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Welcome to the youth murder capital of California

Monterey County has California's highest homicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds. And most of those murders occur in the troubled city of Salinas.
L'agente del dipartimento di polizia di Salinas Jackie Bohn. (Foto di Johnny Magdaleno/VICE News)

Cesar Hernandez Ortiz wore a green button-up shirt and black pants. His eyes were closed, and his arms were folded below his chest. On a nearby wall, an effigy of Jesus Christ looked down upon his coffin.

On Mother's Day of this year, the 22-year-old had been standing outside a Salinas, California apartment building when a man approached, shot Ortiz multiple times in the torso, and fled. Ortiz died before he reached the hospital.


Debbie Aguilar prayed as she knelt beside Ortiz's coffin. She hadn't known him, but she is familiar with what it feels like to lose a loved one to gun violence; her 18-year-old son laid in a coffin here in Alta Vista Mortuary after he was shot and killed in 2002.

"It's the worst thing in the world," said Aguilar, who now runs a nonprofit for women who've lost men to gang violence in Salinas. "You have to walk away. You think, Take me or else I'm going to jump in the hole with them."

Ortiz's death is one of 16 shooting homicides being investigated by the Salinas Police Department this year. Twelve of the victims have been 24 years old or younger. Last year, Salinas endured its highest number of gun homicides in history: 103 shooting victims, 31 of whom were killed, and almost half of whom were 24 years old or younger.

They're relatively small numbers when compared to metropolitan areas like Chicago or Los Angeles, with millions of people, but huge numbers for a city of just 157,000. The Violence Policy Center (VPC) has ranked Monterey County (Salinas is the county seat) the youth homicide capital of California for four out of the past five years — the VPC defines youths as anyone between the ages of 10 and 24 — using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI, and the California Department of Public Health. The county has also taken the top spot in annual gang-related youth homicides every year since 2011, when the report was first published.


"There's no question that Salinas's gang problem is on the 'high end' compared to most other cities in California," said Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin, who told local media that his department believes there is an "unlimited supply of firearms" circulating in the city.

Salinas police officer Jackie Bohn looks out her window at a van sporting a motto of the Norteño gang: "Moments of pleasure, years of pain." (Photo by Johnny Magdaleno/VICE News)

Last year, Salinas had a total gun homicide rate of 19.7 shooting deaths per 100,000 people — more than seven times higher than the national rate. It's a hair under the rate in Oakland, which, according to FBI statistics, is the third most violent big city in America.

"These kids are growing up in a battleground area," Aguilar said of Salinas. "They're going to their friends' funerals, then the next generation is going to their funerals."

And the murderers aren't being brought to justice. Salinas's homicide solve rate of 24 percent is less than half that of California as a whole and well below the national average of 64.5 percent. As in other cities, Salinas residents in neighborhoods most affected by gang violence are reluctant to cooperate with murder investigations due to a fear of gang retaliation.

Teresa Hernandez's 14-year-old son, Alonso, was shot and killed while walking home from school in 2010. A few years later, a woman approached Hernandez at a grocery store and said she knew who pulled the trigger but had been too afraid to contact police, fearing gangs would attack her family.

"I can understand, in a way," Hernandez says now. "They all grew up in the same circle…. But your fear holds you back, and nothing gets better."


Her son's murder remains unsolved.

"Even if they did trust the police department, they feel there's no way the police can guarantee them anonymity," said José Arreola, director of the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, an anti-youth violence initiative in Salinas. He said the fear is legitimate because "there's clearly a willingness on the part of these actors to take someone's life if they betray them."

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In April, 17-year-old Felipe Rocha Sandoval was shot multiple times point-blank in front of his apartment. People connected to his family, along with Salinas Mayor Joe Gunter, a former cop, all said they believe Sandoval was targeted because he'd witnessed the killing of a 16-year-old two days earlier.

The Salinas Police Department solicits tips through anonymous hotlines and via text in an effort to protect and reassure witnesses, whether they fear being outed as snitches, or are wary of being asked questions about their immigration status as undocumented workers from Mexico who work the fields of Salinas Valley. Additionally, police, activists, and residents all say that families with ties to Mexico have long been wary of the Salinas authorities due to Mexico's notoriously corrupt cops.

Three-fourths of Salinas residents are Hispanic, but only one-third of its sworn officers are. This disparity was brought to the fore in 2014, when Salinas police shot and killed four Hispanic men in separate encounters. Two of the men were allegedly threatening cops and civilians with garden shears and knives, one drew a fake gun on police officers as he held up a restaurant, and another charged cops with his fingers held out in the shape of a pistol. All of them had blood alcohol levels that were more than double the legal limit, or had methamphetamine or other drugs in their system. The mother of one of the victims said that her son was schizophrenic, but police say there was no evidence of that.


Teresa Hernandez, Angela Dorado, Debbie Aguilar, and Debbie Sorto hold photos of loved ones killed in shootings. (Photo by Johnny Magdaleno/VICE News)

The Monterey County District Attorney cleared the officers of wrongdoing, but protests led McMillin to request a review from the US Department of Justice (DOJ). In a report released this past March, the DOJ found that Salinas officers weren't sufficiently trained to handle people with mental health issues or to de-escalate encounters. The report also questioned the police department's ability to hold officers accountable, and described its relationship with the community as "significantly frayed."

McMillin acknowledged that last piece of criticism in a written response to the DOJ report, but he and Gunter denied the first major assertion, pointing to crisis intervention training that cops receive from the city's health department.

McMillin also said his department has long struggled with what he called "a crisis of under-staffing." Without more officers, he said, the force can't afford to have cops focus on outreach or forge personal connections with the neighborhoods they patrol.

"Our officers have little to no time to spend on pausing to talk with residents, go to community meetings, to do what it takes to build deeper, more trusting relationships in the community," McMillin said. "We agree, and have long believed, such relationships are critically important."

Salinas, like the country as a whole, has fewer police today than it did in years past; the city currently has 137 sworn officers — 50 fewer than in 2008.


"Since the recession, our department has been so decimated that we literally cannot bring what we know will work to scale," McMillin told VICE News, referring to initiatives like the gang suppression unit, which the department had to eliminate last year. "We're so reactive right now, we don't have the personnel to do comprehensive gang investigations or to embed in communities."

During a ride-along with Officer Jackie Bohn on a sunny Wednesday in March, a total of 12 officers were on patrol, including two who had been called in on their day off. A home burglary call was made at 7:30am that morning, but an officer wasn't able to get to the house until 8:44am.

"That burglary that happened at that house might have been the worst thing that's ever happened to [the residents]," Bohn said. "But things have to be put into perspective." In other words, if no one has been stabbed, shot, or assaulted, she said, it's going to take a while before police show up to a crime scene.

'There is a brain drain and an experience drain in the department; cops are being run into the ground, and they can't take it anymore.'

In a room at the Hebbron Heights after-school center, Oscar Nuñez, 14, and Gabriel Diez, 15, paused a game of FIFA 2016 to talk about hiding in bathrooms while the building was on lockdown because of nearby shootings. They said they had been taught to cut ties with friends becoming active in gangs; the average age of initiates in Salinas is about 13. Nuñez's 24-year-old brother is currently in prison for crimes he committed while with the Norteños gang.


What do they think needs to happen to stop the gang and gun violence affecting Salinas youth?

"Maybe stop selling guns to kids," Nuñez said.

"The cops need to patrol more," said Diez, who added that he thought the police were doing a good job. Nuñez wouldn't say what he thought of the police.

California cities with large amounts of gang activity are laboring to retain officers lured elsewhere with offers of higher pay or less potential exposure to violence. The Salinas Police Department hired 19 officers with a total of 11 years of experience last year. But it also lost 16 officers with a total of nearly 130 years of experience.

"You have a brain drain and experience drain, and you just run them into the ground and they can't take it anymore," McMillin said.

Last year, after 10 years in service, the Monterey County Gang Task Force, which collaborated with the FBI on a number of successful stings against Sureño and Norteño gang operations, was dismantled, largely because Salinas needed to pull all of its cops to put them on more regular beats.

But there are a few bright spots, city officials say. Matt Pressey, Salinas's budget and finance director, noted that more money was allocated for potential youth-oriented anti-gang programs in the 2015-2016 budget. And more kids may be avoiding gangs.

"Looking at the last couple of years, the data says that the age of people involved [in gangs] has changed," Gunter, the city's mayor, said. "The majority of the ages [of shooters] have gone up, so we believe we're potentially getting to some of the young people."


Salinas saw record numbers of homicides and gun homicides last year, but the number of people under the age of 25 killed by guns dropped by more than a third compared to 2012 and 2013.

When the city voted for a 1-cent sales tax hike in 2014, it promised to bring in an estimated $300 million over the next 15 years to help fund everything from public works projects to after-school programs. But Juan Gomez, co-founder of local Hispanic youth advocacy group MILPA, points out that more than 50 percent of that money is slated for the police force, which plans to put more cops in Salinas schools. He says more community initiatives and social services are what are really needed to protect the city's youth.

"If there is something crazy going on, of course, call the cops, because folks need to be safe," he said. "But if a kid is not safe at school, they don't need to go to a police officer. They need to go to a counselor."

On a recent Saturday, Aguilar gathered with a group of other women and children in Closter Park, which itself has seen several shootings and homicides. The women carried framed photos of the family members they lost to gun violence, some as young as 14.

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Debbie Sorto described how she constantly wonders if the people she sees on the street were behind her grandson's and nephew's murders. Angela Dorado recounted how her 6-year-old daughter has been waking up screaming in the middle of the night since Dorado's 34-year-old husband was shot and killed while planting flowers in the yard.

And Melissa Garner related that her 25-year-old son, Paul Morales Jr., was the first person killed in Salinas last year.

"Witnesses need to come forward," Garner said. "Mothers need to talk to their children: 'What are you doing? Who are you hanging out with?' People need to step in."

Follow Johnny Magdaleno on Twitter: @johnny_mgdlno