Monday, March 19 , 2018, 5:36 am | Fair 41º


Local News


Coalition Unites To Tackle Violence In Santa Maria

Members join together and say parents, mentors are key to stopping gang-related shootings

Gabriel Morales, director of the Center for Employment Training, speaks during the Santa Maria City Council meeting about violence that has left three teens dead since the summer in Santa Maria.
Gabriel Morales, director of the Center for Employment Training, speaks during the Santa Maria City Council meeting about violence that has left three teens dead since the summer in Santa Maria. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

A coalition of clergy, educators, police officers and city leaders met in Santa Maria earlier this month in response to the spike in homicides and other gang-related violence that has left three teenagers dead since summer.

“Santa Maria should not be a city where we see 16- and 17-year-old kids being shot in our streets,” police Chief Ralph Martin said.

“We’ll do everything we can on our side but as I stated in the meeting today we are to simply not going to arrest our way out of this,” he said. 

“We need everybody’s involvement including strong parents.”

Santa Maria has seen 11 homicides in 2015 and at least half were gang related, according to police. 

The city also has seen approximately a dozen shootings believed to be related to gangs, Martin said, adding residents will notice an increased police presence in certain neighborhoods in response to the violence.

Martin and community members spoke out during the recent City Council meeting about the violence.

Joel Arreola, an associate pastor at Santa Maria Foursquare Church for the Hispanic congregation, said parents are working hard to provide for their families, but that sometimes means youths are left alone without supervision.

Arreola recalled being part of the lifestyle as a youth who was involved in drugs and associated with known gang members.

“I went to church and I found that having mentors around me was something that huge,” he said. “I was able to get out of the rebellious lifestyle.”

Having the right people around helped him pull away from bad lifestyle and is something he wants to do for today’s teens.

He offered to be a bridge between the Hispanic community and city leaders especially in sharing the importance of family.

A memorial for Ulises Garcia-Mendez sits on the side of South  Thornburg Street in Santa Maria. The 17-year-old was one of three shot at the site Nov. 20. Click to view larger
A memorial for Ulises Garcia-Mendez sits on the side of South Thornburg Street in Santa Maria. The 17-year-old was one of three shot at the site Nov. 20. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

He said he was involved with some families struck by violence in a shooting spree that left one teen dead and others injured.

“I’ve got to tell you it’s heartbreaking, but I believe we can prevent this in the long run,” Arreola said. “By providing help I believe we can make a change.”

A former gang member, Jose Uriarte, said he was expelled from Santa Maria High School for gang violence and graduated from juvenile drug court.

The local program’s first graduate said he shares that fact to show he has been a part of the community for a long time.

“I made a change through mentors,” he said, adding he is willing to help youths get out of the gang lifestyle.

“I was called an at-risk youth. Well, now as an at-risk adult, I’m willing to take that risk and go out in the community to speak to these families and let them know there’s somebody here willing to lead them and guide them,”​ Uriarte said.

Gabriel Morales, a 30-year-resident of Santa Maria who had worked with youths, said it’s unfortunate to see gang violence increase again.

In thanking the police chief for the meeting, Morales said, “That was impressive. It was a great collaborative effort to begin. That’s what it’s going to take — strong leadership, a commitment. We have the resources in this community.”

Morales, director of the Center for Employment Training, said some of the violence has occurred in the neighborhood around the facility.

While CET has security, Morales said a proactive approach is needed with prevention, intervention and after care to keep youths on a straight path.

“One of the things that was discussed today and has been always successful … is including parents. They’re a key part of the component, along with all the other agencies that are here,” he added.

But programs lack properly trained staff due to inadequate funding, he said. Mentors and parental involvement work, 

“Let’s make a commitment that no more murders,” Morales said.

Of the city’s 11 homicides in 2015, four have been solved, the chief said. Detectives hope to solve two others in the near future, he added.

The violence between the city's two main criminal street gangs erupted in July, the chief said. 

But a lack of cooperation from witnesses is hampering investigators trying to solve the other cases, which the chief blamed on both fear and apathy.

“Unless people come forward and provide the information to us, these acts are simply going to continue, all because the retaliation is such where it’s going to go back and forth,” Martin said. 

The chief said parents should be required to watch the Police Department’s gang-prevention documentary, Life Facing Bars, that depicts interviews with local gang members who regret their choices that landed them in state prison.

The documentary is available in English and Spanish on YouTube.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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