FRESNO, Calif. - Drugs, gun violence and sex trafficking. Police say gangs are behind these rising crimes in Fresno. For two decades now, one task force has been fighting gangs in Fresno and Fresno County.
Known as MAGEC, a unique network of officers from agencies across the county. The team carries extensive knowledge on thousands of gang members from nicknames to affiliations and background history. But with less officers employed and more gangs on the streets, it's an uphill battle.
Ask Richard Burrell about his tattoos. The ink on his skin reminds him of the life he started with in a gang infested neighborhood.
"I didn't see anything different," said Burrell.
Burrell says his tough home environment drove him to the streets where he found a new family in the gang life.
"Searching for recognition, searching for that pat on the back, looking for that love, that sense of community," said Burrell.
Burrell became just one of thousands involved in Fresno County's surging gang activity.
"I was very aware that the things that I was doing were illegal and hurting people," said Burrell.
By the mid 90's, gang violence ran rampant. Steve Magarian, Fresno County's Sheriff at the time propsed a plan to fight the war against gangs.
"We brought in resources from literally every law enforcement agency within this county," said Assistant Sheriff Robert Kandarian.
Creating MAGEC, the Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium. A team made of 80 to 90 members from agencies across Fresno County, dedicated to dismantling gangs. Approaching 20 years since MAGEC's inception, authorities say Fresno's gang activity poses a bigger threat than ever before with more families passing down the gang lifestyle to the next generation.
"It's a family thing where they actually have fathers and sons or mothers and daughters that are part of the gang," said Sergeant Mike Severson.
Sheriff Margaret Mims, now in her third term says the lack of structure in newer gangs is sparking more violence and crime in comparison to decades ago.
"They had bosses. They had bylaws that they would follow. Violence didn't happen unless somebody gave permission or orders for that violence to happen. Not anymore," said Mims.
From 2012 to 2016 MAGEC investigated 84 homicides. 35 of them are gang related. In just 2016 alone, officials say 14 of 20 murders are gang related, nearly three times the average from the last five years. In the last three years the MAGEC unit seized close to 600 guns. Sergeant Mike Severson says gang members carrying guns are getting younger. He remembers a teen he encountered.
"When we started talking to him, we asked him why he was carrying a gun. It was because his brother had been killed by a rival gang and he needed it for protection," said Severson.
"Our city is too large. There's too many gangs, some 20,000 gang members operating in the city of Fresno," said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer.
Dyer's crackdown on gangs is well documented. With the assistance of MAGEC and the Department of Justice, police arrested 29 gang members last April.
"We wiped out the leadership of the Dog Pound Gang as a result of the investigation called Operation Dog Track," said Dyer.
Crippling the notorious gang Dyer says made $30,000 a week through sex trafficking. But obstacles remain. Law enforcement agencies still rebounding from the Great Recession. MAGEC's roster is now half of what it was in 1997. But Sheriff Mims says gang prevention remains a top priority.
"If we can't get grant funding for it, we'll put in our general fund dollars but it's such a big issue in our area to make sure that we stop this activity," said Mims.
Once a gang member for more than 20 years, Richard Burrell is now the Executive Director of Live Again Fresno. Burrell founded the non-profit organization which helps underserved communities and reaches out to kids who are vulnerable to gangs. A new life Burrell says is rewarding.
"The ability to reach in and expose these youth to something different," said Burrell.
But MAGEC's view on the reality of stopping the cycle of violence is sobering.
"That's a tough question. How do we keep people out of gangs? I don't know that we ever will," said Kandarian.
MAGEC will reach its 20-year anniversary on December 1. The operation started in 1997 with 30 law enforcement agencies, the largest long-term consolidation in law enforcement history at the time.