Crime

Peace for one day

Olive Avenue in Sanger has long been home to the notorious Olivo Street Bulldog gang.

But on Saturday, the infamous two-block street became home to bounce houses, carnival games and free food as part of an effort by the mayor and local church organizations to quell the city's growing gang problem.

"We want to bring artists out there -- and food -- and show them that you can have fun without being in a gang," said Sanger Mayor Michael Montelongo, who shook hands with residents at the first Olive Avenue block party.

The number of gang members in Sanger has increased from dozens to hundreds since Fresno's Operation Bulldog -- launched in November -- apparently caused some Bulldogs to flee to nearby cities, Montelongo said.

Escalating gang violence has sparked new efforts by Sanger, Selma and Reedley to pursue sales-tax increases to provide funds for public safety, including additional police officers.

But to address the root of the gang problem, Montelongo has turned to Sanger's faith-based organizations.

"The churches said they want to bring in God's word and show people that they can benefit from not joining a gang," he said.

That word was spread Saturday by a tag-team effort from Ronnie Calderon and Bobby DeLeon, both ex-gang members and the directors of New Life Street Ministry.

"I was ready to die for the barrio that didn't love me back," Calderon shouted into a microphone from a stage in front of New Life Apostolic Church, hoping to reach the ears of gang members. "Only Jesus Christ had the power to free me from those chains."

DeLeon translated his sermon into Spanish.

Calderon sent his group door to door to gang members' houses on Olive Avenue to invite them and their families to Saturday's block party.

The five-hour event, which was funded by church volunteers and local businesses, drew at least 200 people. Some were believed to be gang members, organizers said. But if so, it was difficult to tell. Even young men with gang tattoos denied that they were gang members as they joined Saturday's fun. And they declined to talk about it.

Organizers said they believe the event had an effect on gang members.

"We need to all come together and show them that we care," Calderon said. "We have to involve the gang members and let them know that these programs are for their children and for their families."

The ministry, which has been around for three years, partners with groups that help find jobs for gang members who want to get out of the gang life and signs up at-risk youths for sports and after-school activities that will keep them off the street, Calderon said.

"A crackdown on gangs just locks up current gang members," he said. "It doesn't stop the next generation from becoming gang members."

Sanger has three factions of Bulldog gangs and one Sureño gang, Calderon said. Two rivals -- the Chankla Bulldogs and the Olivo Street Bulldogs -- are separated by the city's railroad tracks east of Academy Avenue.

But a Friday evening church service drew 150 of the rival Bulldogs, DeLeon said.

"There were gang members from both of the gangs at war here, but nothing bad happened, because God was there," he said.

The block party also went off without a hitch.

Josh Rodriguez, 23, of Sanger said he felt safe taking his wife and son to the block party.

"I feel safe everywhere in Sanger," he said. "It's a nice town."

And Fresno native Kenny Mendoza, 38, said he didn't even know Olive Avenue was gang territory. But he didn't believe he or his three kids were in any danger.

"It's nice, quiet and calm here," he said.

Only one police officer was seen at the party, but organizers assured residents that they were safe.

"It is a risk," DeLeon said about an hour into the block party. "We know somebody could drive by right now and start shooting. But God's not going to allow that to happen."

Organizers said a block party for the Chankla Bulldogs territory is being planned.

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