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Local Author Takes Readers Inside Salinas Gangs

Salinas has an estimated 3000 gang members.  Yet most the people who live there, work there or visit can carry on with their day unaffected by all that’s going on in the gang underworld.

But a new book titled Blood in the Fields: Ten Years Inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang pulls back the curtain on one of the most violent gangs in America. 

It’s written by award winning journalist and Harvard Nieman Fellow Julia Reynolds (JR). She’s a reporter with the Monterey County Herald.

In an interview, she says at its highest level, Nuestra Familia’s leaders are serving life in prison yet still orchestrating movements that trickle their way down to the streets where it’s street level gang the Nortenos is fighting rival gang the Surenos.

JR: So the kids on the street the Norteno kids who are fighting with the Sureno kids are not very aware of this structure.  They’re not very aware that they are part of this multi-billion dollar drug enterprise that spans the whole continent. They just think they’re fighting their enemies. They just think they’re finding a way to get to school without getting beat up, so for them they join as kind of a protection instinct.

When I got to know gang members I saw that a lot of them were really totally normal kids, some of them very good kids, very smart kids, and somehow they made this leap to becoming a full time professional criminal.  And so the question I wanted answered, how did that happen?  What were the steps along the way that took them there?  It’s very easy to say:  they’re bad people; they’re natural born killers, but I didn’t’ find that was the case.  They were good kids who slowly become people who did very terrible things.

KA: And what do you think that turn is?  The gangs in Salinas are generational.  In some case, four generations of a family involved in gangs, is that part of the reason?

JR: Certainly in some cases.  You know one of the characters in the story is Little Mando who is raised to be a gangster pretty much from six on.  And you have to ask yourself, what choice does he have? What chance does he have when everyone around him is saying, this is who you should be, and we’ll honor you and we’ll love you and we’ll respect you if you act this way. 

That’s a very difficult problem to try to untangle when you have the multi-generations.  It’s easier to get at kids who are just pulled that way by a friend of a cousin than when it’s their own immediate family.

KA: You write about the gangster’s ideology is called, “The Cause”.  What is the cause?

JR: I spent the first few years of this reporting trying to figure out, what the cause was. And it was this mysterious thing that gang kids would say, “well I can’t tell you because you’re not part of the cause.  You have to be one of us to know what it is.  But it’s the thing we will give our lives for.” 

I found slowly when I finally got enough people to trust me.  It’s sort of like the Wizard of OZ, the man behind the curtain.  It was really nothing.  It’s a concept of standing up for you RAZA, your race.  A very vague concept of standing up for your people, and the Norteno gang sees itself as a sort of tribe as an identity that they’re standing up for.

KA: And so this is something they fight for yet may not even know what it is?

JR: I found most of the time when I finally got down to that they had a very hard time explaining what you they are fighting for.  You know, I would ask kids all the time. I’d say you are killing other Latino kids.  You say you are standing up for your people, I’d assume that mean against the government or the establishment, yet all your doing is shooting at other kids like you.  And that question would usually kind of stop them, and  they’d go, “you don’t understand.”

KA: Your book is narrative non-fiction.  The people are real. Have you had any reaction from the people in the book?

JR: Most of the main characters worked with me on the book.  They knew they were going to be featured in it, several of the gang members, so I actually gave them sections to review and fact check.  And they were very helpful.  There’s a police officer who is one of the main characters, I did the same thing as him. There are a few gang leaders I wasn’t able to reach, and of course, they’re not allowed to talk to journalists, so I knew they wouldn’t work with me. 

As a reporter covering this topic, you get threats along the way.  It’s been more than ten years, I’ve had death threats here and there.  Since the book has been announced to becoming out, I’ve only had one kind of vague threat.

KA: For you what is the saddest story to come out of this?

JR: Wow there’s so many.  I guess there’s two levels.  One is just a personal level, seeing entire generations lost to this, to killing other children for no particular reason, other than to keep our illicit drug empire operating.  And on another level, I think there’s a national tragedy that people need to face up to.  I don’t understand why this isn’t one of our highest priorities as a nation.  We consider ourselves a civilized society, and yet we let children kill children at alarming rates. All across the US violent crime has gone down for decades. it’s at historic low levels and yet youth violence continues to be this terrible problem.  These are not grown-ups we’re talking about.  We’re talking about children

Julia Reynolds is author of Blood in the Fields: Ten Years Inside California’s Nuestra Familia Gang.

Tonight at 7:00, she’ll be at Bookshop Santa Cruz in downtown Santa Cruz for a reading and panel discussion about solutions.

Krista joined KAZU in 2007. She is an award winning journalist with more than a decade of broadcast experience. Her stories have won regional Edward R. Murrow Awards and honors from the Northern California Radio and Television News Directors Association. Prior to working at KAZU, Krista reported in Sacramento for Capital Public Radio and at television stations in Iowa. Like KAZU listeners, Krista appreciates the in-depth, long form stories that are unique to public radio. She's pleased to continue that tradition in the Monterey Bay Area.