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Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Salinas has 3,500 gang members — six times the national average — and a four-decade history of gang violence.

20:50 | ,

Salinas has 3,500 gang members — six times the national average — and a four-decade history of gang violence.

"The gangster element has become so embedded and well-organized that it's just been operating with impunity," said Louis Fetherolf, 64, who became police chief last year. "An aquifer of organized criminality runs under this city, moving tons of narcotics. And I'm concerned that the scope and depth of that is lost on the public."

Azahel's death came in the midst of one of the most aggressive gang crackdowns in Salinas history.

It began with the arrival of Fetherolf, a fluent Spanish speaker with broad experience in law enforcement that included stints with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.

Fetherolf called a summit of law enforcement officials in Salinas, and this year police launched a local version of Operation Ceasefire, a program first used in Boston in the 1990s.

Gang members are called in for daylong, tough-love sessions at police headquarters. They are told to give up the gang or face the fierce attention of the authorities — and are offered job counseling, tattoo removal and other social services.

In addition, counter-insurgency experts at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey have been analyzing gang-related crime in Salinas and will suggest ways to disrupt the violence and address its causes.

"We're not gang experts," said Hy Rothstein, an NPS professor and retired Army colonel who spent three decades in the Special Forces. "But we know a lot about irregular warfare, and these gangs have a lot of similarities with terrorist groups. They are clandestine, nested within the population and engaged in violence."

Since the late 1960s, Latino gangs have been a fact of life in Salinas, an agricultural center half an hour's drive from the mansions, golf courses and tourist haunts of the Monterey Peninsula.

In recent years, Salinas and smaller cities in the fertile, windswept valley captured so memorably in John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" have become a battleground for two storied Latino gangs — the Norteños, a coalition of Northern California gangs, and the Sureños, originally from Southern California.

The gangs have been linked to many crimes, but authorities say their main business is moving drugs and weapons from Southern to Northern California.

"It's very disciplined," Fetherolf said. "You don't see people walking around stoned out of their heads. Youngsters who do start using are the ones who become expendable. Those are most of the homicides we see."

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