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Drawn to gangs

Ryan Marrs deciphered the graffiti on a west Medford fence Thursday, making sense of black, spray-painted letters that look like gibberish to most people.

The number 13 — related to the Sureños gang — is crossed out, a sign of disrespect, likely by a member of the rival Norteños gang. The letters SUR also are scrawled, short for Sureños.

Marrs, who works with local youths, often on his own time, patrols the valley looking for these sorts of communications between rival gang members. The graffiti may indicate aretaliation or other violence is brewing.

"The graffiti out there does mean something," he said.

These rivalries sometimes play out in beatings or stabbings. The stakes ramped up on Nov. 1 in a drive-by shooting in Central Point that police say is linked to suspects with gang ties.

A 22-year-old Gold Hill man is recovering from a gunshot wound to his face suffered in the incident and a passenger in his car received minor injuries.

Police say the four occupants of the second vehicle involved in the shooting had gang ties. Charges ranging from attempted aggravated murder to manslaughter have been filed against Miguel A. Carbajal, 19, of Dinuba, Calif. Francisco Campos, 19, of Traver, Calif., is being held in the Jackson County Jail as a material witness.

Gustavo Santiago, 16, of Central Point died after the car crashed during a high-speed police pursuit. Gabriel Perez, 20, of Medford fled the accident scene and is wanted by police.

Marrs said Perez and Santiago were both known by local groups that work with young people.

Marrs, a case manager at Hearts with a Mission, had worked closely with the Santiago. "It was really hard for me when I got the news," said Marrs. "My thoughts and prayers go out to his family."

Marrs spoke highly of Santiago, who was involved in basketball and wrestling programs. He has a photo of Santiago and others who were part of a youth basketball team.

The death of someone who Marrs had tried to help points to the difficulty of keeping young people on a path, particularly in their early teen years.

Graffiti is important to look at because it is mainly the work of 12- to 14-year-olds who are showing an interest in joining a gang, Marrs said

"That's how the younger members move through the ranks," he said. "When you're 12 years old and your cousins or uncles or brothers are in that lifestyle, it's very hard to combat that."

White City, particularly on Avenue A, has become a popular area for tagging. In Medford, Columbus Avenue has lots of graffiti, he said.

Older gang members don't typically tag any longer, often because they've moved on to drug dealing or have become involved in violence.

While programs aimed at keeping kids away from gangs have increased, so has the number of at-risk children in Medford schools who are now at or below the poverty level, which contributes to gang affiliation.

Marrs said he makes every effort to find activities that will steer young people away from gangs.

A few months ago, Marrs talked to a 14-year-old from Medford with a passion for graffiti.

"I hooked him up with a local artist," he said. "It's worked out for him. He pretty well doesn't get involved in graffiti anymore."

One of the most important things to offer at-risk kids is something to belong to other than gangs and to get them out of that lifestyle.

"All I'm asking them is, 'Give it a shot,' " he said.

Marrs said teaching job skills is important, but the economy has left many without opportunities for work.

He said he's had success in getting at-risk youths to join programs on graffiti removal or fixing up homes, in addition to sports activities and rafting. Sometimes, he takes them to the maximum security Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif., to show them what happens to criminals.

Marrs also works with Medford police on a program that helps teach very young people about the warning signs of gang activities.

Marrs said the Nov. 1 shooting follows other stabbings and beatings that appear to be gang-related.

"I don't want to say it's getting worse," he said. "It's just more recognizable to the community.

Tom Cole, executive director of Kids Unlimited, said young people who come from difficult backgrounds are more easily attracted to gangs, particularly if there are family issues or a sibling involved in a gang.

Many of these youths are doing poorly in school and are at an age where they want to belong to something.

"These are kids who quite honestly feel they don't have anything to lose by the choices they make," said Cole, whose organization on Riverside Avenue is working at any one time with hundreds of kids in dozens of programs.

He said it was nine years ago that he last saw Perez, who's still being sought by police in the drive-by shooting case. He said that's also when he first noticed the signs of gang affiliation.

Cole said he's now working with an 11-year-old Medford boy who's at risk because he has siblings who have dropped out of school and are involved in gangs.

"He's set up to fail," he said. "If nothing changes, he could end up doing the same things."

Kids Unlimited provides a number of options, including an after-school program that helps kids improve their academic skills and provides staff members an opportunity to assess issues they're facing.

To keep kids and teens engaged, Kids Unlimited offers culinary arts, theater, film and sports activities. One program teaches kids how to build low-rider bikes.

"You've got to figure out what card is the one to keep the kids in the game," he said.

Kids Unlimited has three buses and five other vehicles to transport kids to make it as easy as possible for them to be involved in activities. A current Rotary Club basketball program alone involves more than 250 children from five Medford elementary schools.

Cole says the 11-year-old continues to show up at Kids Unlimited for activities and sports despite the barriers he faces at home. But it's a toss-up on how his story will play out.

"He's right there," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

Ryan Marrs, who works to keep young people out of gangs, points out gang graffiti on a fence in west Medford. Marrs and others who work with youths say the allure of gangs can be difficult to overcome for youths who come from difficult family and economic situations.