Why are teenagers in a mostly rural California county joining gangs?

Published on
March 19, 2024

Nestled between Santa Clara and Monterey County, San Benito County is a historically rural stretch of land in the midst of a rapid expansion. With that growth has come a surge in has crime and gang problems. 

In December 2023, I interviewed a nonprofit in San Benito County called Youth Recovery Connections (YRC). The organization focuses on a holistic approach to addiction recovery for adolescents in the county, with a focus on prevention and intervention. Some staff members are themselves former addicts and were previously involved in criminal activity in the county and were now focused on preventing youth in the county from following in their footsteps. 

During the meeting, I came to understand that there were unique challenges facing San Benito County in curbing the violence and gang recruitment of teenagers in the area. 

San Benito County is a rural and suburban county that is currently expanding, with more residents moving in from the Bay Area. The rise of youth violence has been a concern for the community, particularly after Sept. 14, 2023, when the largest high school in the county, Hollister High School, went into lockdown. 

Two students were arrested on the high school’s campus. They were allegedly selling drugs, and one was arrested carrying a loaded gun. Parents waited outside of the school that day, waiting for the lockdown to be lifted. Some were sobbing, others frantically texting their children.

Last year, San Benito County’s high schools recorded the second-highest number of expulsions in the last 11 years. At Hollister High, 234 students were suspended out of 3,500 total, and 19 students were expelled, a dramatic rise from previous years. A rise of violence struck the community as well, with eight violent incidents in the spring of 2022 alone. 

What’s driving these trends, and what kind of programs or interventions can make a meaningful difference? I’ll be seeking answers to those questions in my reporting for the 2024 California Health Equity Fellowship, with my project culminating in a series of stories for BenitoLink, a nonprofit newsroom covering the county. 

In an October 2023 community listening session focused on youth in the county held by BenitoLink, high school students expressed concerns about school safety, an increase in campus violence and fights, and classmates joining gangs in the county. 

Violent crime has risen more broadly in California. In an annual report released last June by the California Department of Justice, California’s violent crime rate increased 5.7% in 2022. In Attorney General Rob Bonta's CalGang database, a total of 24,031 individuals were listed in the system for gang activity in California as of 2022.

But in my reporting, I am more interested in the source of the issue itself: Why are teens engaging in violent crimes and joining gangs? What are the social and economic conditions that have led them to join a gang in a suburban and rural county like San Benito?

I am also interested in hearing specifically from young adults as to why their peers might participate in violent crimes, since they have firsthand experience of their peers’ behaviors and motivations. 

I’ll not only look at why youth in San Benito County are joining criminal gangs or participating in violent crimes, but I’ll also explore community-oriented solutions available in the county and region to address the issues.

I’ll seek to interview former gang members and violent criminal offenders, asking them why they began to participate in these behaviors, what motivated them to continue, and why did they stop. I hope to humanize rather than vilify people, since exiting systems of incarceration and punishment in this country have not curbed crime.

My reporting will also engage the community in San Benito County, especially young constituents, seeing a deeper understanding of the rise in violence and recruitment of their peers into gangs.

The project will also incorporate a solutions journalism approach, looking to other counties across California that have created programs, legislation, or grassroots and community efforts that combat gang violence and recruitment.

San Benito County, like many similar counties across California, is rapidly changing. I hope my reporting can increase our collective understanding of a population that has limited voice and personal power.