Carlos Castro walks his knee-high son along a trail in Salinas’ Cesar Chavez Park. Castro has lived in the blue row homes overlooking the East Salinas park for three years. “My neighbors are good,” Castro says in Spanish. “There are no problems.”
Although Castro doesn’t offer any complaints, he says it’s good that the city is beefing up police patrols and focusing several departments, like code enforcement and recreation, in the area. Under a new community-policing initiative dubbed CAPSTONE (City at Peace: Supporting and Transforming Our Neighborhood), the city hopes to quell street violence and transform this neighborhood into a peaceful place. Yet some residents say they already feel safe.
Dashing down the cement court, making quick and wild passes, a group of farmworkers play a lively game of basketball. North of the park gleam the green ag fields over Carr Lake. But there is no work in the fields this afternoon.
Horacio Severano, a young farmworker from the Hidalgo state of Mexico, stands on the court with his hands inside his black zip-up jacket. His friends practice their jump shots. “We are pure paisanos,” Severano says, while his friend sinks a free throw. “We don’t have problems with anyone.”
Two days ago, 21-year-old Ivan Avalos was shot to death while sitting in his new BMW a few blocks from here. Police say Avalos was a Sureño gang member. When asked about the Feb. 20 shooting, Severano shrugs it off. He maintains the neighborhood is not dangerous, at least not for him and his buddies.
Residents should not passively accept gang violence, city officials say. To meet this goal, Salinas Police Chief Dan Ortega has assigned seven officers from the department’s violence suppression unit to the East Market Street corridor.
The gang officers are focusing on a roughly two-mile perimeter east of Highway 101 and west of North Sanborn Road between Cesar Chavez Park and East Alisal Street. The officers not only will arrest parolees but also help residents with other issues, from potholes to abandoned vehicles. “This is not simply a police department program,” Ortega said at a news conference last week. “It is a community project and it involves all city services. It’s problem-oriented policing. It’s going into a neighborhood and empowering that community to take back their streets.”
Ortega says Mayor Dennis Donohue asked for a new peace strategy after last year’s Labor Day melee, during which 18 people were shot over a two-week span. In one of the most egregious shootings, five people were gunned down at the corner of Hebbron Avenue and Jefferson Street, in the heart of the CAPSTONE area.
While the city is developing a long-term gang prevention strategy, CAPSTONE is designed to stop crimes, following the “broken windows” theory. In simple terms, if you paint over graffiti, repair blighted homes, and pick up litter, people won’t commit as many crimes and residents will take more pride in their neighborhood. (For example, many experts link New York City’s crime dip in the mid-‘90s to police crackdowns on subway-fare evaders and squeegee men.)
Salinas police say they are starting with the East Market Street neighborhood because this is where violent crime is spiking. From Dec. 2 through Jan. 4, there were 14 drug, firearm and gang-related crimes, says Cmdr. Kelly McMillin. These numbers were higher than in other hot spots like Acosta Plaza and Santa Rita neighborhoods, McMillin says. Two fatal shootings have occurred in the neighborhood this year. McMillin adds that the area has three active street gangs.
There is also overlap between blue and red territory. Hebbron is associated with Sureños and East Market is tied to Norteños.
But hardly anything in the neighborhood screams gang terrain. On a recent sunny Friday afternoon a family kicks a soccer ball in an apartment driveway. Cesar Chavez Park is also full of soccer players. Black-and-white-uniformed school kids horse around at La Paz Neighborhood Park. Teens shoot pool and listen to rap at Hebbron Heights Recreation Center. Most graffiti is painted over.
The neighborhood, which is part of U.S. Census Tract 5, is densely populated with multiple apartment complexes. About 20 percent of households have seven or more people living in them, according to the 2000 Census. Roughly 22 percent of families here live below the poverty level.
Mothers with strollers walk past East Market Street’s auto shops, taquerias and hair salons. Some stop in Morelia’s 99-cent store.
Owner Raquel Villalta sits inside the doorway welcoming regulars. Villalta is an amiable yet resilient mother with long, curled, dark hair. She knows her customers’ children by name and keeps tabs on the business strip. “If I see something strange I just call my neighbors,” she says. “We know our customers.”
Still, crime happens often here. Last year there were 38 robberies in the CAPSTONE area. Recently, a man broke a fake $100 bill at Villalta’s store. It looked and felt real because it was made from a $5 bill – with Benjamin Franklin’s head on it.
Villalta says she reported the crime, but many people in the area aren’t as proactive. “Most of the people don’t call the police because they know they are not going to fix the problem.” Villalta says there is strength in numbers.
“If we work together we can stop it, especially the fathers,” she says. “They have to know where the kids are.”
Resident Margarita Caracheo is afraid people have become too complacent with gang violence. Caracheo, who lives near the corner of last week’s homicide, says kids were back playing in the streets the day after Avalos was gunned down. “That’s one of my biggest fears is that people…are just going to look at this community as just their homes versus our neighborhood.”
Caracheo says police need to get out of their intimidating cruisers and engage people face to face. “I’d like to see more community policing, having them walk out and get to know families,” she says, “so we are not afraid to call cops.”
Police plan to do just that. But getting residents involved in reforming the area will be the city’s biggest challenge in making CAPSTONE a success. The department has long struggled to get people to come forward after gang shootings.
Salinas officials plan to host community meetings to kick off the effort. But it will take more than a meeting to enlist residents’ help and trust. Like the father who routinely walks his son in Cesar Chavez Park, some residents aren’t convinced there is a problem that needs fixing.