STOCKTON, CA - Joining a gang starts with a violent initiation, but getting out of a gang could be a death sentence.
"When you drop out of a gang, you're less protected, but you still have all of your enemies," said The Barber, a former member of the Northerners gang, a street branch of the Nortenos.
PART 1: Take a look into gang life, meet the sources in this story
"I can't go to the same places anymore. Places as simple as the flea markets are hard to go to because there are gang bangers there. If I get into it with an old enemy, like a Sureno, no Northerner is going to have my back."
Other gang members choose an affiliated status, but no longer involve themselves in criminal activities. They said the stigma attached to gang membership follows them throughout their lives in the community.
"Once you're in, you're in," said Brotha Lynch Hung, popular rap artist and a Crip affliated with the 24 Garden Block gang. "Regardless of if you get out, or they let you out, you're always going to be that."
Street gangs have operated in Stockton for decades. However, in the past two years, the city has seen a record number of murders and an alarming trend in violent crimes happening in broad daylight. Gang members said the city itself doesn't make it easy to leave that life behind.
"This is the one place you can go shoot someone, have sex with someone, or beat someone up, and you're going to run into those people again," The Barber said.
Gang members said the trap starts for some as children.
"All these youngsters that are 14, 15, 16 years old, they're the ones who are doing all of this," Norteno gang member Antonio Yciano said. "The street gangs are out of control and no one can stop it."
"It's the young guys that are the hungriest," The Barber explained. "You gotta eat. There are no jobs out here. You got Walgreens and CVS, but it takes what? Five to six people to work there?"
The Barber said in Stockton street gangs, there are no real God Fathers, no bosses, no real order to gangs often run by high school students.
"You have to have a hierarchy, but nowadays it's not about that," said rapper C-Lim, an affiliated Crip from Townehomes. "It's about who's the toughest. Then he's the shot caller."
It's a new reality that hasn't gone unnoticed by the Stockton police. Chief Eric Jones said the force has seen less structure to the gangs over the past decade.
"We've noticed a lot more loosely knit gangs, new groups, or if they do call themselves gangs, they don't necessarily get orders or instructions from other people," Jones said.
Drugs also seem to be a factor in recruiting new members and expanding the violence.
Older gang members said the city needs to address meth addiction, particularly amongst the younger generation of gang members, and even many dealers. They said the younger gang members are heavily armed and high on methamphetamine. The drug's continued usage makes the users paranoid and more likely to pull a trigger.
"You got leaders and gang members alike and they're all using dope," The Barber said. "If they're not using dope, they're selling it, which means they're dealing with dope fiends. It's never really a good mix."
Gang members said for children with no jobs, some of whom also may not have food at home, selling drugs is seen as the fastest and easiest way to make money. C-Lim said when and if they are caught, incarceration only temporarily stops them from dealing.
"Soon as I got out, it wasn't even a thought to not sell drugs," said C-Lim. "First thing I did; I needed to find me a sack when I got out so I could make some money."
"That's all you're going to do to me is throw me in jail?" said The Barber when asked if he worried about getting caught selling drugs. "Earned vacation; I ain't trippin. I don't have to pay bills or work or worry about getting shot."
For these gang members, jail time wasn't a deterrent and they suggest the criminal justice system reforms how it incarcerates juveniles. When children are locked up, they are never shown any help or mentored by authorities in juvenile detention. Members said they remember being told over and over that if they got caught again, they'd go away for a lot longer period of time. So, they just learned to not get caught.
One example of dealing drugs under the radar came when driving passed Fremont Park. Several people appeared to be camping or sleeping outdoors.
"Some of these homeless people are not really homeless," The Barber said. "They just dress bummy so the cops don't [mess] with them, cause they're really selling drugs."
"I've not heard the situation where they're dressing up as homeless people to throw us off, but I can confirm that gangs and other criminal enterprises have become more adaptive to their environments," Jones said. "They're constantly changing, morphing, and that's why it's so important for us as a police force to keep up with their trends."
For C-Lim, he left gang crimes when an opportunity to run a legitimate business became suddenly attainable. In 2005, C-Lim moved to Ventura to pursue a rap, acting and merchandizing career. His former music and business partner, John Castro, aka Lil' Danger, however, was arrested and is currently awaiting trial for murder in Spokane, Wash.
"Do you know how many rappers are sitting in prison?" asked C-Lim, of why he stays away from the gang's criminal activities. "I did plenty of shoot outs, gang bangin', jumpin' people. I'm 34 years old now. At the time, I thought it was cool, but I didn't have the right guidance."
For others, a better life is still an elusive dream. Members caution younger generations to avoid joining gangs because it's a hard cycle to break out from, but also a life with few rewards.
"When you go to jail, don't nobody care about you anymore," The Barber said. "I put in all kinds of work in jail and did I get any praise for it? No. You get out, do your cycle, and it's, 'If we need you to go do it again, you'll go do it again.' Unless you want this to be your life, and I mean you're whole entire life, there's no future in it."