After a three year lull, the MS-13 gang is starting to gain a foothold in Mendota. City leaders told Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, that in the last 6 months they’ve made arrests for extortion and other crimes.
“Anything you could do to help us with that would be great,” Mendota Police Chief Kevin Smith told Valadao during a round table discussion Monday morning at AMOR Wellness in Mendota. “Over the last six months we’ve seen an influx in cases involving MS-13. Some of the cases that we have investigated involve extortion. There have been a couple of arrests made in those cases.”
“Over the last six months we’ve seen an influx in cases involving MS-13. Some of the cases that we have investigated involve extortion. There have been a couple of arrests made in those cases.”–Mendota Police Chief Kevin Smith
In February of 2020, Denis Barrera-Palma, 25, of Mendota, pleaded guilty today to assault with a deadly weapon in aid of racketeering and conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana.
According to law enforcement officials, Barrera-Palma was the leader in Mendota of La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a violent criminal street gang that engages in racketeering activity, including murder, kidnapping, extortion, and drug trafficking.
In August 2018, 25 suspected MS-13 members were arrested on federal and state charges. A multi-agency investigation into the gang began after reports that MS-13 had set up shop in Mendota.
Unfortunately, city leaders are seeing signs of the gang operating again. Smith says they operate very low key, have no visible tattoos, and don’t wear any distinguishing colors to make themselves stand out.
“It’s (MS-13) has been a huge issue here in Mendota for a number of years,” said Valadao. “The sheriff’s department and police department worked really hard a number of years ago with a big sweep, cleaned it up a little bit, but they’re starting to struggle again.”
“It’s (MS-13) has been a huge issue here in Mendota for a number of years.”–Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford
Valadao says he’s touring different parts of his congressional district to meet face to face with city leaders. He says one issue that comes up repeatedly is the lack of broadband internet in areas like Mendota and Firebaugh.
“Rural broadband is one we hear a lot about,” said Valadao.
According to California’s rural broadband map, there are no broadband providers in Mendota.
It’s something Davena Witcher, executive director of AMOR’s Wellness center in Mendota is well aware of. She worked with AT&T to get fiber internet into the center with the hope of using a newly erected tower to provide the service to homes in the area.
Witcher’s planning to use the high speed internet now at the facility to provide distance learning for educational rooms set up by the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools office and Crescent View Charter School, with future hopes of attracting a college to provide distance learning.
“I’m a big advocate of education for our youth,” said Witcher. “To me that’s the pathway of keeping them away from the gangs.”
“I’m a big advocate of education for our youth. To me that’s the pathway of keeping them away from the gangs.”–Davena Witcher, executive director of AMOR Wellness in Mendota
Water, Roads, Parks, School Resource Officers
Mendota Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Lopez talked to Valadao about the importance of keeping school resource officers on campus. Lopez says the school contracts with the Mendota Police Department to pay the officers to be on campus but asked Valadao to continue pushing for funds to keep the officers there.
Mendota City Council Member Oscar Rosales asked for help providing more opportunities for youth in the city so they don’t get swayed into gangs. Rosales says there are couple of basketball courts that are in dire need of resurfacing because they’re so worn out from all the use they’ve gotten.
Cristian Gonzalez acts as the city manager and public works director. He says he must take on multiple roles because money is very tight. He says the city needs additional funds to fix dilapidated roads that have been neglected too long.
Valadao acknowledged all the issues presented during his nearly hour long discussion. He even brought forth a concern of his own.
“Having access to water, making sure folks that live out in our communities have employment are things that we hear a lot about as well,” said Valadao.