Riverside County prosecutors want to target an allegedly violent gang in the Coachella Valley with a legal tool meant to break it up. County District Attorney Mike Hestrin is seeking a civil gang injunction against Varrio Coachella Rifa, which umbrellas six different gangs in the area and has ties to the Mexican Mafia.
In the past two years, 13 out of 15 murders in Coachella Valley have been gang-related, according to Hestrin, though he didn't specify if those crimes were directly related to the gang that's the subject of the injunction. He also said that other crimes like assaults, robberies, carjackings and drug activity are linked to gang activity in the area.
"The people of the Coachella Valley, and especially of this town Coachella, they've been terrorized by this gang, and there's been a cycle of gang violence that's been unrelenting for these people, so we decided we had to take action," Hestrin told KPCC.
That action is in the form of the gang injunction, which names more than 120 gang members in the area. If it goes into effect, the injunction is a court-ordered restraining order against the gang, according to a press release from Hestrin's office. That means that within certain "safety zones," including the city of Coachella and the southern part of Indio, members of Varrio Coachella Rifa would not be allowed to convene.
The press release lists other provisions for gang members in the injunction that include: No illegal drugs; no alcohol in public; no firearms, imitation firearms or dangerous weapons; no trespassing; no reckless or unlawful driving; no false information; no intimidation; no gang tattoos or logos; no gang signs; no gang apparel; no graffiti or vandalism tools; no fighting; no curfew violation; and no violations of law.
Violating any of the provisions of the injunction would lead to arrest. Hestrin said that law enforcement interacting with the gangs say that injunctions mean gangs "leave their guns at home," because they could be stopped at any time.
"At the very least, if I can get them to leave their guns at home, that's progress," Hestrin said.
With ties to the Mexican Mafia, Hestrin said that the narcotics distribution across the Coachella Valley is among the problems the group brings.
"What that part of the county has is wide-open spaces, so narcotics and the cartels bring their product, really, and they put them in stash houses across Riverside County, and the gangs act as a distribution network," Hestrin said.
Twenty-five of the gang members were arrested Thursday.
"There's a misconception out there," Hestrin said. "The arrest is not the primary objective. The primary objective was to get as many as possible of the individuals named in the civil injunction served with notice, and we did accomplish that."
During the process, Hestrin said that gang members will be protected by their rights in court. The injunction also has a "sunset clause" written in so that any of the 121 members named could automatically be dropped off after five years without committing new crimes or violating the injunction.
Work to serve a gang with an injunction is a long process — one that Hestrin said takes several years, and the lawsuit invovled in this case is more than 2,800 pages long.
"I hope this will be the beginning of [the people] being able to take back their city, and take back their parks and streets," Hestrin said.