Gangs in the MilitaryPosted: May 13, 2010 1:35 AM CDT
By Norma Yuriar
Tulare County, Calif. (KMPH News) — Honor, respect and duty to country – three reasons why many valley soldiers are proud to serve, but some recruits are using war tactics they learn in the combat zone on their enemies here in the central valley. One local soldier speaks to KMPH News about his experience and the day he came face to face with a rival gang member in military base in Germany.
"My rank is Staff Sergeant, active Army — Walter Huerta," before Staff Sgt. Huerta was representing red, white and blue he was claiming, a different shade — the color of a notorious gang in Tulare County.
"My teenage life was basically all gang banging."
The 26–year old grew up in Orosi and spent most of his teenage years on probation, expelled from school for fighting, busted for selling drugs and left his mark all over town as a member of the Norteno Criminal Street Gang.
"It finally came down to the point where – at the time my girlfriend was pregnant – and I ended up over–dosing on Meth. I was rushed to the hospital; it was a wake up call. It took a near death experience for me to make a grown–up decision to join the military and get out of here and so that's what I did," Huerta said.
For the first time in 17–years, Huerta says he felt like he was heading on the right path.
"When I finally finished basic training, I got to my unit in Germany," but even overseas, his former life was staring right back.
"I get there and he looks at me up and down and he tells me, where are you from?"
The young soldier (seventeen at the time) was placed in the same platoon as a rival gang member.
"He told me – hey, I don't like you. I said you can like me or not, but I'm going to be with you for the next three years of our life," Huerta said. "The next thing I know is we are outside and we are fighting, two American soldiers in Germany and we fighting each other."
Although, Huerta was ready to make changes for the better – others gang members were not. Like in the case of 19–year old Andres Raya, an active–duty Marine and suspected gang member. Investigators say Raya used "military–style shooting" to kill a police officer near Modesto in 2005.
Sgt. Howard Stevenson, a 23–year veteran of the Ceres Police Department didn't have a chance.
"In this case, this guy was a killer hiding in a United States Marine Corps Uniform," Retired Ceres Police Officer Sam Ryno said.
Raya was cornered and killed in a firefight with officers. Because of this incident – five years ago — law enforcement agencies across the valley are training their officers to respond to a new kind of threat; gangster with military expertise.
"Our swat teams consistently have ongoing training in urban warfare, mountainous warfare and tactical training in situations just like that – the disadvantage to law enforcement is that they are becoming familiar with defensible tactics that we would use when confronted with a threatening situation," Tulare County Sheriff's Department Capt. Mike Boudreaux said.
The Tulare County Sheriff's Department is beefing up efforts to combat growing gang violence. Capt. Boudreaux says deputies are seeing more modified weapons on the streets "...only those that are familiar with how to dismantle or rearrange the weaponry are those that are coming out of the military with that type of training."
Sgt. Huerta says soldiers don't hide their gang affiliation when they're overseas or even on base.
"I saw a little youngster one time, I could tell he just got out of basic training and he had a blue rag hanging out of his pocket and we are on military post. I said do you really need to go out with that blue rag hanging out of your pocket? You understand you're in the military now, you joined the military to get out of that."
US Army Recruiter Staff Sgt. Jarrell Smith says standards to enlist are getting stricter.
"We don't what that in the United States Army either and so we try to weed them out the best we can to prevent those guys from getting into the US Army and corrupting our organization," Smith said.
Anyone with a "gang" or "hatred" tattoo can not join and felony charges are also out of the question. But, there are cracks in every system.
"There really isn't a way to keep them out," Smith said. "If they have markings, like tattoos that's how we can tell and we do a background check, there is always some way for us to tell if you have some sort of affiliation."
As for Staff Sgt. Huerta — he and that rival gang member in the same platoon, they are now best friends spreading the same message.
"I would say the Army definitely saved my life because the path that I was on, it was going no where and it was going no where fast."
Huerta's big brother Joshua, a Gang Counselor in Tulare County agrees.
"Yes, definitely that's what happened, once he got opportunity. He was already born into it. He was a soldier from birth. He's allowing the people of California to gang bang because he's fighting for your freedom, there's a real enemy out there – the people that are trying to destroy the US."
Staff Sgt. Huerta says he wants to become a gang officer when he retires from the U.S. Army in three years.
REPORTER CAN BE REACHED AT NYURIAR@KMPH.COM OR (559) 453–8850.