hours were long — he worked day in and day out — but he was learning something no one else had taught him.
He learned things like discipline, responsibility, pride.
All those years of believing his friends in gangs when they told him they would protect him, support him and help him go far in life began to feel like a lie.
No one had protected his friend. No one tried to save him.
Cortes felt betrayed.
“It was hard, but I knew I had to leave,” he said.
Cortes completely abandoned the gang lifestyle, he said, instead turning to his newfound love of carpentry.
He said he lost almost every friend he had made as a result of his decision.
Today, Cortes, 41, is a contractor. He is happily married and father to three children.
His eldest child, 15-year-old Jazmin, goes to Lodi High School, the same school where Cortes’ past gang life began.
It is his mission to keep her away from gangs.
He has his daughter invite her friends over to their home on Forrest Avenue, so Cortes and his wife can meet them. He has his daughter attend church-related activities at their family’s church, Victory Outreach in Lodi, to keep her occupied in the afternoons or on weekends.
Cortes said he and his wife communicate constantly with their daughter about what is safe, what to do if she is approached by gang members and how to say “no.”
“I am your real family, mi hija,” he tells her — “my daughter” in Spanish. “I will die for you, because I care. (The gang) will not.”
Cortes added that he is reaching out through his church to try and help other young Lodians who are struggling to either stay away from or get out of the gang lifestyle.
He is looking to create afterschool programs that would not only allow students to receive homework help, but also keep them from spending their idle time out roaming the streets of Lodi.
Sonia Cortes, Adam Cortes’ wife, said she met her husband when he was still a single father, taking care of then 7-year-old Jazmin. She said his passion to help others and his dedication to keeping kids safe is what makes her so proud of him.
“(Adam) says if you find a negative person (on the Eastside), look for two positive people living in the neighborhood,” she said. “If you find them, then you can be part of the solution. If all you find is negative, that means you are part of the problem ... We always say ‘Don’t say I can’t (solve problems). Yes, we can (solve problems).”
It is that idle time, Cortes said, that can be the tipping point for children to fall into a life of crime.
“They promise to be your friend forever, that they will always protect you ... sound familiar?” he said. “You are good to them as long as you do what they tell you to do. But after, your problems get worse. And is it worth it? You have only one life.”
Johnny Cummings turned his life around in prison, and hopes he can help others get out of gangs
Johnny Cummings was a sports star.
He could play second base and shortstop, and he could pitch. He could hit any ball. A scout even approached him about playing in college.
Outside of sports, however, Cummings was a Norteño.
Growing up in Lathrop, Cummings said he was the only white child in his neighborhood, and during middle school, he began hanging out with gang members. They were in the same class or they had the same teacher.
As the only white child, it was a way to fit in.
That same year, Cummings said he started drinking. A short time later, he began smoking dope.
Cummings wanted to go far, though. He thought about a career in music or in athletics. He liked to rap. He loved baseball.
But his time with the Norteño gang was overwhelming.
He had to pick one team or another. Sports or friends.
So he chose his friends over his future.
While he was in high school, Cummings was arrested for a gang-related shooting. While no one was injured, he faced a sentence of three years in prison.
A possible sports scholarship vanished, even though the case was eventually dropped.
At 21, Cummings was arrested again for gross negligence of a firearm and this time, ended up behind bars.
Cummings began to realize how lonely he truly was. His friends in the Norteño gang did not visit him. They did not help him.
“I felt like they had been misleading people,” he said. “I began praying (for) myself, ‘Oh please.’”
After being released from prison, Cummings decided he wanted no part of the gang that had promised to have his back, to protect him in times of trouble.
Being in a gang had fractured his family, too, he said. They did not understand why he had joined a gang or why he could not stay out of trouble.
“I am a mama’s boy,” he said. “The first time my mother saw me in prison, I had lost so much weight she didn’t even recognize me. She just cried and cried.”
Cummings said he wanted to remove himself from the environment that had caused him so much pain and anxiety, and he wanted to prove that he could be something more.
It meant leaving behind a majority of his friends, but Cummings accepted that.
Cummings said he had hit rock bottom, but he knew the only way to go was up. He decided to change his life, to make sure he would never have to see his mother cry for him ever again.
So Cummings transformed.
Today, he is in the final stages of planning his wedding with his fiancee, Brandy. He is the soon-to-be stepfather of Brandy’s two sons, Johnathan and Joey Hernandez.
He is where he wants to be, Cummings said.
Brandy said the change is remarkable. She said the word “accomplishment” does not begin to describe how far her fiance has come.
“Getting out of a gang is not just about leaving the gang, it is about removing yourself from what you do in the gang,” she said. “It’s a lot of ugliness. He has turned that same passion and loyalty he had for the gang and put it into the family. It is just amazing.”
But Cummings is also in the throes of trying to help others accomplish what he has by helping to try and keep people out of gangs.
His focus is on the younger generation of gang members, finding ways to keep kids busy after school and out of trouble.
For example, Cummings and his fiancee have sat down with their boys to talk about friends at school who are displaying “tell-tale” signs of joining a gang. Grades slipping, attitudes changing for worse — these are things Cummings knows he wants to keep his stepsons away from.
He and his fiancee encourage the boys to invite their friends over, so they are not out roaming the neighborhood with nothing to do.
Cummings also buys both of his stepsons’ clothes to make sure they are not wearing any colors that could accidentally associate them with a Sureño or a Norteño gang.
He goes to every school-related activity the boys have, from back-to-school nights to open houses. Parental supervision is never a bad thing, he said.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘Show me who you hang around with and I can tell you who you are,’” he said. “I see my kids and who their friends are, and I always try to just have a positive manner. If they have a dream, no matter how far-fetched it is, I am there.”
Love of his family helped Rene Carnero get his life on track and leave violence behind
Rene Carnero glances down at his 2-year-old granddaughter, Genesis, with a weathered smile.
Genesis, with radiant blue-green eyes and a bundle of curls, grabs her grandfather’s index finger and leads him forward, calling him “Papa.”
“She is my light and joy,” said Carnero, 43.
He folds his tattooed arms across his chest as Genesis plays with a bouncy purple ball. On his hand, an artichoke is tattooed in the middle, representing Castroville, representing a past that Carnero will never forget.
A gang member by the age of 10, Carnero was behind bars by the time he was 14 for the attempted murder of a police officer in Salinas.
Carnero said the man had tried to arrest him, and Carnero pulled out a machete he had hidden in his jacket and whacked the officer in the neck.
Joining a gang was not so much a choice as it was a necessity to stay safe, he thought then.
Carnero said no one could leave their home without being armed. They were not carrying guns or knives to look tough, however. They were carrying them out of protection. Gang violence was that prevalent.
Castroville was not a safe place, and it still is not, Carnero said.
He said local Norteño gang members would hang out just outside his apartment where his family lived, standing by their cars and chatting.
Soon, he would be running into them in the grocery store or out at a park.
The same faces in the same places.
“It was a way to stay protected; they offered friendship,” he said of the appeal of joining the gang.
Once he was behind bars, the gangs became a way of life.
A Norteño in Castroville, Carnero joined a Norteño prison gang following his attempted murder conviction.
During his 8 1/2-year stint, Carnero was housed all over the state. He stayed in some of the most notorious prisons, including San Quentin, and shared meals with rapists and murderers.
The gang violence Carnero saw still makes him shudder.
From knifings that left some inmates dead to beatings that left others hardly breathing, Carnero said he does not like to think about some of the memories he has of his prison time.
Shortly after Carnero was released from prison, he found himself heading straight back behind bars for another felony.
But unlike his first time in prison, Carnero had his young family to think about. He needed to provide food and a home for his children and their mother. Doing that while in prison would be impossible.
Something had to change.
One day, Carnero looked up through his cell’s bars to see a missionary offering him a Bible.
Carnero began reading scripture, occupying his time by learning biblical lessons and thinking about what he could do to help his family once he was out.
“In there, you have a lot of time to think,” he said. “You have hours of just sitting there, reflecting.”
Once he got out, Carnero eventually moved north, and he now resides in Lodi, with his 20-year-old daughter and his granddaughter.
“I had to get them out of there,” he said. “It is too dangerous.”
Carnero knows life in a gang is unfulfilling. He has made sure his children have as little exposure to the gang lifestyle as possible. He regrets having them grow up around it, when he and his fellow gang members would stop by his home to hang out, casually chatting about gang rivalries over drinks.
He hopes his granddaughter will never be exposed to something like that.
“It’s not worth the bullets all over the place,” he said as he twirled his thumbs and looked down again at his artichoke tattoo.
Today, Carnero makes attempts to talk to some of the younger gang affiliates or members in Lodi. Some listen to what he has to say; others laugh at him, saying he does not understand.
Looking down at his granddaughter, Carnero rubs her curls and shrugs, lamenting that talking only goes so far.
He will continue to try to reach out, he said, but in the meantime, he is focusing on keeping his granddaughter happy and healthy. He babysits her while her mother works, he said, and even bought her a root beer float to keep her cool on a hot Wednesday afternoon.
“She is my world,” he said with a smile. “Anything for her.”
Contact reporter Katie Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.