Gangs in Washoe County have multiplied, growing their ranks by 30 percent in a decade. Reno Public Radio's Rocio Hernandez explores what's being done to curb their influence.
Instead of hanging out with friends after school, 15-year-old Julio travels from Sparks to northeast Reno to practice his boxing. He was introduced to the sport by a friend and has been hooked ever since. Julio says the sport not only keeps him out of trouble but gives him a goal in life. He thinks that might be what separates him from some of his peers.
"Every time they get out of school or something, they just go to do drugs or find the easy way out. Instead of dedicating themselves to a sport or something, they decide to do what other people do to try to fit in."
The gym's founder Roberto Nerey has lived in the area for almost forty years, and in that time, he's seen many kids waste their lives in gangs. In 1993, he established his own nonprofit, now called Guiding A New Generation or GANG. He later established the Battle Born Boxing Gym as a way to keep kids off the streets.
"Once they're in here, they bond with people like me who can then get to know them more personally," Nerey says, "and if I know that they're active or doing certain things that I know are going to get them caught up then I intervene and I try to show them a better way."
Nerey says people join gangs to find a family, one in which they get respect and protection from other gang members. For many, the rewards outweigh the risk.
“Honestly, these kids have no ill feelings about the fact that they might either die or end up behind bars, maybe for life, or just in prison in general by the age of 18.”
As an ex-member, Roberto Nerey understands the allure of gangs. When Nerey was young, he witnessed his brother and mother get beaten by Mexican police officers. For him, the gang life allowed him to go from being afraid to being feared.
"I told myself that I would never allow anyone to hurt me again and so I became tough," Nerey says. "I became tough and I wanted others to become tough, too, because I didn't want others to be in pain."
To combat the problem here, agencies such as the Reno and Sparks Police Departments, the Washoe County Sheriff's Office and the local school district have banded together to create a regional gang unit.
"Our main concern is the citizens," says Andy Carter, the unit's sergeant. "That’s our main focus is to make sure that these neighborhoods are safe for some of these lower income families that work their tail off. They don’t deserve to live being scared, looking over their shoulder everywhere they go."
Carter says there are about 15-20 active gangs in the region. He's seen the rate of gang-related crime remain steady, but the organizations are growing. As of last month, there were about 1,200 active and known gang members in Washoe County.
Roberto Nerey knows firsthand how hard it can to break out the cycle. As recently as 2010, he went to jail for a second time for selling methamphetamine. Since then, he's stayed out of trouble and wants to help others do the same. Even though his staff do their best prepare people for life after prison, some members are still unable to find steady jobs.
“When that happens, I feel like they think, 'I’ve tried,' [and] it’s not their fault, they’ve reached the end of the road. So, in their eyes, it wasn’t meant to be, so now they have an excuse to go back.”
Today, the Battle Born Boxing gym is actually in danger of closing because of low funding. Along with the need for more safe havens, Javier Lopez, a gang unit detective, says there's also a need for more information. He urges people to take action and share any information they have, even as an anonymous witness.
“Gang violence is something we can manage and we’ve been managing, but without the help of the community, it’s a divided line: us versus them," Lopez explains. "And if we are not getting the assistance from the community, it doesn’t mean that we are not going to be able to do our job, it’s just going to take a little bit longer.”
Lopez adds that if people fear retaliation, they can call the Secret Witness hotline which allows them to report information they have about a crime without having to leave a name or phone number.