There is an oft-told tale about six blind men in India who encounter an elephant for the first time. Each one touches a different part of the beast, and each comes away with a different impression.

The first man touches the elephant’s hard, wide body and describes it as a wall. The second man feels a tusk and says the elephant is like a spear. The third feels the trunk and says the elephant is like a snake. The fourth feels one of the elephant’s

legs and says it is like a tree. The fifth man feels one of the elephant’s ears and compares it to a fan while the last man feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope. An argument ensues, and as the men leave the town, a young girl tells them that each of them is right, but that all of them are wrong.

While talking with individuals who deal with the local effects of gang problems, one can’t help but be reminded of the blind men and the elephant.

While they all agree there are gangs in Salem, each has a different take on the threat they represent, now and in the future.

Diana Dickey, city councilor for Ward 5 in North Salem, said there are two neighborhood associations in her ward and the subject of gangs comes up at each of the meetings she attends. Residents see graffiti and are scared by what it represents, she said.

At the Northgate Neighborhood Association meetings, concerns are raised about the use and maintenance of Northgate Park. Residents voice concern over graffiti in the park – the taggers are brazen, spraying every surface they can find, and in broad daylight. Residents are afraid to use the park, Dickey said.

Such feelings on the matter contradict the description on the City of Salem’s website, which states, “Appreciation of the completed project is evident by the amount of use the park is getting from citizens of all age groups.”

What is also evident to those that frequent the park is that it has been claimed as turf by neighborhood gangs.

Last month, Northgate Park was the location of a shooting incident that left a 21-year-old dead and two others injured. At press time police officials had not said whether the shooting was gang-related.

Kim Nelson, the manager of the Salem Police Department’s Graffiti Abatement Program, knows all the hot spots in town, and Northgate Park is one of the hottest.

On a tour of the park and surrounding areas, she pointed out picnic tables, benches and concrete walkways that are repeatedly tagged. Even trees have been sprayed as well as fences of private homes that surround the park.

Graffiti and gang activity are often inextricably connected.

In Salem last year, more than 150,000 square feet of graffiti had been removed by the Graffiti Abatement Team at a cost to the city of $150,000.

An estimated 53 percent of all the reported graffiti was gang related.

Death by association

On September 23, 2005, two blocks from Northgate park, at the corner of Williams and Stortz Avenues, Juan Carlos “Happy” Gabriel was stabbed to death. Neighbors said the stabbing was gang-related, but those who knew him claimed Juan was not a gang member. His middle-school math teacher was quoted at the time as saying that Happy “wasn’t a bad kid, but he was hanging out with the bad kids. The association cost him his life.”

Nelson feels that the case of Juan Carlos Gabriel is an exception. She explained that tagging is much more prevalent than violence, and gun-related violence is especially uncommon.

“We don’t have it yet,” Nelson said. “It’s a matter of time and


In metropolitan areas – where many gangs began and have flourished – graffiti may not be a felony, but it is often a precursor to violence, and often the last word. A gang member may tag his gang name and affiliation, claiming the turf. A member of a rival gang might come by and spray over it, tagging his own gang name. If caught in the act, he could be killed.

Los Angeles spends around $20 million annually on graffiti removal, roughly 133 percent more than Salem. Then again, the last estimate on the number of gang members in Los Angeles exceeded 40,000. About half of them are members of the 18th Street Gang and their fifteen or so cliques. There are gang members here in Salem who proclaim themselves members of the 18th Street Gang. They and the majority of other gangs in Salem all fall under the general heading of “Surenos” – literally, “Southerners” in Spanish: gangs with their roots in and around Los Angeles.

Mara Salatrucha (MS13), the most notorious street gang in the world, sometimes erroneously thought to originate in San Salvador, was an offshoot of the 18th Street Gang, which later became its rival. This is where the number 13 that is prevalent on a lot of the gang graffiti in Salem – and around the country – comes from.

The other major player in the gangs of Salem falls under the heading of “Norteños” – “Northerners.” The gang emanates from Northern California, and traces its roots to Folsom State Prison.

This trend has extended to penitentiaries in Oregon, and Salem specifically. When Nelson talks about the catalyst of organization, she refers to the fact that gang organizers come from prison.

It is not just the Aryan Brotherhood or white pride gangs that are born behind bars. Gangs serve a purpose for every prisoner, offering protection and an education that can be transferred to the streets.

Measure 11, which was passed into law with a two-thirds majority in 1994, provides mandatory minimum sentencing for offenders over the age of fifteen. Sentences range from 70 months for second-degree assault, kidnapping, robbery and certain sex offenses, to 300 months for murder. On one hand, it gets the offenders off the street. On the other, it can potentially make them harder, more violent and more streetwise.

Chuck Bennett, city councilor for Ward 1, which is adjacent to Dickey’s Ward 5, said that Salem had a graffiti problem ten or fifteen years ago, but “that’s over.”

Bennett believes gang activity represents a “small percentage” of the crime in the city and that people “have different reads on gangs.”

He said that kids see the gang style portrayed in the media and think it’s cool. According to Bennett, Salem has a “me too” attitude more than a “genuine gang problem.”

Gang members in the Salem area range in age from 12-22 years old. It is also true that recruitment is aimed at younger kids. Ten-year-olds are getting lured into the life, from following their older siblings and by emulating the gang style. The latter instance is reaching even younger kids and may be attributed to the media.

The media is an easy target.

Media influences today’s youth, just as James Dean and Marlon Brando influenced kids in the fifties. It is also true that the vast majority of Latinos seen on the screen, both television and the movies, are gang members, hoodlums or convicts.

But Juan Carlos Gabriel was not killed by TV.

A brief history of Mid-Valley Latinos

There has been a Latino population in the Mid-Valley for about as long as there has been a city called Salem. In the early 1800s, Latinos worked in Oregon as miners, mule packers and vaqueros. Until 1819, Oregon was a Spanish territory. Toward the end of the century, Latinos were afforded jobs as railroad builders, working alongside immigrants from China, Japan and the Phillipines. They also worked on farms, helped build canals, and later helped to fill labor shortages during the first World War.

There was a noticeable increase in the Latino population at the start of World War II. American farmworkers left for the army just as the country needed to increase agricultural production for the war effort. The Bracero Program brought four million Mexican contract laborers into the United States – and more than 15,000 of those to Oregon. They lived in mobile camps, modeled on those used by the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The era of Mexican-American harmony came to an end along with WWII. In 1947, the Bracero camps shut down in Oregon, and laborers were given the choice of returning to Mexico voluntarily or facing deportation. Despite the end of the Bracero Program, Mexican-Americans were a main source of farm labor in Oregon from the 1950s onward, with 40,000 migrating through the state each year.

The ‘70s brought another wave of Mexican immigration into the Salem area, mostly from the poorer states of Michoacán and Oaxaca. In addition to working the migrant farmworker circuit, they found work at Oregon’s tree farms and in the canneries. Many of these workers returned to Mexico during the unproductive winter months.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed, representing a major overhaul of the country’s immigration laws. Congress promised enforcement of new laws against hiring illegal aliens in return for a “one-time-only” amnesty for illegal aliens in the U.S. since 1982 or those who had worked in agriculture for 90 days prior to May of 1986. Mexican-born immigrants as well as people from Central America took advantage of this landmark law.

Legal Latino families relocated from the south during the ‘90s, leaving Los Angeles, San Bernadino and San Diego counties for greener pastures and greater opportunities.


Parents of the new wave brought with them the American Dream: the hope of a new life, with plentiful work and more money. Some of their children brought the burgeoning gang culture of the streets.

“The parents really didn’t have the skills necessary to raise kids – kids who had already been exposed to gangs. They have no experience with, nor are they prepared, to deal with gangs,” said Levi Herrera, director of Mano a Mano and Latinos Unidos Siempre.

Herrera said these new arrivals often were lower- to middle-class families.

The general consensus is that Salem saw an uptick in gang activity and violence in the ‘90s. The Los Angeles gang epidemic took seed in Salem. According to some, the disease is spreading. Herrera said that Salem is about twenty years behind L.A., in terms of the gang problem.

Sergeant Doug Carpenter admitted there is “no easy method within the Salem Police Department to statistically separate gang violence from other acts of violence in the community.” He concurs with Herrera, however, saying that “all indications show the number of gang-involved youth is increasing.”

Like the six blind men and the elephant, city politicians, law enforcement, educators and grassroots organizations all see the gang problem differently, but before they can offer up solutions, they need to figure out what they’re dealing with.