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October 25, 2014

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Reno facing rise in gang violence

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Ethan Miller

Downtown Reno photographed Friday, February 25, 2000.

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Gustavo Alvizar, 26, drove his car to a residential neighborhood in southeast Reno on Feb. 8 and ordered his 18-year-old passenger to fire shots at a 16-year-old boy in broad daylight, according to a Washoe County District Attorney’s Office criminal complaint.

The boy, Cesar Ortiz-Rodriguez, was killed while running toward his mother’s home, authorities said. Shots also were allegedly fired at his 18-year-old friend, who was wounded but survived.

Alvizar and his passenger, Miguel Angel Gonzalez, of Fairfield, Calif., face open murder charges in connection with Ortiz-Rodriguez’s death.

The suspects and Ortiz-Rodriguez were affiliated with rival Hispanic gangs, authorities said. Alvizar and Gonzalez were Norteños, and Ortiz-Rodriguez was a Sureño, authorities said.

For years, Sureños had a larger population in northwestern Nevada, partly attributed to Southern California migration into Reno during the past three decades, police said.

But several northwestern Nevada law enforcement members from state, county and municipal governments said Norteño numbers are rising. And that could mean more violence.

“About four years ago, if you talked to one Norteño in a three-month period, it was rare,” said Reno Police Officer Javier Lopez of the regional gang unit. “Now, we see them on a weekly basis.”

There are many aspects involved in gang migrations. There are even more reasons why people claim gang affiliation. But the consensus among law enforcement is that Hispanic gangs are emerging in northwestern Nevada, and a growing number affiliate with the Norteños.

“This past year, I’ve been seeing more of a rise of the Norteño activities, and everything we’ve been hearing from confidential informants and our interviews with gang members is that, unfortunately, it is only going to rise,” Lyon County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Brett Willey said.

Authorities said the local service economy brings many of the gang members.

Alvizar was living in Sparks and had been moving back and forth from Fairfield, Calif., for about eight years, Washoe Deputy District Attorney Kelly Kossow said. He was staying with family in Fernley before his arrest Feb. 13, she said.

Willey, a member of the tri-county gang unit that includes Carson, Douglas and Lyon counties, said Norteños like Alvizar are moving to Reno and Fernley for several reasons, including family, proximity to Interstate 80 and as a way to avoid harsher sentences in California, which has had enhanced penalties as part of its three-strikes law for habitual criminals.

“If he gets arrested in Nevada, he is a new guy,” Willey said. “Not that big of a deal. He gets arrested and goes back on the streets. Whereas in California, he gets that third conviction, and now he is looking at life in prison.”

That doesn’t mean Nevada is lenient on gang members, Kossow said.

In Nevada, criminals are charged as habitual at the discretion of the district attorney, and this can sometimes be after a third or fourth felony, regardless of what state the crimes occurred in.

A third conviction can have an enhanced sentence of five to 20 years, and a fourth conviction can be as harsh as life without the possibility of parole, but judges have discretion to dismiss mandatory enhancement, Kossow said.

“I can tell you that the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office takes a very hard line with gang cases and prosecutes them to the full extent of the law,” she wrote in an email.

Reno police Lt. Scott Dugan said gang activity in Northern Nevada is cyclical, and Hispanic gangs stem from California gang wars in the 1960s and 1970s. Historically, Norteños are associated with areas north of Delano, Calif. — a rural town with a state prison that housed many of the inmates involved in the gang war, according to gang histories — and Sureños held territory in Southern California.

Reno police Sgt. Chad Crow said Norteños historically tend to be migrant workers from Northern California — with larger populations in Fairfield and Salinas — but he is not sure whether they are being directed to come here or if it is undirected migration based on economics and family circumstances, he said.

Crow said that while some neighborhoods in Reno have higher gang activity — such as those near Neil Road and in northeast Reno — gang populations are relatively spread out in Northern Nevada.

Like the temperature, crime tends to heat up in the summer, and the regional gang unit takes measures to prepare, Dugan said.

“Before summer, we will go out and strategically try to suppress more active gangs and work with other agencies, including parole and probation, to find more active gang members and get them off the street,” Dugan said. “(The) goal is to disrupt and disorganize.”

Law enforcement conducts warrant sweeps in the spring, where they look to get criminals off the streets before summer.

Schools are also a big target for education and prevention to stop violence. Schools are breeding grounds for new gang members, and many start as juveniles because of the “bad boy image” that often appeals to boys and young men, Crow said.

“We adjust hours during the school year so we can be out in the neighborhoods and monitor gang activity, gather intelligence, suppress gang crimes going on, and when the school year ends, we go to a later schedule so we are out in the neighborhoods later at night,” Dugan said.

The regional gang unit also has an officer assigned to work specifically with schools, and two school police officers are on the 14-member countywide gang unit.

The regional gang unit often refers possible gang members to youth programs, such as the Children’s Cabinet, which runs a daily program with 10 to 15 youths each day. Jessica Ernster, intervention case management program manager with Children’s Cabinet, said referrals have increased steadily since 2009, as the regional gang unit has worked more closely with youth programs.

Since 2009, municipal, county and state agencies have worked to consolidate gang activity information. Weekly meetings are also scheduled with several agencies, including the Washoe Sheriff’s Office, Sparks and Reno police and Washoe school police.

“When I first started here, you didn’t have the (gang) numbers we have today,” said Nevada Department of Parole and Probation Sgt. Andrew Shuman, who oversees the intensive supervision and gang unit.

The department changed its approach in 2009, Shuman said. Back then, gang-related cases were given to officers throughout the department. Today, those cases are given to two intensive supervision officers who attend meetings and share intelligence with the regional gang unit.

The department even treats gang-related cases differently than regular cases, he said. Officers might drug-test more, visit residences more and, of course, keep a close eye on whether individuals are still associating with gangs, he said.

Earlier this year, the FBI in Reno reassigned an agent to a full-time position dedicated to following local gang activity. That agent works with the regional gang unit, FBI spokesman Erron Terry said.

However, budget cuts have affected suppression in Washoe County, cutting the regional gang unit’s personnel levels since 2008, Dugan said.

In 2009, about the same time parole and probation consolidated cases under intensive supervision, sheriffs in Douglas, Carson and Lyon counties joined to create the tri-county gang unit. That unit works with the regional gang unit and helped in the investigation to find Alvizar in February.

Lyon County Sherriff’s Sgt. Bryan Parsons and gang unit Deputy Bret Willey said that although consolidating efforts has decreased gang activity in Lyon County since its creation in 2009, a Latino gang movement into Fernley is on the rise.

“We recently did an interview with a Norteño in custody in our facility, and he openly said, ‘Yeah, they are moving here, get ready,’” Willey said. “It is one of those things we are trying to stay one or two steps ahead of.”

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