SALINAS -- The grass in Pocket Park is trimmed and fragrant, the jungle gym and swings freshly painted. It's the kind of place where parents exhausted after a day in the lettuce fields can let their children run free.
But when dusk settled on that urban sanctuary one evening in March, the only people around were a few tattooed gang members wearing the signature blue of the Sureños. A carful of young men wearing the red colors of the rival Norteños drove past on East Laurel Drive, and a passenger fired a single shot.
The bullet whistled by its intended targets, squeezed through a thumb-width opening in a tall wood fence, sailed under a laundry line and rocketed through the open back door of the Cruz family's home.
Azahel Cruz, 6, dressed early for bed in his Spiderman pajamas, had just finished eating an ice cream bar in the living room, where he'd been decorating Easter eggs with his mother and sisters. The kindergartner walked into the kitchen to drop the stick in the wastebasket outside the back door.
His mother, Maria Alcantar, found him on the floor. "Blood was coming out of his head," she recalled. "He was trying to move and I said, 'Don't move. Don't move.' Every time he moved, there was more blood."
The killing was the 31st in the past 15 months in Salinas, population 145,000, a city the size of Pasadena with eight times as many violent deaths, every one of them gang-related.
Salinas has 3,500 gang members -- six times the national average -- and a four-decade history of gang violence.
"The gangster element has become so embedded and well-organized that it's just been operating with impunity," said Louis Fetherolf, 64, who became police chief last year. "An aquifer of organized criminality runs under this city, moving tons of narcotics. And I'm concerned that the scope and depth of that is lost on the public."
Azahel's death came during one of the most aggressive gang crackdowns in Salinas history. It began with the arrival of Fetherolf, a fluent Spanish speaker with broad experience in law enforcement.
Fetherolf called a summit of law enforcement officials in Salinas, and this year police launched a local version of Operation Ceasefire, a program first used in Boston in the 1990s.
Gang members are called in for daylong, tough-love sessions at police headquarters. They are told to give up the gang or face the fierce attention of authorities -- and are offered job counseling, tattoo removal and other social serv-ices.
In addition, counter-insurgency experts at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey have been analyzing gang-related crime in Salinas and will suggest ways to disrupt the violence and address its causes.
"We're not gang experts," said Hy Rothstein, an NPS professor and retired Army colonel who spent three dec-ades in the Special Forces. "But we know a lot about irregular warfare, and these gangs have a lot of similarities with terrorist groups. They are clandestine, nested within the population and engaged in violence."
Since the late 1960s, Latino gangs have been a fact of life in Salinas, an agricultural center half an hour's drive from the mansions, golf courses and tourist haunts of the Monterey Peninsula.
In recent years, Salinas and smaller cities in the fertile, windswept valley captured so memorably in John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" have become a battleground for two storied Latino gangs -- the Norteños, a coalition of Northern California gangs, and the Sureños, originally from Southern California.
The gangs have been linked to many crimes, but authorities say their main business is moving drugs and weapons from Southern to Northern California.
"It's very disciplined," Fetherolf said. "You don't see people walking around stoned out of their heads. Youngsters who do start using are the ones who become expendable. Those are most of the homicides we see."
In April, federal, state and local agents swept through Monterey County to arrest dozens of gang members, in Salinas and elsewhere, as part of Operation Knockout.
"We're hitting them and hitting them hard," Fetherolf said, noting that gang-related violence in the city has subsided in the past few months. "But we're a mid-sized city in the middle of open-country California, and we've been sick a long time."
The killing of the little boy certainly got people's attention. Several thousand people marched at a church rally and hundreds -- white and Latino, rich and poor -- donated money to the family.
"He just looked like a little angel in that casket," said Dennis Donohue, the Salinas mayor who still keeps a ribbon pinned to his lapel in Azahel's memory.
"Sometimes, I wonder if there is a God," added Brian Contreras, who runs Second Chance, a community-based counseling service for former gang members and at-risk youth. "I hope this community is finally saying, 'Enough.' "
At the forefront of the gang suppression effort is the Monterey County Gang Task Force, a unit of 17 officers from local police departments, the county sheriff's office, the California Highway Patrol and the state Department of Corrections.
Officers in the 5-year-old unit wear matching black uniforms and drive marked black patrol cars. Gang members refer to the unit as the "black snake," for the way its vehicles slither silently into gang neighborhoods.
The task force spends about half its time patrolling smaller cities, where police departments are fighting a sharp increase in gang activity.
About 1,500 gang members live in the county outside Salinas, in towns such as Soledad, King City and Castroville.
Stops, random searches
The unit's primary mission is to disrupt the gangs by making thousands of traffic stops and random searches of the homes of gangsters free on parole or probation.
"We realize we're never going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem," said Bob Eggers, the unit's commander. "And sometimes we feel like we're just digging in the sand. But every gangster we pull off the street is a success."
On a recent chilly night in Salinas, a dozen members of the task force approached a two-story house on McAllister Street.
Their target was Charles Mejia, a Norteño in the second year of a three-year probation. Under a full moon, officers surrounded the house and knocked on the door. Once inside, they handcuffed Mejia and placed him on a sofa in the living room. Five officers examined his cell phone and searched his room.
In the living room, Mejia's mother chatted nervously with Eggers as Mejia and his father sat glumly on the sofa.
In Mejia's bathroom, officers found a line of white powder on the counter. A field test indicated it was cocaine -- a violation of his probation and a felony. The officers led Mejia from his home, still in handcuffs.
"The parents seemed so nice," Eggers said. "I was hoping it wouldn't end that way."
Later that night, the convoy descended on Galindo Street, just a few blocks from where Azahel Cruz was killed, and stopped in front of a ranch-style house at the end of a cul-de-sac.
As officers surrounded the house, one yelled: "Back yard!"
Several officers chased a man through the dark yard as he tried to jettison bags containing methamphetamine, counterfeit prescription forms and cash. Guillermo Barajas, 26, who had Sureños tattoos and was on parole for burglary, was wrestled to the ground.
Inside the two-bedroom home, officers found 18 occupants, including four children. Leftover food rotted in pans scattered around the house. In the garage, half a dozen people were living in rooms partitioned with hanging bedsheets.
The target of the raid, a prison escapee, wasn't home. But Barajas was arrested for drug possession with intent to sell, and five other residents with outstanding warrants were taken into custody.
Task force members considered the night a success, but they had no illusions.
"We send someone to prison and he'll always be replaced by somebody else," said Sgt. Richard Rodriguez Jr. "Then he comes out and, guess what? He's back, doing the same old stuff."
Although the county aggressively prosecutes gang members, it constantly battles the reluctance of witnesses to come forward. The large population of migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, is especially difficult to persuade.
In many ways, Azahel Cruz's family was typical of that silent majority in East Salinas, a densely populated Latino neighborhood that is home to migrant laborers and the gangs who prey on them. His father, Jose, works for $9 an hour in the lettuce fields, and his mother boxes lettuce for $10 an hour.
No safe haven
Last November, an exchange of gunfire between gang members pelted the Cruz family's chocolate- colored home and punctured two tires on their car. Even before that, parents had been warning their children not to play in Pocket Park if they saw gang members.
"I've never felt safe here," Maria said. But the Cruzes couldn't afford a deposit on a new place. Sitting in their living room, the couple paged through a memory book that Azahel's kindergarten teacher had compiled. They pointed proudly to his student-of-the-month citation from December.
Azahel's killer has not been identified. The Cruz family keeps the boy's ashes in a polished mahogany box that bears his name.
It sits on a shelf in the room he shared with his sisters, next to the remote-controlled Spiderman robot he got for Christmas last year. A framed photo of Azahel occupies a prominent place in the living room. Decked out in a smart checked shirt and blue jeans, he smiles brightly.
Jose Cruz keeps the last photo of his son, though, on his cell phone. It shows Azahel, in an open casket, on the day of his funeral.