Gangs: From guns to God
Benny Madrid knows what it's like to look down - and up - the barrel of a loaded gun.
Madrid, a former gang member and now the pastor of a small church in Linda, is a familiar figure to youthful lawbreakers at Bi-County Juvenile Hall in Marysville, where he tries to persuade them to leave the gang life.
Area parents may also know Madrid from his appearances at local schools and churches, where he tells them to watch for signs that their young sons or daughters may be consorting with gangs.
Madrid, sitting in a pew in the back of the Praise Chapel, his Lindhurst Avenue storefront church, recalled an incident in a Southern California city
in which he and fellow gang members were approached by a rival seeking revenge for damage Madrid had done to his car. The man pointed a handgun at Madrid, pulled the trigger and - click. A misfire.
Before the gunman could try again, one of Madrid's friends persuaded him to put the gun away. Both had worked together on a community-service construction project, and the gunman didn't want to alienate his workmate, said Madrid.
Although gang activity inevitably will increase along with the Mid-Valley'spopulation, community service projects that bring rival gang members together for a common cause, such as repairing and repainting senior citizens' homes, are one way to help keep it in check, Madrid said.
Madrid said he has urged law-enforcement agencies in both Yuba and Sutter counties to look into grant-funded projects.
Ironically, Yuba-Sutter's increased gang violence is due in part to former gang members from Southern California moving north to try and protect their children or to prevent them from being sucked into the gang life, Madrid said.
"But little do (parents) know that the kids already have (gang) leadership skills," he said.
"The small-town gang members don't know what to expect. They're interested in the big city kid who teaches them how to use a weapon" or evade being arrested for a killing, Madrid said.
Madrid said the drive-by shootings plaguing Yuba-Sutter are the result of "ignorant" gang members who don't think about accidentally shooting innocent bystanders - unlike the 200-member Southern California gang in which he served as sergeant-at-arms. In his day, Madrid said, gangs took out their enemies in a more precise manner.
Anyone who is convicted of a drive-by shooting is likely to die in prison at the hands of rival gang members.
"Next time you hear about a drive-by, that person is going to die in prison. They're going to take it out on anyone who did a drive-by," he said.
Madrid decried Hispanics shooting each other "for a 99-cent rag" - a piece of colored cloth that identifies them as a Norteños (from Northern California) or Sureños (from Southern California). The same gang members, if together in prison, would unite against Asian, black or white gangs, he said.
Once out of prison, it's back to business as usual, with rivals killing each other over colors.
"Anyone who wears (red, the color of the Norteños) is a target, regardless of whether they're a 49ers fan," or if they wear Sureños blue, he said.
"Norteños and Sureños are killing each other and they're all the same race - Hispanic," he said.
Members of rival neighborhood gangs kill each other over territory, even though both are Norteños or Sureños, he said.
"It's not worth dying for a 99-cent rag. The rag has no life, no meaning to it," he said.
Madrid agreed with police that crime perpetrated by gangs in the Yuba-Sutter area is "disorganized," unlike the organized crime found in large Southern California cities. Gangs here may steal to get money for weapons. Or the crimes may simply be attention-seeking acts by young men from broken homes whose fathers are in prison.
Gang membership, Madrid said, "is a Band-Aid over a past wound."
Madrid said he left gang life because he was seeing innocent bystanders killed in drive-by shootings - including a girlfriend who died instantly when she was shot in the head. The baby she was carrying was saved by Caesarian section, he said.
Although area police do not necessarily agree, Madrid said the Mid-Valley's current round of drive-by shootings that claimed six lives started with the July 2003 shootings in Gridley of 18-year-old farm workers Isidro Viveros and Jose Castaneda.
Subsequent shootings in Gridley, Live Oak and Yuba City were retaliatory acts. In some cases, family members from Southern California have been called in to avenge shootings, he said.
It's often said that leaving a gang is difficult or impossible. But there are ways, including participation in high school sports - and religion, Madrid said.
Since most gang members have mothers and grandmothers who are religious, they respect someone who leaves a gang because of a genuine conversion, he said.
"When it comes to God, they know if you're real or not. They respect God," Madrid said.
Appeal-Democrat reporter Rob Young can be reached at 749-4710. You may e-mail him at email@example.com.