Correction to This Article
The article about the California city of Salinas using counter-insurgency lessons from Iraq to combat gangs incorrectly said that all 25 homicides in the city in 2008 were related to gangs. Two were not.
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Calif. city tries counterinsurgency to stem gang problem

Police Officer Tim Simpson conducts a traffic stop in Salinas, Calif., beset by gang-related killings.
Police Officer Tim Simpson conducts a traffic stop in Salinas, Calif., beset by gang-related killings. (Photos By Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post)
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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 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."

A plague in Salinas

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

Leonard A. Ferrari, provost of the Naval Postgraduate School, embraced the project from the start, hearing in Donohue's plea an opportunity for a school "in transition from just a defense institution to a national homeland and even a human security institution. The Justice Department estimates 1 million gang members nationwide. If the Apollo program gave the mattress industry memory foam, the $1 trillion invested so far in Iraq and Afghanistan could pay a dividend in American streets.

"The idea was, not just Salinas," Ferrari said, "but is there a national model for this?"

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