Spurred by a recent fatal shootout between rival gangs, The Times takes a look at the status of gangs in Hall County in a two-day series in print and online. Copies of Sunday’s Times are available for purchase at the Green Street office.
In print Sunday
- What is the extent of the gang problem in Hall County?
- A closer look at the Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force.
- While shootings get the most media attention, what other crimes are gang members committing?
- Sense of belonging: Ex-gang member working for a better life.
In print today
- A look at how schools are working to thwart gang activity.
- Are local gang members citizens or illegal immigrants?
- Some community members live in fear of gang violence, but others are fighting back.
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To hear Martha Garcia tell it, her brother did not have any friends.
Many people turned up for Juan “Baby P-Nut” Gomez’s funeral, but she said none of them learned from the tragedy of his death.
Gomez, a 16-year-old member of La Onda-05 street gang, was shot and killed, allegedly by a member of the gang SUR-13, in the early hours of Aug. 9.
At his funeral a few days later, Gomez’s mother urged his fellow gang members to change their lives.
“When my mom would tell them, ‘Look at what happened, you should change. Don’t let another mother suffer like I’m suffering,’ they would just (say) ‘OK, OK,’ but it ain’t like they were going to change,” Garcia said.
Experts say Latino teenagers who come from fatherless homes, like Gomez, are susceptible to the lure of the gang life. Like Gomez’s mother, those who work with the Latino community say they do their best to steer teenagers away from gangs.
Joe Ethier, the chief professional officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County, said it is no secret that some of the youth members of the organization have family members involved in gang activity. His organization serves a large number of Latino youth.
“We’ll take any kid ... with the hopes that we’ll turn them around,” Ethier said.
Approximately 80 teenagers are signed up for the after-school program at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County, said teen center director Derrick Caldwell. He said he views the enrollment as a positive sign.
“We know that they’re not leaving school and going out in the street,” Caldwell said. “That’s a plus.”
Caldwell said the staff at the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Teen Center is aware of the signs of gang activity, and tries to keep it out of the club. The only recent problem the club has had is an incident in which gang members “tagged” the building with graffiti last year, he said.
“(Gangs are) not a big issue, but I would say it is relevant,” Caldwell said. “We can’t just sit and say ‘OK, there won’t be a member here that’s in a gang.’ It has happened. It will happen.”
A few years ago, members of two rival gangs were about to fight in the club’s gym when staff members intervened, Caldwell said.
Caldwell and the unit director at the time took the gang members into a room together and read to them the organization’s mission statement — a promise to inspire and enable all youth, especially those that need it the most, to reach their full potential as productive citizens.
“I said... ‘If you try, watch how much similarity you have about this person, and if you talk, eventually you will sit and (wonder) “Why are we fighting with each other?”’ ... We told them that we’d be back in an hour. ... We left them by themselves ... they got to know each other and actually became the best of friends,” Caldwell said.
Since most gang members join gangs to fill a void, Jason Pleasant said the Boys & Girls Clubs tries to fill that void before a gang does. Pleasant leads graduation coaching efforts at the club.
“Gang recruitment is basically the same exact thing we do here. ... The only difference is, they use negatives and we use positives,” Pleasant said. “That’s our biggest challenge as far as being the staff here is turning their negatives into positives.”
Though Caldwell’s story of rival gang members ended well and the rivals became friends, some of the youths remained in the gang.
“Some gang members feel like they have no choice, because when they’re born, they see their mama in it, they see their dad in it and they see their older brothers and sisters in it,” Caldwell said. “Gang is their whole family. The only way I think that they will get out of that is when they are old enough to make decisions on their own and they learn, ‘Well, look, this is something I don’t want to do.’
“Sometimes, it may be too late, and you may be too deep in the gang.”
Such was the case with “Baby P-Nut” Gomez. As a younger child, Gomez only had his older brothers as male role models, and both were members of La Onda-05, Garcia said. One brother, Roberto “Big P-Nut” Gomez, served jail time last year for a gang-related group beating. “Baby P-Nut” was following in his footsteps, Garcia said, having dropped out of school and been to juvenile court.
Gomez’s mother struggled to move them away from the neighborhood where La Onda was active. The day before “Baby P-Nut” Gomez was shot, he wrote a letter to the Georgia Youth ChalleNGE Academy asking to be accepted.
He wrote that he wanted to attend the academy so that he could change his life and get a “good-paying job,” Garcia said. “Baby P-Nut” had also signed up to take his GED exam and had an appointment for the Job Corps job-training program at the Department of Labor later this month.
“Well, he didn’t get to get to that one, either,” Garcia said.