SALINAS, CALIF. — Famed to readers as the birthplace of John Steinbeck and in supermarket produce circles as the “Salad Bowl of the World,” the city of Salinas carries darker renown in the netherworld of California’s prisons. Instant respect is accorded any inmate tattooed with the words “Salad Bowl” or “Salis” — gang shorthand for a city now defined most of all by ferocious eruptions of violence.
In the space of 11 days this year, seven people were murdered in Salinas. Each killing, like the record 25 homicides the previous year, spilled from the gang warfare that this summer pushed the homicide rate in the city of 140,000 to three times that of Los Angeles. Residents retreated indoors at night, and Mayor Dennis Donohue affirmed his decision to seek help from an unlikely source: the U.S. military.
Since February, combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have been advising Salinas police on counterinsurgency strategy, bringing lessons from the battlefield to the meanest streets in an American city.