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"It's a War Zone Down Here."

An exploration of the significantly high murder rates in Southeast San Diego


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Michael Brunker carries a list of names in his head of kids he’s come to know over the years. The YMCA executive director can tell you their ages, hopes and plans, grade point averages, favorite sports, where they lived, their parents’ and even their grandparents’ names. He can also tell you what each of them were doing the day they were murdered.

GRAYING BUT FIT, BRUNKER RUNS the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA in the heart of Southeast San Diego, an area he calls a “war zone.” Bordered by downtown, the I-5, and the Martin Luther King freeways, Southeast is a handful of small communities with idyllic names like Paradise Hills or Skyline or Mt. Hope. But the iron security bars over doors and windows suggest a grimmer reality. These are the deadliest zip codes in San Diego County.

“There’s a lot of violence,” Brunker says. “And there are a lot of unsolved crimes. That’s the message I’m on top of right now.”  

Last June, it was apparent that San Diego was headed for an especially violent year. According to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), there were 51 homicides, compared to 31 homicides reported by mid-year in 2010. SDPD spokeswoman Lt. Andra Brown acknowledges the staggering increase, with a caveat: “We honestly had no idea why the numbers in 2010 were so low.”

BROWN SAYS THE 65 PERCENT homicide jump in 2011 was in fact a return to average. “We were on track for a low-normal year,” she explains, until Southeast San Diego erupted in violence. “There were a bunch of gang-related deaths in Mt. Hope, Mountain View, and Lincoln Park.”

By April, nine people had either been shot or killed in Southeast. Police Chief William Lansdowne announced SDPD would beef up patrols. In May, neighbors held a peace rally at the intersection of Euclid and Imperial—a.k.a. The Four Corners of Death, ground zero of gang combat. The focus of the rally was on the violence itself, but Brunker says the area’s low rate of criminal apprehension points to a bigger problem.

“After a crime happens, I look to see if [police] have arrested somebody,” he says. “And most of the time, they have not.” He attributes this largely to the unspoken code of the ‘hood: What happens here, stays here. In Southeast, a constant fear of gang retaliation dissuades victims from talking to law enforcement. The silence provides a safe haven for more bloodshed.

By the end of 2011, SDPD released statistics that show San Diego's overall crime rate—considering all violent crimes across all parts of the city—was remarkably low. On par with the crime rate of the 1960s, even, and placing San Diego among the 10 safest cities in the US. Press conferences touted the success of the police department, but Brunker says it's a dangerous kind of victory speech.

“Throughout the year we continued to receive crime statistics that showed overall crime had dropped not only in San Diego but around the country. However, for those victims of violence and loss in Southeast it is unsettling to hear," says Brunker. "For the families who are surviving violent loss, they don't want to talk numbers. For them, one is too many."

"The gun crimes, the violent crimes, the fatalities—those all appear to be higher in Southeast San Diego than in prior years.”

Last year’s peace rally was not Southeast’s first; public demonstrations have followed almost every gang-related bloodbath going back to 2003 and beyond. Of the county’s 88 gangs, Brunker says at least 50 operate within those few square miles. Surely some gang affiliates heard the outrage in the voices at the Four Corners rally on that day. But just as surely, they offered no truce.

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