In just last month, Santa Maria saw more murders than all the cities of Oakland, Sacramento, and San Jose combined. On January 25, Carlos Perez, 14, and Israel Cruz, 19, were found hiding in a dried-out patch of the riverbed after allegedly killing 15-year-old Marcos Ramos with a meat hook near Pioneer Valley High School. Just before 10 p.m. that night, a few blocks away, two men riding in a car were shot to death. On January 13, two 23-year-olds were shot on the corner of Main Street and Oakley Avenue. One was pronounced dead at the scene; the other died at the hospital.
Santa Maria Police Chief Ralph Martin, who came from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 2012 to take over a divided department, called the recent killings “unprecedented,” and the gang-related crime in the past year “a huge uptick.” In recent years, the city of about 110,000 people averaged three to four gang-related murders, but the January deaths marked the 14th gang-related homicide and 19th death since the start of 2015. Since then, just Perez and Cruz have been arrested; the rest are open investigations.
Last week, Martin’s officers initiated a low-profile gang sweep, also known as a “compliance check.” Teams of law enforcement officers looked up parolees. Up to 1,400 gang members or associates live in Santa Maria, according to police. Only five arrests were made.
It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the recent carnage. The weapons of choice run the gamut—machetes, knives, guns. The reasons for the spike are not largely understood. Unlike most cities, two established street gangs — West Park and Northwest — operate in undefined territories. They are intermingled; sometimes members of opposing gangs live on the same street. When city officials looked into implementing a gang injunction a number of years ago, there were multiple street gangs, and the geographic areas were even more unclear. “It doesn’t work at all,” city spokesperson Mark Van de Kamp said of an injunction.
It is no secret that if the city of Santa Barbara experienced gang crime of a similar magnitude, the citizenry would be up in arms, demanding action. After all, fewer murders ignited the three-year legal battle for a gang injunction, which a judge ultimately threw out.
So why the surge in Santa Maria now? Several sources not usually media shy offered educated speculation but asked that their names not be used. Below is a summation of their theories:
Theory number one is that the violence stems out of a struggle between Los Angeles and Northern California gangs to control the drug trade in Santa Maria. Though the city is largely considered to be in Southern California, a dozen or so admitted Norteño gangmembers wind up in County Jail each year. Hundreds associated with the Sureños are booked each year. These numbers have stayed the same in recent years.
Most gang violence tends to occur on the city’s northwest side, where overcrowded, rundown apartments generate more crime and more calls for service. But of late, other random parts of the city have been crime scenes, as well. Theory two suggests the bloodshed erupted out of those conditions. In addition, the two street gangs exist in cyclical retaliation.
By Paul Wellman (file)