Counterinsurgency in the desert: fighting gangs in Salinas

Photo by Rina Palta

Salinas, California is an agricultural town of about 150,000 people – mostly Latino, located just about in the middle of the state. Law enforcement officials and community members there have been dealing with gang violence for generations. They’ve tried gang injunctions, as well as bringing in federal and state officers. Yet the violence persists.

So Salinas officials are trying something new. This latest strategy has been honed in other desert towns tens of thousands of miles away – in the outskirts of Iraq and Afghanistan. The police in Salinas reached out to the military to help combat gangs using counterinsurgency tactics. KALW’s Rina Palta has our story.

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RINA PALTA: When you drive south into Salinas on Highway 101, you can see downtown with City Hall and a local hospital off to the right. To the left, you see East Salinas, the town’s most impoverished, violent neighborhood. The highway splits the town in half, but that’s not its only significance. This highway, which runs from southern to northern California, has made Salinas a hot spot for drug traffickers. And therefore, a hot spot for violence.

MARIA GARCIA: Hay demiasiado. Mucha violencia.

Maria Garcia has lived in Salinas for 16 years. When she says there’s a lot of violence, she’s putting it mildly. In 2009, the city had more shootings and homicides than nearby San Jose, a city with more than six times as many residents.

GARCIA: Tengo una nina que tiene doce anos. Hace cuatro anos le dieron dos balasos.

Garcia has a 12-year-old daughter. She says four years ago she was shot twice, destroying a number of her organs. That sound of sirens, she says, you hear all the time in Salinas.

DEPUTY CHIEF KELLY MCMILLAN: Our problem is really singular but it’s a bad problem. It’s very intractable here.

Kelly McMillan is the deputy chief of police in Salinas. He says the violence stems from one thing: rival Latino gangs.

MCMILLAN: They’ve been here since about World War II. There was one original group of young men that started preying on field workers.

That group called itself Salinas East Market Street.

MCMILLAN: And the field worker population started banding together for protection against those gang members. Those end up becoming our southern faction of gang members. So we’re now, as a result, faced with third and fourth generation gang members here in Salinas.

McMillan says today’s gangs are more sophisticated, networked and militarized. That means a tough job for police who need – at least – community support. But they already suffer a strained relationship with Latinos living in East Salinas ... like Maria Garcia.

MARIA GARCIA: Un ejemplo. My hijo, un dia iba caminando y una policia iba por la calle mirando…

She says her mistrust stems from an incident with her teenage son. He was walking down the street, she says, when he was stopped by officers looking for a young man with a gun. They stopped him, she says; roughed him up. But he didn’t have a gun. He was just walking.

MCMILLAN: We can’t solve a whole lot of these gang-related homicides because no one wants to come forward. Those are the issues that we have to try to overcome.

And McMillan says, the problem is compounded by his city’s lack of funds.

MCMILLAN: Our per person government spending is certainly the lowest in Monterey County. We have the highest crime rate in Monterey County. We have the lowest number of officers per thousand in Monterey County. So we’re very much skewed to set us up for a violent atmosphere. Understanding this, we needed to reach outside of our own abilities and ask for help.

So they did. Since April 2010, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration have helped conduct massive raids on alleged high-ranking gang members. But Salinas went further. It called on the military.

HY ROTHSTEIN: What our department focuses on and has focused on for some 20 years now is irregular warfare. Insurgency is what a lot of people refer to it as.

Hy Rothstein is senior lecturer in the defense analysis department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. For the past couple of years, the department has been sending veteran soldiers to do research in Salinas. Rothstein’s colleague Michael Freeman says winning the war on gangs won’t just involve shootouts between cops and criminals. It’ll look more like a counterinsurgency. Like this:

MICHAEL FREEMAN: In counterinsurgency, one of the key tenets is developing trust with the population. Enhancing your own legitimacy and not going directly after the insurgents, in this case not going directly after the gangs, working through the population to help you build that community support so the people actually take control of the streets in this gang environment.

It’s a long-term solution, which is important because:

FREEMAN: Salinas has had that problem where they’ll have ebbs and flows of violence, where it will go down for a few years. They’ll have a successful strategy, but they’re not addressing some of the root causes.

One of those root causes is joblessness. At times over the past year, Salinas’ unemployment rate has topped 17%. And Salinians are poor. The last census showed the per capita income is less than $15,000 a year. These are similar problems to those seen in other high-violence areas like East Oakland, or looking further out, Kabul, Afghanistan. Freeman says it leads to frustration.

FREEMAN: All sorts of societies, whether they’re ones facing gang insurgency or just internal war have what is sometimes called a young male problem. The majority of all violence is committed by young males. Societies have different ways of co-opting those young males. Putting them into the military, putting them into sports leagues, putting them into other ways that they can compete with each other in nonviolent ways. And I think the specific lesson from counterinsurgency, from an anthropological perspective is relevant to Salinas.

Going forward, the Naval Postgraduate School is helping Salinas write a strategic plan for dealing with gang violence on all fronts. The city hopes to receive federal funding to carry it out. But first, Salinas officials are taking drafts of the plan to the community.

At Fremont Elementary School in East Salinas, volunteers try to engage local community members in the big questions confronting the city.

VOLUNTEER: What do you think is the reason that young people are going to the gangs?...

MALE COMMUNITY MEMBER: They don’t have attention of their parents…

About 150 people have shown up, and they’re fully engaged, identifying all the little things that contribute to a violent atmosphere: too many hours spent working, drug addictions, lack of literacy...

AGUILAR: Hola, como estas? Did you get a sticker?

Deborah Aguilar is helping with childcare. She’s been to a lot of these meetings and says the details matter. Things like fixing streetlights.

DEBORAH AGUILAR: I mean, that’s big.  Because we live in a high risk ... because when there’s violence going on, robberies, who knows what else can happen? Anything can happen in a dark building complex and that stuff is important.

As the meeting wraps up, many people read pledges offering what they can do to help.

FEMALE COMMUNITY MEMBER #1: I commit myself to talk more to my children.

FEMALE COMMUNITY MEMBER #2: I will help reduce alcohol and drug use...

Aguilar says change can come to Salinas when the community comes together, volunteering to read to a young child, asking for help when dealing with a violent son.

AGUILAR: They’re looking for answers. It’s the worst thing in the world to know that your child may be involved, or may not come home because you’re going to get that ugly, fearful knock on the door that your son or your daughter has been shot and killed like my son was. It’s all about healing, our city is healing. We’re getting there.

In Salinas, I’m Rina Palta for Crosscurrents.

This story originally aired on February 28, 2011.