Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
Peggy Wilson speaks Tuesday at Centro Civico. She is frustrated that the gang issue sometimes seems to devolve into racism.

When gang members were arrested after the tragic shooting death of a 7-year-old girl outside her Glendale home, no one was more relieved than the neighborhood's residents, including immigrants, said Margarita Rodriguez. That's why, she said, it's important to remember the gang issue is one of violence, not immigration.

"These people are ready and willing to help," Rodriguez said of the assembled group. "We're not going to let gangs take away what we worked so hard for. We do want violence to stop in our neighborhoods."

In the wake of the tragic shooting, members of Salt Lake's west-side communities are evaluating ways they can be proactive to ensure youths have a feeling of community and belonging.

"People are still thinking enforcement is the answer," said Archie Archuleta, chairman of the Utah Coalition of La Raza. "Of course we know it's not ... It doesn't dig deep enough."

Archuleta is involved in a new community group, The Romero Alternative, which held its first meeting Thursday evening at Neighborhood House to discuss ways to reach out to youths at an early age and to their families, curbing gang involvement before it can start.

Michael Clara, an organizer of the group and member of Poplar Grove Community Council, wants to ensure that children can access role models and character-building youth programs, such as Little League and Scouting. And he said it's important for youths of all ethnic backgrounds to have positive role models.

"We need to start stigmatizing gang involvement," Clara said. "We need parenting classes for our parents and to teach the children too, at a very young age, that being in a gang is the dumbest thing you can do."

Salt Lake Police Sgt. Scott Teerlink said youths are involved with gangs because they gain a sense of belonging. He said role models have turned lives around but that the funding isn't there. He said finding business partners to provide long-term funding and jobs to help get the youths back on track is crucial.

"That's their friend (the gangs); that's who they hang out with," Teerklink said. "They never had a leader come in and say 'you can get just as much of a rush out of helping people."'

For her part, Rodriguez, president of Centro Civico Mexicano, is looking for partners to provide youth outreach programs at the longstanding Latino community center.

Rodriguez spoke Thursday to a handful of community leaders who gathered at Centro Civico to discuss gang violence, along with representatives of the Salt Lake Police Department and U.S. Attorney's Office. Advocates there said Latino youths, including third- and fourth-generation U.S. citizens, need to feel more connected to their communities.

Peggy Wilson, a Holladay resident, held up a newspaper report of the arrest this week of 50 illegal immigrant gang members, expressing her frustration that the gang issue sometimes seems to devolve into racism.

"Every time people look at us, the first thing they think is gang member," she said. "Our skin color is a result of where we come from, nothing more, nothing less."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Parkinson said the effort is simply a pro-active approach to get gang members off the streets.

"Victims of crime don't care who is being taken off the streets." he said of the joint local and federal effort at combating gang violence.

Yapias said the group plans to ask the Utah Office of Ethnic Affairs to organize a statewide Latino community council. He had originally called for such a council on the city level, saying the existing neighborhood community councils don't reflect ethnic diversity.

"We need to take greater responsibility for the problems we're seeing in our community," Yapias said. "We need to look at this from a community point of view. We need to say 'enough."'

However, Clara said, Yapias' idea could create an even more racially divisive situation.

"There is no reason to create a community council based on skin color," Clara says. "It becomes a wedge issue."


E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com