Volunteer veterans help Salinas combat gang violence

SALINAS — Famed to readers as the birthplace of John Steinbeck and in supermarket produce circles as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” the city of Salinas carries darker renown in the netherworld of California’s prisons.

Instant respect is accorded any inmate tattooed with the words “Salad Bowl” or “Salis” — gang shorthand for a city now defined most of all by ferocious eruptions of violence.

In the space of 11 days this year, seven people were murdered in Salinas. Each killing, like the record 25 homicides the previous year, spilled from the gang warfare that this summer pushed the homicide rate in the city of 140,000 to three times that of Los Angeles. Residents retreated indoors at night, and Mayor Dennis Donohue affirmed his decision to seek help from an unlikely source: the U.S. military.

Since February, combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been advising Salinas police on counterinsurgency strategy, bringing lessons from the battlefield to the meanest streets in an American city.

“This is our surge,” said Donohue, who solicited the assistance from the elite Naval Postgraduate School, 20 miles and a world away in Monterey. “When the public heard about this, they thought we were going to send the Navy SEALs into Salinas.”

In fact, the cavalry arrived in civvies, carrying laptops rather than M-16s and software instead of mortars. In this case, the most valuable military asset turned out to be an idea: Change the dynamic in the community and victory can follow.

“It’s a little laboratory,” said retired Col. Hy Rothstein, the former Army career officer in Special Forces who heads the team of 15 faculty members and students, mostly naval officers taking time between deployments to pick up a master’s degree. Their effort in Salinas counts as extracurricular and is necessarily voluntary, given the constitutional bar on the military operating within U.S. borders.

“Obviously, there are restrictions,” said Salinas Deputy Police Chief Kelly McMillin. “Not only the constitutional part of it, but just the idea we are going to have choppers fast-roping onto Alisal Street.”

The reality turns out to be less dramatic: The thrust of the plan relies on winning the trust of people. In Salinas, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, the uniformed forces patrolling “are still viewed as an occupying force,” said Police Chief Louis Fetherolf.

Gangs and police compete in the aftermath of gang shootings — witnesses in a position to see everything share nothing with police. Their silence is so absolute that after a killing in August, a department spokesman told the local paper that police were “absolutely begging” for witnesses.

The distrust rises partly from differences of culture and language: Many Hispanics in the city have roots in nations where police are often viewed as predators.

“Lot of people are afraid of the cops,” said Jose Angel Soto, whose 16-year-old son was fatally shot on the street in May 2008.

But Fetherolf, who took office this year, also blamed a tradition of police officers who “love the chase. They get into this business to kick ass and take names, by and large. We’re at odds with ourselves because of the people we hire.”

When Salinas police hosted a community meeting a couple of years ago to help residents determine whether their children were in gangs, not a single resident showed up.

Rothstein, a veteran of counterinsurgency efforts in Colombia and Central America, notes the “significant overlap with how you deal with insurgencies and how you deal with cities that are under siege from gangs.” Going after insurgents, he said, involves “trying to capture the allegiance and control of the population. Gang members are trying to do the same.”

To help, the advisers brought to Salinas the powerful computer software commanders used in Iraq. U.S. forces there started out nearly as blind as Salinas police claim to be in facing a population where, by the mayor’s count, 10 percent to 15 percent of families include a gang member.

The military’s software tracks crimes and links suspects and their associates by social, geographic and family connections. “It looked pretty wazoo,” said Fetherolf, impressed.

Certain adjustments were required: “Commander’s Intent” became “Mayor’s Intent.” But parallels leapt out immediately to Maj. James M. Few, who on smallwarsjournal.com wrote: “The frightening realization is that I’ve walked this dog before.”

Few, a veteran of three Iraq tours, said in an interview that he sensed in the grievances of poor Latinos some of the air of disenfranchisement Sunnis felt toward the Iraq government dominated by Shiites. In a visit to the Salinas courthouse, he watched a gang member charged with fighting who appeared almost eager to get to jail.

“What was strange was the look on his face was very similar to a bunch of the insurgents we’d captured” in Diyala province, Few said.

“Stone-cold face. Eyes are very deep set and very cold. It’s one of defiance, almost.”

The gang problem dates back decades in Salinas, headquarters of the northern California network known as La Familia or Nortenos.

Organized in regiments, the gang operates more coherently in Salinas than its rival, the Mexican Mafia based in Southern California, according to Sgt. Mark Lazzarini, a Salinas police officer. He briefed the Monterey contingent and calls it a “godsend.”

“Only half of our gangs are structured: the Nortenos,” he said. “The southerners are completely unstructured. Half of our violence is kids who get into a car and go out and hunt. These kids don’t know their victims. How do you stop that? It’s very chaotic.”

That’s the flip side of the “surge,” city officials say.

To secure Salinas, the mayor wants more boots on the ground, though finding the money to hire 84 officers became more problematic after local voters recently rejected a 1-cent increase in the sales tax, billed as “a penny for peace.” More officers would mean less dashing from call to call and more time to demonstrate that police work for residents.

Social programs will play a key role in a city where gang membership often flows from the long hours when youths are unwatched by parents working in the lettuce fields.

“The kid’s left alone a lot,” said Lazzarini. “Pretty soon they become a ‘neighborhood kid.’ ”

All the pieces, however, must leave city officials speaking with one voice.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘psychological operations’ because that’ll really make people go crazy,” said Rothstein, who teaches a “classified seminar” on information operations in Monterey. “But the idea is, talking to the public thwarts negative messages. All that is part of a strategic communication plan that has to inform everything you do.”