■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
Gangs have changed. Growing up near Charleston, West Virginia, we had gangs. We played king of the hill, had disputes, got into fist-fights. The following day we would all be back in school with scratches and bruises and plenty of prominent black eyes.
We did not stick a shiv in an adversary’s side, nor did we grab a gun and eliminate anyone. Truth to be, we were friends again, all living to have another round down the road and another day of forgiving one another.
That is not the case today. Not in Hemet or San Jacinto or anyplace else. Today gangs are vicious and certainly a danger in and to the community. We’ve recently had several murders in Hemet that appear gang-related, and at this time, the only suspect in custody is Alfredo Esqueda, who allegedly shot his sister Jan. 6. HPD and the Regional Gang Task Force quickly tracked the suspect to La Puente, where he was arrested. Today he sits at the Southwest Detention Center in Murrieta with bail set at $2.1 million. He will be there for a while, I imagine.
You don’t know whether they come from poor families moving into the Inland Empire, bringing along their gangbanging teenagers or from the elegant homes in the heights above Hemet. Like terrorists, they come in all colors, ethnicities and social status.
Hemet has had a war on graffiti for more time than I can remember. They’ve offered rewards to people who turn in the perpetrators. It doesn’t work. Hundreds, maybe thousands of gallons of paint have been purchased and applied by the city to no avail.
Our Chief of Police and big shots at City Hall will tell you it is no big deal. It is being reduced or under control. Anybody who surveys the streets after dark, the parks, such as Mistletoe in San Jacinto, or Weston and Gibbel parks in Hemet knows the gangbangers are there.
You will hear folks say that gangs exist only in the big cities, not small communities. This is simply not true.
Newcomers visiting or moving into the San Jacinto Valley are often surprised that in some instances they have never left the bad situation from which they moved away.
In July 2016 a gentleman moved his family from the San Fernando Valley to Hemet to get away from gangs and drugs. He posted, in part, on Facebook: “Hemet is a horrible place to raise a family. My family of five has lived in the Valle Vista area of Hemet for two years. Almost daily I see used hypodermic needles thrown on sidewalks, in bushes, etc.”
His aim, he says was to get away from bad neighborhoods. The drug and gang activity has caused him to have second thoughts. Hemet, he says, “is by far the worst place I’ve ever lived.”
Another home buyer stated, “Hemet is horrible.”
A lady who bought in Hemet received a quick awakening: “Ok, only if you like meth users or the gangs move to the East Side of town.”
These are not casual remarks. Social media is awash with such complaints.
Don’t get me wrong. Hemet is not all gangland. I moved here 33 years ago and have made new friends almost every day. It is very much a neighborhood city. Gangs, graffiti and drugs are all over the place. Decent people try to avoid the hangouts of these gangbangers, but it isn’t always that easy to avoid.
They are well dressed, polite and respectful–when they are in your company–but out together they turn into vicious predators. Many innocent folks in the valley have become victims because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had a fender-bender and were suddenly surrounded by gang members with threats or worse.
As mentioned above the current variety of gangs don’t fool around. You are as likely to get caught in the crossfire where they use Uzis and MK-47’s. And they boast of their killings and conquests–not only to their buddies but on social media.
Over the past two years, I’ve had an opportunity to speak with several Gang Task Force members. They work hard, but for every one gang member arrested there probably are five more waiting to take his place.
The Latino gangs are once again making inroads. Black gangs joined them in recent years and sometimes the wars between them are played out on the public streets. According to one officer, “they come out of their closets.” Blending in, you wouldn’t know they were gang members. They might be your next door neighbors. Some are quite young and strive to “fit in.”
They are well-dressed, polite and respectful–when they are in your company–but out together they turn into vicious predators. Many innocent folks in the valley have become victims because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or had a fender-bender and were suddenly surrounded by gang members with threats or worse.
How do you know that simple graffiti scrawlers are more than just kids out for some mischief?
Most gang members range in age between 12 through their 20s, although there are some around who are in their 30s and 40s; having been there so long there is just no place else for them to go. Your teenager, who invites his friends to hang out at your house, may not know that some of his “friends” are gang members.
So many young men feel left out or ignored by their families. They want to belong, which is an open invitation to become involved in gang activity. They are so often innocent victims who find themselves too involved to get out.
You see a VF tagged anywhere and you’re viewing the sign of Varrio Hemet–designating gang territory. Teardrops tattooed on a kid’s face doesn’t necessarily mean he did jail time. Nor is it just a passing fad. It is one of the most identifying signs of gang membership.
There are also the south of the border gangs that migrate from Mexico and Central America. A good number have already served time in juvenile or adult incarceration facilities.
It may surprise you to know that gangs in the valley are not limited to the male gender. One girl gang is known as the “BWA’s.”
Gang members are very particular about their dress. They neatly wear logos of such popular sports teams as the Dodgers, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and others, which is the reason professional sports team apparel is not allowed on school grounds.
You may not know if your kid is a gang member unless you learn the signs, like his new group of friends wearing identical clothing or leaning toward a particular type of music.
If you find your teenager has become moody and seems to drop out of family activity, it is time for you, as a parent, to do some investigating. Maybe your child is OK, but do you really know what he or she is up to?
These are not my opinions. They are the facts from studies by experts who keep an eye on what’s going on. The Hemet Police Department is painfully aware of this issue and does the best it can on the streets to control it. Much information has been updated. This reporter has personally sent messages to Hemet’s Chief of Police, whom I’ve known since he was a kid. I’ve asked to interview him about the gangs in Hemet. To date I have not heard back. I would welcome the opportunity to sit down with him and get facts from the head of police in Hemet.