Napa Valley: the latest crime capital

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The Independent Online
GUNFIRE IS not a sound commonly associated with the Napa Valley, California's celebrated wine-making area tucked away in the hills north of San Francisco. Or at least it wasn't until an eruption of armed violence over the past two weeks, in which nine teenagers have been treated for gunshot wounds and the city of Napa has become America's latest, and least likely, capital of crime.

After months of simmering tensions, rival gangs of Latino teenagers staged a bloody shoot-out in a run-down corner of the city at the beginning of last week. Two days later, a gang member sought revenge by opening fire with a 22- calibre automatic pistol on a queue of high school students waiting for their morning bus. Not only did he hit his intended target, the 14- year-old brother of one of the participants in the earlier fight, he also injured two other teenagers.

This shooting marked a sharp increase in the feuds pitting disenfranchised Latino teenagers against each other in one of the most affluent corners of the United States.

Certainly, it was the first time bystanders had been caught up in the violence. And it has set Napa thinking it might be on the verge of a gang war. "A lot is in jeopardy here, because of the wineries and the tourist industry. They are going to have to find a solution to this because if it runs out of control it will be a big, big problem," warned Gilbert Lopez, a former gang member turned Pentecostal minister.

City authorities have been cautious in their comments, clearly worried about the impact any further violence might have on the livelihood of the area. The police insist Napa is still a safe place to visit, and the tourist office says it has received no panic calls.

But for leaders of the Latino community, which does almost all the menial work in the wine industry as well as the hotel and restaurant trades but receives little recognition, it is clear a crisis point has been reached. "People feel a great rage about what is going on, because they feel they are essentially in an apartheid situation," said Guillermo Brito, who runs a social services centre. "If the system keeps people down instead of helping them to empower themselves, it is a recipe for major conflict down the line."

The scourge of gang violence has hit Napa in much the same way that it has spread throughout California. Turf wars in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s led families to send children out of town, thus contributing unwittingly to the dissemination of the phenomenon.

In state prisons, Mexicans then divided themselves into two clans, the Nortenos and the Surenos - northerners and southerners. Partly this was a matter of where they had settled in California, the city of Bakersfield being the rough dividing line. Partly it was a matter of integration. Second or third-generation Latinos formed friendships with whites, creating the Norteno gang together, and looked down on Sureno newcomers, whom they call "scraps" or "corns".

In the Napa Valley, the two gangs fight over issues of identity. The Nortenos wear red, the Surenos blue, and they clash all along the Napa river valley, from the city of Napa itself to the cutesy town of Calistoga, famous for its mud baths as well as its wine.

Mostly the violence has taken the form of beatings, clubbings or the occasional knife attack. Six months ago Napa experienced its first drive- by shooting, causing the death of a 17-year-old boy. In Westwood, the Napa city neighbourhood where the latest violence has occurred, the situation is explosive because Nortenos and Surenos live on the same streets.

For many Latinos in the Napa Valley, the gang violence is a symptom of desperation experienced by young people with little to fill their time and little to look forward to except a sense of alienation. There are few role models other than the "cool" gang leaders on the street. Only a tiny fraction of the valley's schoolteachers and police officers speak Spanish, and fewer still show much cultural understanding of their situation.

The valley's main economic and political interest groups have pressed for an end to the bad publicity before it damages the wine and tourist industries and they have urged the police to catch the culprits. One of two guns used in the recent shootings has been found, and an unnamed 17-year-old arrested.

Such limited action does not address the broader issues at stake for the Latinos - adequate wages, education and healthcare, primarily - and do little to bridge the gap between the two communities. Latinos make up 80 per cent of the valley's population, and the proportion is growing. "California is in for a rude awakening," Mr Brito said. "It depends on Mexicans for labour but offers them little or nothing in return. The gangs are only one piece of a much larger problem."