BRAWLEY — Family members and proponents of the Mothers & Men Against Gangs Coalition huddled together in a circle outside a restaurant Friday evening, each one holding a lit candle during a vigil in memory of Martin Alberto Garza who was murdered four years ago.
Since January 6, 2013, the day Garza was killed by an alleged gang member, Garza’s mother, Yulil Alonso-Garza, began a crusade to rally against gangs and violence in Imperial Valley. As president of the MAG Coalition, her efforts got attention from the community, schools, law enforcement agencies and elected officials.
Yulil remarked about the anniversary of her son’s death and their vigil, “Today is not easy.” Attendees were moved and emotional as she welcomed them and often hesitated for a brief moment to wipe her tears with her hand.
“We all have bad days,” she said. “We face life and do the best with the time that God has put us to test. I don’t think any kid grows up saying they want to be a gang member. I don’t think any parent raises their child to want to be a gang member.”
In a telephone interview by The Desert Review, Mike Loyd, Commander of Imperial County Narcotics Task Force, said their office has currently identified 19 gang groups and over 260 gang members in the Valley.
“I’m very familiar with the problems with gangs,” said Michael Kelley, chairman of the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, and a retired chief probation officer who worked in Imperial County for 17 years.
“There is no need to have kids gather to harm a fellow human being,” Kelley said. “It’s insane. But it all goes back to the parents, because when the kids get involved in gangs, they have nowhere to turn. They have no identity, they have no association with anybody.”
Combating gang violence, according to Kelley, can be achieved through education. It starts in the home and continues in the school, church, neighborhood and eventually in the community. High school, he said, are the formative years needed to mold a person to become a responsible and productive citizen to make the world a better and a safer place to live.
Davina Ruiz, Garza’s aunt, and her family members had an hour’s drive from Indio down to Brawley to participate in the candlelight vigil for her nephew. Ruiz smiled as she reminisced, “He had that special spark that you just don’t see everyday when it comes to people. He had that permanent smile.”
Ruiz, like Kelley, believes gang violence prevention can be achieved through education awareness and by kids having the support needed to stay out of trouble. Encouragement from the community fortifying Yulil’s struggle was abundant at the candlelight vigil.
Earlier in the evening, supporters gathered at Brownie’s Diner, a restaurant on the east side of Brawley, to hear proclamations and resolutions making January 6, 2017 “Anti-Gang Awareness Day.”
Proponents include the cities of Brawley, El Centro, and Imperial; the Imperial County Board of Supervisors, the County Board of Education of Imperial County, and Westmorland Union Elementary School District. Support also came from the offices of Senator Ben Hueso— 40th District, and Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia—56th District.
Yulil Alonso-Garza and her husband, Martin Garza, were pleased and overwhelmed with the support. Yulil said,
“I was really happy,” Yulil said. “It’s kind of, like, ironic. We don’t have our son, but we are actually happy because everyone came together.”
To boost membership in the MAG Coalition, Yulil distributed membership forms. She also invited the community to participate the following day, Saturday, in both the “#73 Changing Lives!” 7.3K Run and 1.73 Mile Walk at Imperial Valley College.
Yulil, on behalf of her family, expressed her gratitude for the community’s support that culminated in making January 6 an “Anti-Gang Awareness Day” in Imperial Valley.