The word from the Salinas Police Department is that the record number of homicides in the city last year was not linked to any particular trend or even for the most part linked to gangs. The total topped 40 by the end of the year, easily bettering the previous record of 29 homicides, but police officials said they were at a loss to explain much of it.
Former Monterey Herald reporter Julia Reynolds, a true expert on Central Coast gangs, wrote in late December that the authorities felt this was not a sign of gangs out of control.
“… (I)n setting a new record, 2015 has been a year of outliers,” Reynolds wrote. “While gang rivalries and vendettas are likely responsible for more than half of this year’s homicides, a significant percentage of the violence appears to be the kind cities everywhere else deal with most of the time — the kinds of killings common everywhere but Salinas.
“These slayings stem from personal disputes, escalating arguments at parties or in the streets, quarrels that end with gunshots and sirens. They are family feuds and drug-dealing beefs that are settled by drawing a gun or pulling a knife. In rarer cases, they’re settled with a killer’s bare hands.”
I can’t prove it, but I think officials may have painted her a misleading picture. Since I can’t prove it, what I’m really saying is that I have a hunch, and that is that the rash of murders that continues into this year absolutely could be the result of gang violence of the worst kind. Based principally on the brief description of the crime that accompanies each news release about the latest murder, I suspect that Salinas gang members, Nortenos mostly, could be systematically executing young men that they suspect to be members of the rival Surenos – or that they are executing young men who happen to look like relatively recent immigrants who fit the profile of Sureno recruits. By my count, that would explain more than a dozen killings last year and several of the shootings, fatal and not, this year.
I’ve spoken to a couple of former gang members, not the most reliable of sources, and they agree with my thinking. One of them said he moved from Salinas to Greenfield because of the violence. But I also have talked to Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin about this a couple of times and he disputes my theory, though without the level of certitude that persuades me I’m wrong. He acknowledges that quite a few victims fit the profile that my theory encompasses but he says his detectives don’t believe a single explanation fits a large percentage of these cases.
The most recent homicide occurred Saturday night in the 1000 block of Atlantic Street. That’s in East Salinas, about a half block from Acosta Plaza, a housing project that has seen more than its share of gang violence. A 23-year-old man had been shot several times “by unknown persons” while walking on the sidewalk. Motive unknown, no known witnesses.
The circumstances were somewhat similar in at least four non-fatal shootings in the last 10 days. Young man shot by a young Latino man dressed all in black. Young couple shot by unknown man. Young man shot after being confronted by another young man who asked his gang affiliation.
Again and again last year the shooters in fatal and non-fatal attacks alike were described as young men dressed black, often wearing hoods. Sometimes one young man. Often two.
As Reynolds wrote, those could be the result of arguments at parties, of domestic disputes or neighborhood beefs, but in such cases, the police usually have a relatively easy time figuring out who pulled the trigger — and the shooter isn’t all that likely to be outfitted in black, with a hood.
Gang-related cases are much harder, for several reasons. Most obviously, there’s the fear factor. Victims and witnesses alike aren’t eager to put themselves in continuing conflict with gang bangers. Less obviously, victims of gang violence may suspect or believe it had to do with gangs but they’re not likely to be able to name names. Members of rival gangs don’t hang out together. And the type of victims being targeted, recent arrivals in Salinas, are even less likely to know the identities of their attackers.
Another factor adds to the challenge for detectives. Executions often are attempted from some distance, often from a passing car. That makes identifications even more difficult.
Maybe I’m wrong. There’s an excellent chance that I am. But if I’m right, I think it is time, past time, for the authorities to put out some meaningful alerts, to warn people who fit the profile that they may want to keep a very low profile for until things quiet down.
It is just as likely that I am being naïve, that the message has already been sent and received through informal channels and that there really isn’t anything more that can be done about this. That could be.
But here’s my hope. My hopes, actually. I hope I’m wrong, but if I’m right and there is some reason the authorities don’t want to cop to it, I hope they think it over and do the right thing