After decades of adhering to a "no-snitch" culture, East Palo Alto residents are coming forward with tips about recent murders as they never have before, East Palo Alto police are saying.
That sea change, prompted in part by the June shooting death of 3-month-old Izack Jesus Jimenez Garcia, has been crucial to solving murders that have rocked the city since July 13, police Chief Ronald Davis said last week. Within 48 hours, police received several credible tips that led to the identification of three suspects in two killings and a possible connection to a third that occurred July 24, he said.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the willingness to come forward is coming from young people, community leaders said.
"People are drawing a line in the sand and saying they are not going to tolerate this violence. Three homicides in a week is crazy. We should be outraged," Davis said, just days before 19-year-old Kevin Guzman was gunned down outside an East Bayshore Road pizzeria -- the fourth homicide in 12 days.
Davis all but predicted the renewed violence after a July 6 summit of federal, state, county and local law-enforcement agencies, where Davis publicly vowed to shut down the entrenched Norteno and Sureno gangs.
The first of the four homicides occurred a week later. Nineteen-year-old Menlo Park resident Catherine Fisher was fatally shot as she and two others sat in a car. Police said she was not the intended target.
Two East Palo Alto residents, Jabari Banford, 23, and Hugo Chavez, 26, were gunned down July 18 and 19. Then Guzman was killed and an 18-year-old was wounded on July 24.
"How I feel about these recent deaths is certainly disgust," East Palo Alto resident Whitney Genevro, 23, said in an email to the Weekly. "I cannot understand these killers' minds, and how they must not have any love inside of them. I know anger is a strong emotion, but it should never be an emotion that drives the uncontrollable desire to kill a human being.
"I hope others are willing to break their code of silence because they might have information to bring justice to these murders, and we need more people to stand up and do what is right. At my age, we have a great influence on the younger children and teens. If we are good role models, who knows the types of crimes and mishaps that can be avoided?" she said.
Near the spot on East Bayshore Road where Guzman was killed, two young men discussed the city's homicides, including the June 5 death of the infant, Izack. It was a turning point, they said.
"The killing of a 3-month-old baby -- that's just too much," one of the young men, who asked to remain anonymous, said on Monday.
The city's faith leaders said the turn-around goes against decades of ingrained fear.
"Now there are a whole lot more people saying, 'Enough is enough,'" said Rev. Paul Bains, pastor of St. Samuel Church of God in Christ. "In my years of being in the community since 1961, it's not like it was in the past, where people said, 'I don't want to be involved.' The stop-snitching culture has taken a turn.
"Our city has grown socially. People are not tolerating what they tolerated before. What had once not been tolerated by the few is now not being tolerated by the many."
Tips from the community led to the identification of three suspects in the Fisher and Chavez homicides: Christian Fuentes, 20, Jaime Cardenas, 19, and Fidel Silva, 24, all of East Palo Alto. Fuentes was arrested last week for violating parole, police said.
The three have also been implicated in a string of crimes and homicides in Colorado, and police are looking into the possible involvement of one or more of the suspects in Guzman's death. Fabian Zaragoza, 17, was arrested for Izack's killing within hours of the shooting due to tips from the community, police said.
Young people said they are tired of living in fear.
"Friends I know who were once fine walking to and fro in the city have been staying indoors lately for fear of a stray bullet," Tameeka Bennett, 24, said in an email to the Weekly.
"The chief is doing what he can, and I respect and appreciate that -- but I strongly believe that is time for people of faith to stand up against the reckless violence in our community.
"I refuse to be scared to step outside or walk down the street. I live here. This is my community, this is home."
"As a community, especially in the faith-based community, we have to stop being afraid, and start speaking up, and spreading the love of God. ... Parents should worry about whether or not their child will get picked for the varsity team at school, or if their child's grades are good enough to get into a university, not whether or not this is the day they'll get the call to identify their child's body," she said.
Larry Moody, director of the nonprofit Making it Happen for Our Children Promise Neighborhood, which aims to provide cradle-through-college educational help for youth in the Gardens neighborhood, said the mood is definitely changing.
"I had a conversation with eight teens recently, and without a doubt there's a sense of being sick and tired of being sick and tired with the violence," he said.
Operation Cease Fire, which offers social, medical and job resources to gang members who agree to leave the criminal lifestyle, has generated some interest on the street, he said.
"Folks are talking about the program as a way out, which is a good start. Education and jobs are the key. Even gang members will agree," he said.
At a July 21 meeting at The Lord's Gym Community Center, 15 religious leaders discussed ways to stop the recent violence.
Bains said they are taking "Jesus' approach" by going out among the people to communicate their message of hope.
On the city's most inflamed streets, the faith leaders are making contact with known crime perpetrators to talk about ways they can choose an alternate lifestyle.
Other residents are trying to galvanize the community.
On Tuesday (Aug. 2), Moody's group will host National Night Out, a nationwide community-cohesiveness event, with four block parties on Runnymede Street, Joel Davis Park, Newell Road and East O'Keefe Street, event organizer Lisa Moody said.
The City of East Palo Alto will host a town hall meeting with Mayor Carlos Romero and Davis to discuss a summer violence-reduction plan on Thursday (Aug. 4) from 6 to 8 p.m. at East Palo Alto City Hall, 2415 University Ave.
Lisa Moody said last year residents on Runnymede boarded up an unsafe house and did weed abatement to reduce crime during National Night Out.
"We will take back our city one block at a time, if we have to," she said.
Bains said he wishes the media would stop referring to when the city was branded the national "murder capital." That was in 1992 -- nearly 20 years ago, he said. The city has had years of single-digit, steadily decreasing homicide rates. The constant branding does the community a disservice, he said.
But he isn't naive about the current violence, he added. Community leaders will continue to push to solve the underlying causes of the violence, he said.
"Violence is a reaction to something else going on. We are offering parenting classes; coaches are making an impact, teaching conflict-resolution skills. People need jobs. The unemployment rate in East Palo Alto is 28 to 29 percent," he said.
"We will push the community and push getting to know your neighbor.
"One death is too much. Every life is precious. I can't wait until we get to that zero death rate in East Palo Alto. I want it to be in my lifetime. That will be a year of celebration -- and that's coming," he said.