Guillermo Barajas is on parole for burglary. See full story (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Salinas, Calif. — The grass in Pocket Park is trimmed and fragrant, the jungle gym and swings freshly painted. It's the kind of place where parents exhausted after a day in the lettuce fields can let their children run free.
But when dusk settled on that urban sanctuary one evening in March, the only people around were a few tattooed gang members wearing the signature blue of the Sureños. A car full of young men wearing the red colors of the rival Norteños drove past on East Laurel Drive, and a passenger fired a single shot.
The bullet whistled by its intended targets, squeezed through a thumb-width opening in a tall wood fence, sailed under a laundry line and rocketed through the open back door of the Cruz family's home.
Azahel Cruz, 6, dressed early for bed in his Spiderman pajamas, had just finished eating an ice cream bar in the living room, where he'd been decorating Easter eggs with his mother and sisters. The kindergartener walked into the kitchen to drop the stick in the wastebasket outside the back door.
His mother, Maria Alcantar, found him on the floor.
"Blood was coming out of his head," she recalled. "He was trying to move and I said, 'Don't move. Don't move.' Every time he moved, there was more blood."
The killing was the 31st in the last 15 months in Salinas, population 145,000, a city the size of Pasadena with eight times as many violent deaths, every one of them gang-related.
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."
In April, federal, state and local agents swept through Monterey County to arrest dozens of gang members, in Salinas and elsewhere, as part of Operation Knockout.
"We're hitting them and hitting them hard," Fetherolf said, noting that gang-related violence in the city has subsided in the last few months. "But we're a mid-sized city in the middle of open-country California, and we've been sick a long time."
The killing of the little boy certainly got people's attention. Several thousand people marched at a church rally and hundreds — white and Latino, rich and poor — donated money to the family.
"He just looked like a little angel in that casket," said Dennis Donohue, the Salinas mayor who still keeps a ribbon pinned to his lapel in Azahel's memory.