Violence on the Rise as Youth Gangs Bedevil Oregon’s Capital
Just before she got shot, Adrienne Mann remembers thinking how nice it was that a car was driving so slowly down her residential street.
Even after, with a .22-caliber bullet lodged in her gut, she struggled to comprehend it: Gang members. A stranger’s gun. The loud crack of a gunshot that knocked her flat, barely missing a vital artery.
“You just would never expect someone to drive by and shoot you,” said Mann, 33, who was walking her dog early Aug. 17 before going to work. “It was inconceivable to me that this was not a game.”
But the violence has gotten all too real in this once-sleepy capital city, which has logged 59 gang-related shootings this year--on a pace to more than double last year’s numbers. Police have no hard leads on Mann’s attack, which was followed 10 minutes later by another random drive-by that critically wounded a bicyclist less than a mile from state buildings.
And the community is tensely awaiting retaliation for a shooting that claimed the lives of Juan Pablo Torres-Perez and Fidencio Garcia Ceja, two teenagers with gang affiliations who were gunned down Oct. 11 in a northeast neighborhood.
“We have to accept the fact that this is life and death now, not just some Mickey Mouse gang running around,” said Rey Mayoral, principal of McKay High School, which the boys attended. “We’re talking about people with guns really hurting people. People need to wake up and realize it’s everybody’s problem.”
At the heart of the violence, police say, are two factions of a Latino gang that went to war this year over a philosophical difference neither side can remember anymore. Gang initiations got bloodier. Fists graduated to guns. With the latest shootings, the death toll has reached five young men.
“The shootings, the weapons, the violence are new,” said Lt. Jon Costelow, who supervises the city’s gang unit. “It’s a machismo thing where these kids are saying, ‘They don’t respect me, therefore we’re going to get them.’ It’s just stupid.”
Marion County has about 1,000 gang members on record--650 in Salem. Some are home-grown. Others came with their parents, who moved here for work or, in some cases, to get their kids away from another gang-infested community.
Following in the footsteps of larger cities, Salem’s gangs are evolving from loosely knit groups of taggers and troublemakers to more organized associations with a hard-core nucleus and prison ties.
“No one should be surprised with what we’re seeing,” said Cat Cavazos, a former gang member who now runs a gang-outreach and residential program called Street Vision. “This is what happens when gangs take root.”
Even kids who have been in the middle of it are taken aback by the sudden wave of violence.
“It’s crazy,” said Eddie Garza, a former gang member who was arrested at 14 for assaulting an officer and hiding a sawed-off shotgun under his bed. “Kids are just trigger-happy or something.”
Now 18, with a gang intervention program behind him, Garza said he’s careful to stay out of certain neighborhoods to avoid former adversaries. He’s seen what can happen. Last year, a friend took two bullets to the head. He survived, but is paralyzed on the left side of his body.
“I’ve got nieces and nephews who look up to me,” said Garza, who grew back his hair and traded his baggy pants for Bermuda shorts and sandals. “I don’t want them seeing me involved in that stuff.”
Trying to get a handle on the violence before it gets worse, the Police Department formed a gang task force with the Marion County, Keizer and state police.
They make frequent traffic stops on known gang members, looking for a reason to confiscate a gun. They tail the more dangerous associates, especially in the tension-filled days after a shooting. They work closely with the corrections department and the district attorney, who have assigned people to deal solely with gang arrests.
“What we have going for us is an awareness before it’s gotten to be epidemic here,” Costelow said. “I’m hopeful that we started up fast enough.”
Salem schools have adopted a zero tolerance for gangs.
“I get up in front of the student body and say, ‘You are not going to strut your stuff in our school,’ ” said Mayoral of McKay High, where the two gangs have coexisted peacefully despite the war being waged off campus.
Mayoral moved to Salem several years ago from Los Angeles, where he worked with Jaime Escalante, the educator featured in the movie “Stand and Deliver” for his success in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods.
“In Los Angeles, it was a lost cause. The gangs were overwhelming,” Mayoral said. “Here, I think we have a tremendous opportunity to really get a handle on this stuff.”
In a county where the Latino population has grown to 30,433--the state’s largest--community leaders have been careful to define the problem as one of youth, not ethnicity. The task force has kept Latino leaders abreast of their efforts.
So far, tensions have not gone up with the violence: “We have to stop it before it comes to that,” said Mayor Mike Swaim.
For residents of the city’s more violent neighborhoods, it’s a matter of keeping their heads down until the shooting stops.
“It’s a dirty shame,” said Dick Haskins, an 11-year resident of a southeast neighborhood that has become one of the city’s most dangerous areas. “You see these kids in their big britches and you know they’re in a gang. But I just mind my own business and they mind theirs.”
Like many of his neighbors, Haskins has no plans to move and has never really feared for his safety.
“We hear the gunshots sometimes,” he said. “But we know it has nothing to do with us.”
Mann too knows it had nothing to do with her. Although no one knows for sure, police have speculated that she was a random target for a gang initiation.
She’s not angry, although she spent eight days in the hospital with a bullet wound that required doctors to remove her appendix and sections of her large intestine.
“I don’t think these people have any concept of what they’re doing,” Mann said. “Mostly, it bothers me that they still have a gun and will do it again to someone else.”