City, church, and community leaders met at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church Thursday evening to listen to a discussion led by a team of officials from El Paso, Texas on the issues of community improvement and youth violence. On hand were Chief of Police Cam Sanchez, 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, and Prof. Carl Guttierrez-Jones, Director of the Center for Chicano Studies at UCSB, as well as dozens of parents and community members residents some of whom were using headsets to listen to a live translation in Spanish. Fr. Rafael Marin-Leon, who hosted the meeting, said to the attendees, “Our obligation as citizens, as good people, is to improve our city.”
The representatives from El Paso were County Attorney Jose Rodriguez, El Paso City Councilman Steve Ortega, and El Paso City Services Coordinator Mark Alvarado. These men delivered a presentation on the current programs and services in use in El Paso to ensure safety in the city’s neighborhoods. However, Alvarado – a Santa Barbara native whose family still resides in Santa Barbara – stressed that different situations call for different ideas and different strategies saying, “We’re not here to tell you ‘This is how it’s done.'” Essentially, the three-part presentation consisted of complementary strategies that have collectively helped alleviate crime and raise the quality of life in some of El Paso’s poorest neighborhoods: creating neighborhood groups to foster community support, providing services for residents – especially youth. It remains to be seen, however, how effective these strategies would be in solving Santa Barbara’s own own struggles with poverty and violence.
El Paso is a city much different from Santa Barbara, most obviously in size and in its proximity to the border with Mexico. In addition, El Paso’s poorest neighborhoods are comprised of mostly first generation immigrants who lack proficiency in English. Some schools have an over 50 percent dropout rate – a fact which drew gasps from the assembled crowd. This environment of poverty has been compounded by a rise in violent cartel-backed drug-trafficking gangs operating in El Paso.
Ortega’s solution has been to organize Neighborhood Associations at which citizens can meet and present their concerns to their elected representative. Ortega attends several of these meetings each week and often invites the Mayor, Chief of Police, or other city officials to join him. Ortega says that the associations build a sense of community between the residents and allow them to make requests for better parks or more police on the streets directly to city government. When responding to comparisons between El Paso’s youth programs and Santa Barbara’s Teen Center Ortega said, “The community’s job is to look at what teenagers are interested in and adapt to those interests.”
Alvarado’s Neighborhood Services programs work in tandem with Ortega’s and, as El Paso city manager, Alvarado attends many of the meetings. He said that his job has been very difficult because in many cases the neighborhoods he is working with have been suffering from neglect by the city for over 50 years. As a result derelict housing and infrastructure burden these neighborhoods with an unsightly neighborhood appearance. While aesthetics may seem trivial compared to issues of violence in the streets, Alvarado says that neighborhood appearance affects the sense of pride that residents have in their community. That neighborhood pride is a key element in, “changing people’s behaviors” and garnering the community participation necessary to curb violent crime.
In addition to the participation of residents, Alvarado cited the need for the involvement of local institutions such as the churches, universities, and local business to contribute financially and otherwise to the implementation of community projects. Alvarado said that programs like Neighborhood Watch have been very successful in reducing graffiti, theft, and drug sales in El Paso.
Rodriguez has served 16 years as El Paso County attorney and was instrumental in devising programs that have targeted gangs operating in El Paso and helped prevent youth from falling into the gang lifestyle. A gang injunction – a court order that labels a gang a public nuisance and prohibits certain behaviors such as allowing more than two members of a gang to congregate – that was originally pioneered by the Los Angeles Police Department was applied by Rodriguez to a very specific area of El Paso to push the gangs out of the most at-risk neighborhoods. Violations of the injunction result in fines or even jail time and are much easier to provide evidence for than criminal cases. Again, the key ingredient is support from the community because they are the witnesses that can testify against gang activity.
When questioned if a gang injunction that worked on violent drug-traffickers would be too radical for Santa Barbara’s juvenile gangs, Rodriguez responded in Spanish and said, “Every case must be studied individually: Perhaps this measure is not useful for [Santa Barbara].” Rodriguez mentioned that creative alternatives are necessary saying, “a gang injunction is just one tool in the arsenal.” He suggested prevention and intervention strategies such as a community prosecutor that is assigned to a neighborhood and looks to find rehabilitative alternatives to hard punishment. He also emphasized the importance of encouraging gang members returning to the community from prison to work as mentors and provide positive examples for the community’s youth, “Parents are the role models for children,” he said, adding that parental supervision is the crucial point in prevention. “I think peer pressure is one the biggest factors,” he said.
After the meeting concluded, the El Paso guests and many attendees traveled to Casa de la Raza for a celebration in observance of the upcoming Cesar Ch¡vez Day, on March 31.