Gang Posturing on Social Media Makes Violence Worse, Detectives and Community Advocates Say

SACRAMENTO -- Felicia Wills will never forget the last Sunday this past August, when she got a phone call that would change her life forever.

Ernie Cadena, Wills' fiance and father to her unborn child, had been shot. He wouldn't survive.

Wills and Cadena's cousin, Tina Valadez, drove to the scene in Meadowview.

"I can't even tell you what I felt," Valadez said. "I had questions, like, why him?"

Detectives are now searching for an answer to that heartbreaking question, starting with social media.

Cadena was at Meadowview Park for a hip-hop music video shoot. The project was announced on Instagram the day before by the artist, who FOX40 has chosen not to identify.

Another post from the artist is a video about an ongoing feud between two artists - both of whom claim to be gang affiliated.

Hints that violence between the two gangs was coming were all over social media.

"Here in Sacramento, it's a major issue," Gang Detective Kenny Shelton said.

Detectives Shelton and Jason Hernandez are part of the Gang Suppression Unit in the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department. They say when gangs in Sacramento threaten their rivals, brag about killing and recruit new members, it doesn't happen on the street.

It happens on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.

"Even the current gang rivalries existed long before social media became a big thing," Shelton said. "But what social media does is add fuel to the fire."

"There are so many, many different social media outlets now. When a new one comes out, we as investigators learn how to utilize these," Hernandez added.

Every platform where gangs post, detectives follow.

"They wanted to also let the other gang know, 'You come over here, you disrespect us, this is what is gonna transpire,'" Hernandez said, describing a Snapchat video of a gang-related beating.

So why do gangs use these platforms knowing that the content will just end up in the hands on detectives?

"It's not really them thinking about, 'Oh the cops are gonna see this video.' It's them thinking, 'My rivals are gonna see this video,'" Shelton said. "They'll video dead bodies from shootings, and they share it as a way to increase reputation. And, 'My rivals are gonna see what we're doing to them. That's the importance of it."

Former gang member Raymond Garcia drives that point home.

"Social media glorifies the gang lifestyle, the violence and drugs," he said.

Garcia served nearly 20 years behind bars for attempted murder. Now, he helps Sacramento kids avoid the pitfalls of gang life. He says his message has to compete with images of quick money and a false sense of respect that gangs plaster all over social media.

But what Instagram and Snapchat don't show, Garcia says, is the consequences.

"What you don't see is when he's in that cell, and he's crying. What you don't see is when he's in that prison cell and nobody's visiting him, Garcia said. "He's all alone."

Worst of all, detectives say, is social media posturing can actually escalate the violence -- sometimes leaving innocent people like Ernie Cardena in the crosshairs.

"Until this day, it's like, he's not here, you know? There's a baby and he's not here," Wills said. "The violence needs to stop. It needs to stop. We have so many innocent people getting hurt and when it happens, you leave families like this broken."