updated 8/21/2009 3:44:30 PM ET 2009-08-21T19:44:30

Beneath the stained-glass windows of a tiny white stucco church, one woman pored intently over a Bible and another wiped away tears while they prayed for an end to bloodshed in this Central California farming town.

People have been gathering throughout Salinas in recent weeks for 24/7 prayer vigils and anti-violence rallies amid a spike in gang violence that has turned the birthplace of author John Steinbeck into one of the most violent places in California.

The shootings have left parents fearing that their children will become innocent victims of gang warfare, said Pastor Frank Gomez of the United Methodist Church East Salinas Family Center, one of seven churches that invited community members to come pray in shifts last week.

"All of the churches involved have been touched by gang violence," he said, adding that church members knew victims and, in at least one case, a victim belonged to the congregation.

Gang activity has escalated in the state's farm belt in recent years, especially in this agriculture-driven city in the heart of nation's Salad Bowl.

Last year, Salinas recorded the state's fourth-highest homicide rate among large cities — behind the urban areas of Compton in Southern California and Oakland and Richmond in the San Francisco Bay area.

In 2007, the number of gang-related homicides increased from four to nine. Last year, 23 of the city's record 25 slayings were gang-related. Now, eight months into this year, all 21 killings have been connected to gangs, according to police.

"This subculture of violence has become embedded," Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue said. "This has cast a large shadow on the city."

It's North vs. South
The main rivalry in town is the Nortenos (Northerners) versus the Surenos (Southerners), although there are 22 known gangs here. Out of more than 145,000 residents, police say about 3,500 are gang members.

The problem has left many residents on edge and looking for answers, spiritual and otherwise.

The community organized several rallies to protest the rise of gang violence, and churches hosted a series of daily, round-the-clock vigils that ended Sunday.

"We were just praying constantly, constantly, constantly on the same topic ... praying for peace in the community," Gomez said.

Some residents, such as nonprofit manager Colleen Jordan, are demanding more action from law enforcement.

"I'm completely frustrated that the government is unable to do anything about it," she said. "They only deal with it when it gets to be to a certain degree, when I think that ... they should be doing something about it constantly."

Salinas police insist they have been doing as much as they can.

A long culture of gangs
Police Commander Dino Bardoni said the department has teamed up with other law enforcement agencies to form a regional gang task force and has stepped up patrols with help from the California Highway Patrol and Monterey County Sheriff's Department.

Police and city leaders cite many reasons for the rise of gang activity, including the economic downturn, the city's proximity to state prisons and the culture of gangs here that goes back for generations. The violence also is cyclical, Bardoni said.

"A lot of the violence is retaliatory," he said. "What you'll have in the city is one shooting or murder occur and then immediate retaliation occur."

Salinas saw a previous rash of gang violence in January, when there were six killings in seven days.

The recent spike began July 27 with the fatal shooting of a man in the driveway of an apartment complex, followed two days later by the killing of a 21-year-old man. Police say the shootings were connected. On Aug. 2, a man and woman were slain when gunmen opened fire into a home during a get-together among friends. The next morning, Arturo Navarro-Marquez, who police believe was not affiliated with a gang, was gunned down while he was walking home from a friend's house.

Innocent bystander dies
The last two killings claimed the lives of teenagers: Andres Chavarin, 17, who was fatally shot outside his house on Aug. 4, and Jose Perez, 15, described as an innocent bystander, who was gunned down Aug. 6 while walking to football practice at Salinas High School.

Police have made arrests in two of the attacks, which also left several others wounded. Witnesses, they say, are often reluctant to step forward in gang-related cases for fear of retaliation.

School officials and youth leaders especially want to prevent deaths such as Perez's.

Even as the state imposes severe budget cuts on school districts around California, the Salinas Union High School District has refused to cut back on extracurricular programs to keep students off the streets, and it enforces its zero-tolerance policy for gang activity.

"Students seem to know that you leave that all (gang issues) somewhere else; you don't bring it on campus," said Superintendent Jim Earhart, adding that the district also has contracts with many of the city's support agencies that help rehabilitate gang members and offer safe environments where they can spend time.

Police say they are not certain what prompted the apparent reprieve from gang violence since the Aug. 6 slaying of Perez. One possibility, they say, is that police attention caused gang leaders to order members to stop killing and focus on the drug trade.

Even with a break in the violence, Bardoni said, law enforcement is keeping pressure on the gangs.

"You let up and then you get blindsided," he said. "People need to realize that because they aren't seeing the violence, blood and guts, it doesn't mean that activity has stopped."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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