David Martinez was 16, Lillyonna Rose Beaty 15 and Carlos Steven Munguia Barajas, 14.
They were killed in the latest explosion of violence in the Yakima Valley.
Police see it every spring, an uptick in gang activity ranging from graffiti and fights to theft, robbery and murder. However, there’s been a notable change — violence is increasingly touching the lives of youths in middle and high school, said Yakima police Sgt. David Cortez, also vice president of the Northwest Gang Investigation Association.
“We all have got kids or grandkids or know of kids who go to these schools,” Cortez said. “To think that a child or a child of a friend is going to these schools and hear that a friend has had their life taken way, yeah, it’s a concern.”
Since March, Yakima County has recorded nine homicides — six with some element of gang involvement, and three that claimed victims 16 and younger.
In the early hours of April 21, Martinez was walking with a group of friends when confronted by two armed men near the corner of Sliger Road and 18th Street. A fight erupted, and Martinez was shot multiple times. He died at the scene.
Police said some of the youths involved have gang ties, but whether the motive behind the shooting was gang-
related is under investigation.
In the afternoon of April 8, Barajas was shot to death at Lions Park in the Lower Valley city of Wapato. Surveillance video shows Barajas confronted by four others, then falling to the ground. He was shot in the back and elbow, according to police.
Christopher Raul Trejo, 19, has been charged with first-degree murder in Barajas’ death. Trejo remains at large and there’s a warrant for his arrest.
On March 17, Beaty was a passenger in her aunt’s minivan in the 600 block of West Pierce Street near Kissel Park in Yakima when shots were fired into their vehicle.
Police investigations revealed that Beaty told her aunt to pull up to a group of people because she thought one of them was her boyfriend. Instead, they turned out to be gang members. Beaty had previously argued with one. Words were exchanged and shots fired.
Beaty and her aunt, Danielle Rose, 31, were hit by bullets. Rose survived. Beaty died 11 days later at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Benicio Xavier Lopez, 17, was arrested in connection with the shooting and faces charges of second-degree murder, first-degree assault and unlawful possession of a firearm.
Cortez doesn’t attribute this recent spike in gang violence solely to warring gangs. He says it has more to do with youths seeking to advance in their gang — work that typically involves violence.
“This is not a matter of rivalry,” he said. “This is about kids being told to put in work, to commit violence for furtherance in gangs.”
Yakima, with anywhere from 500 to 750 gang members, has the oldest gangs in the state, Cortez said.
Those roots reach well beyond the Yakima area and are prominent in area prisons, he said.
“Gangs that started in Yakima are all over,” Cortez said. “They’ve spread to the Tri-Cities, the Seattle area, as far north as Bellingham and as far south as Oregon. They even control the Spokane gangs.”
They’re connected to the drug trade here, he said.
“They know they will obtain the power and influence through money,” Cortez said. “The one act that brings in the biggest cash flow is drugs. Drugs are always going to play a big part with our gang members.”
Several heavy-hitting gang members were locked up a few years ago and gang violence dipped, he said. It started climbing again about 2016.
Some of the increased activity is being ordered by prison gang leaders, Cortez said.
“In order for those guys in prison to survive, they need someone outside to take care of them, to provide them money and keep that gang alive,” he said. “That only strengthens your position in prison.”
Upcoming gang members often follow orders from gang leaders — shot callers — in prison.
“They basically take on the responsibility of keeping that gang going, that’s their job,” Cortez said. “And what you see is they start recruiting these kids at a really young age. Then these kids feel that they have to prove themselves to a cause.”
Two days after Martinez was killed, four teenage boys gathered quietly around a makeshift memorial on Sliger Road near a tire shop. A portrait of Martinez with a rosary draped over one corner was propped up amid dozens of prayer candles.
The four boys, who declined to be identified, said they couldn’t believe their friend had been killed.
“He was a funny guy,” one boy said as he gazed down at the candles and portrait.
A woman who worked at the tire shop said the shooting has shaken the area, mostly composed of small auto-related businesses.
“We’re all concerned about it,” she said. “It seems like gangs are getting worse.”
There have been several programs focused solely on deterring youths from gangs, but they’ve fizzled out over time due to a lack of funding.
Police know that suppression alone won’t fix the problem.
“We’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of the problem,” said Capt. Gary Jones, the city’s acting police chief. “We’re going to have look at other ways to deter gang violence and gang involvement.”
Part of the effort includes a recently implemented policing structure that assigns officers to specific patrol beats. The hope is officers will become more familiar with neighborhoods, residents and build relationships.
Community policing elsewhere has helped build relationships between officers and residents and improved the reporting of crime.
Jones, also on the board of the Yakima Police Activities League, is hoping officer participation in YPAL will help.
Officers were pulled from the program several years ago due to budget cuts and staffing shortages at the department.
Ed Shoenbach, YPAL board president, said the program has expanded to add activities such as culinary arts, a computer lab and tutoring to reach more youths.
He hopes police involvement improves and that area businesses and others get involved by sponsoring programs or volunteering.
“Everyone has skin in this solution,” he said. “That includes the city, the business community, everybody.”
Jones said he’s waiting to hear from incoming Chief Matt Murray next week about his plans on community policing and gang programs.