People have been gathering throughout Salinas in recent weeks for 24-hour prayer vigils and anti-violence rallies amid a spike in gang violence that has turned the birthplace of author John Steinbeck into one of the most violent places in California.
The shootings have left parents fearing that their children will become innocent victims of gang warfare, said Pastor Frank Gomez of the United Methodist Church East Salinas Family Center, one of seven churches that invited community members to come pray in shifts.
Gang activity has escalated in the state’s farm belt in recent years, especially in this agriculture-driven city in the heart of the nation’s Salad Bowl.
Last year, Salinas recorded the state’s fourth-highest homicide rate among large cities–behind Compton (Los Angeles County), Oakland and Richmond.
In 2007, the number of gang-related homicides increased from four to nine. Last year, 23 of the city’s record 25 slayings were gang-related. Now, eight months into this year, all 21 killings have been connected to gangs, according to police.
The main rivalry in town is the Norteños (Northerners) versus the Sureños (Southerners), although there are 22 known gangs in Salinas. Out of more than 145,000 residents, police say about 3,500 are gang members.
The problem has left many residents on edge and looking for answers, spiritual and otherwise.
Police and city leaders cite many reasons for the rise of gang activity, including the economic downturn, the city’s proximity to state prisons and the culture of gangs in Salinas that goes back for generations.
The recent spike began July 27 with the fatal shooting of a man in the driveway of an apartment complex, followed two days later by the killing of a 21-year-old man. Police say the shootings were connected. On Aug. 2, a man and woman were slain when gunmen opened fire into a home during a get-together among friends. The next morning, Arturo Navarro-Marquez, who police believe was not affiliated with a gang, was gunned down while he was walking home from a friend’s house.
The last two killings claimed the lives of teenagers: Andres Chavarin, 17, who was fatally shot outside his house on Aug. 4, and Jose Perez, 15, described as an innocent bystander, who was gunned down Aug. 6 while walking to football practice at Salinas High School.
Police have made arrests in two of the attacks, which also left several others wounded. Witnesses, they say, are often reluctant to step forward in gang-related cases for fear of retaliation.