Thursday, June 12, 2008
It’s not yet summer and already 15 mostly gang-related homicides have rocked Salinas. Gang members are firing at crowds of people. Brazen shooters are taking aim in broad daylight. And in one heart-rending shooting, two innocent men were killed after being mistaken for gangsters.
The sobering number of homicides in the city has already topped last year’s death toll of 14. With warmer temperatures and summer weekends approaching, police say the violent cycle shows no signs of wavering.
“For the last two years Salinas has been more on the quiet side in the big scheme of things,” says Cmdr. Dino Bardoni of the Monterey County Joint Gang Task Force. “Now you have this fight and it really stands out. This does cause concern, and it has erupted to the point that there is no rhyme or reason for it.”
Police officers have been working overtime to stifle a string of retaliatory shootings. But Mayor Dennis Donohue says there is little police can do to stop a spontaneous drive-by. The difficult truth of all of this is if somebody is interested in shooting someone,” Donohue says, “unless you’ve got a crystal ball you can’t have a policeman on every corner.”
So police are once again imploring residents to report crimes and monitor their children for signs of gang involvement. Witnesses, typically resistant to talk to police, have come through in some cases to help police make arrests in five of this year’s homicides. Meanwhile, new, city-funded gang prevention and intervention programs soon will be rolled out. But the rise in day-to-day shootings overshadows the city’s long-term peace strategy.
The city’s latest homicide victim was 17-year-old Pedro Medrano. On June 4, Medrano and a friend drove out of an apartment complex on North Sanborn Road in East Salinas when police say Angel Ocampo, a 17-year-old Sureño gang member, walked up and shot Medrano. Police arrested Ocampo a couple blocks away. Authorities won’t release his name because he is a juvenile.
Sgt. Dave Shaw says it’s hard to say whether the hit on Medrano was in retaliation for an earlier shooting that targeted Sureño gang members.
Corina Castro, 19, was gunned down on May 31 while standing outside with friends. Police don’t think Castro, a 2006 graduate from Alisal High School, was a gang member, but say she was hanging out with gang bangers in Sureño territory. Shaw says investigators haven’t figured out whether Castro, the city’s first female gang-related homicide victim this year, was the intended target.
The recent shootings stem from the historical tit-for-tat struggle between Norteño and Sureño gangs, which have an estimated 3,000 total members in Salinas. Sgt. Mark Lazzarini of the city’s violence suppression unit says this year’s shootings are much bolder.
“Several of the shootings this year have been in broad daylight when people are around,” he says, pointing out a recent 9:30am attempted murder in front of Fairway Market on Williams Road.
In perhaps this year’s most shocking slaying, Andres “Junior” Alcala Jr. and his friend Adrian Varela were shot and killed on May 25 because, police say, they were misidentified as gang members. Alcala, a stocky 28-year-old and longtime Monterey Bay Aquarium employee, was saying goodbye to relatives after watching a Lakers game when killers rolled up on them at the end of the Tulip Circle cul-de-sac. Both Alcala and Varela received fatal wounds while two others were injured in the shooting. (Police later arrested three teenage suspects for involvement in the shooting.)
Lazzarini says the mistaken identity shows that gang members are essentially hunting rival gangsters. “They are driving around looking for somebody, and when they see someone that may belong to a rival gang, that could be the catalyst for further violence,” Lazzarini says. “These guys are basically terrorists.”
While the latest shootings have been in East Salinas, the 15 homicides have been evenly spread throughout the city, including the Central Park area of South Salinas.
Bardoni points to several possible factors increasing crime intensity: more Sureños have moved to Salinas from Southern California, encroaching on what has traditionally been a Norteño stronghold; a disconnect between older and younger gang members; and leadership changes that have shaken up the Nuestra Familia prison gang, which is the umbrella organization for many street-level Norteños. Adding complications are Norteño dropout prison groups Nuevas Flores and Northern Riders, which the FBI has warned could take hold in city streets. “There is some talk and rumors that the dropouts are causing a lot of problems, too,” Bardoni says.
Brian Contreras, executive director of Second Chance, doesn’t think the violence is going to settle down soon. “We are a mini model of L.A. and that’s sad,” Contreras says. But, he adds, now is not the time to quit gang prevention and intervention strategies. “We can’t get frustrated and give up on current efforts,” Donohue agrees. Last week he announced a workplace campaign that will educate parents at large ag companies on how to steer their children away from gangs. Donohue says he will also work with local businesses to build a “job bank” for youth. Another new initiative led by California Youth Outreach will create a street outreach team to work directly with gang members and victims. “We are looking to involve the community in a far greater degree than they have ever been involved before,” Donohue says.