New gang outreach group has meeting

It's no secret gangs are in the Tri-Cities.

But what may be surprising to note is there are about 1,200 documented gang members or gang affiliates who live here.

Law enforcement agencies work together every day to combat gangs, but they know they can't do it alone. It's a community problem that's going require everybody working together, officials said Friday at a gang forum organized by FIRME, a new gang outreach group.

"We cannot afford to fail ... so by working together, working with our community partnerships, working with FIRME, we will see our numbers go down," said Kennewick police Detective Marco Monteblanco.

Almost four dozen people attended the forum at the Richland Public Library, including Pasco Police Chief Bob Metzger, West Richland Police Chief Brian McElroy and Benton County sheriff's Capt. Clay Vannoy.

FIRME Gang Outreach is a program started late last year by Jesse J. Campos with a goal to provide mentoring and education to at-risk youth. Campos is a former gang member who changed his life and became a pastor. He has worked with the Jubilee Youth Ranch in Prescott and started Teen Challenge Tri-Cities Outreach.

"This has been my passion and my heart for 10 years to do something like this," he said. "We now have over 50 people, ages 11 up to 35. Fifty who are actually stepping out of the gang lifestyle and living positively."

Campos said firme is a Spanish slang term used when someone is trying to say, "That's nice!" "That's cool!" or "That's awesome."

He said he wanted to make the name relevant to the youth in gangs because more than 80 percent of gangs in the Tri-Cities are Hispanic. He worked to find a name that fit the acronym FIRME, and came up with "Finding, Impacting, Redirecting gangs through Mentorship and Education."

Campos said Friday's forum was the public launch of the program.

"We just barely started. By the spring of next year we should have hopefully 100 people who are in the process of changing their lives," he said.

Campos said he knows it's not easy to leave a gang. He cited an example of a member who had six titanium plates in his face and died while on life support at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after being jumped by members of his own gang for trying to get out.

Another member had been shot five times and spent years in and out of prison, but he's been clean and sober and out of gangs for the past four years, and now is mentoring youth, Campos said.

"When kids come our way and say, 'Well, you don't know our lifestyle,' I say, 'Let me introduce you to a couple of our guys,' " he said. "We've done a lot and we're impacting the Tri-Cities. There's a huge need for it."

Campos, the son of a pastor, said he was 9 when he was introduced to drugs by his uncle. In the 1980s, when gangs started becoming prevalent in the Tri-Cities, he joined.

"Literally, my blood was splattered all over the Tri-Cities doing gang fights and other things that were not positive," he said. He changed his life in 1995.

During the forum, Monteblanco, Kennewick police's gang detective, and Benton County sheriff's Sgt. Carlos Trevino, who leads the sheriff's gang team, presented information about the number of gangs and violent gang crimes in the Tri-Cities.

About 400 of the 1,200 gang members in the Tri-Cities are active, but that's still too much, Monteblanco said.

Last year, Kennewick police responded to 22 violent crimes connected to gangs. Through July of this year, they've already had 21.

"As you can see, this year alone, we're almost to our same numbers as last year," he said. "Having a partnership with Jesse and FIRME is going to be a beneficial thing and I applaud everything that Jesse and everyone here is doing."

Trevino said his team has identified about 150 gang members who live in unincorporated Benton County. Besides drugs, drive-by shootings and graffiti, sheriff's detectives are seeing a lot of prostitution connected to gang activity in the Tri-Cities, he said.

Chief Metzger said the presentations by Monteblanco and Trevino show that the common myth that all the gang activity is in Pasco is wrong. It's everywhere, he said.

"The only way to solve the problem is with a true community approach. We're not Pasco, Kennewick, West Richland and Benton County, we're the Tri-Cities," he said. "We're not gang members and cops. We're all part of the community."

Metzger said that when Campos first approached him about his group and the forum, he was happy to join in and is committed to helping FIRME. He said he can talk to a group of gang members and tell them to stop, but they're not going to listen to him. They will, however, listen to Campos and his group members who have been where those kids are now, he said.

"I've never been in a room with ex-gang members that I can talk to and that's great," he said. "I've never been in a room where we have such a diversity of people and we can relate to one thing. ... It doesn't make any difference how many (people are here). It's just that you're committed."

Some of the services offered by FIRME include mentoring, weekly accountability meetings, family team meetings and parent training.

"If a community collaboratively can come together and say we're not just going to look at the bad stuff. If we can pump in inspiration and hope, we can change a community," he said.

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