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Big-city violence invades farm town

Gunfire, gang conflict shatter community's atmosphere of security

CALDWELL, Idaho -- Gunfire and gang violence are alarming people in this farm town where the usual background noise is the chug of field machinery.

Since July, police have received more than 100 reports of shots fired in Caldwell, a town of 30,000 halfway between Boise and the Oregon line. Two young men have been killed and several more wounded in drive-by shootings. Police believe most of the violence is gang-related.

Authorities are increasing patrols, and for the first time, neighborhood watches are springing up in Caldwell, a community that for decades has typified small-town conservatism and the farmland work ethic. Many are asking themselves how big-city gang problems reached their quiet corner of the West.

''I can't let my kids go outside," said Maria Salenes. ''I don't know what to do anymore, I'm so scared."

Gunfire has plagued Salenes' neighborhood in the past, but the trouble came too close on Oct. 11 when the 37-year-old mother of four heard a midday thump on her door. When she opened it, a man she did not know fell into her living room, mortally wounded in a drive-by.

''He was breathing real hard," she recalled. ''He tried to tell me something, but it was his throat. He couldn't talk at all. I feel like nothing is safe."

Two men have been charged in the slaying of the man, Sigmund Goode, 21. The shooting was the fourth in a week in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood of working-class homes and tree-lined streets, where many people go home for lunch. It also follows the slaying of 22-year-old Carlos Chavez in August. No arrest has been made in that slaying.

For more than a century, Caldwell has been a hub for one of the most agriculturally productive counties in the nation. Hops, onions, potatoes, beans, sugar beets, and hybrid sweet-corn are grown here.

Thanks to a booming state economy, Caldwell's population has jumped 16 percent in the past four years after growing 41 percent in the 1990s. The area has a long history of Hispanic farmworkers migrating here every year to work the summer crops. But since the 1990s, more and more of the families have been settling here.

Police said gang activity, involving both young Hispanics and whites, has grown with the population.

Police Captain Chris Allgood said he has spent most of his 41 years in Caldwell and watched as the town slowly changed. ''Fifteen or 20 years ago, we used to have a homicide every three or four years, and now we have three or four every year," he said.

More than 150 people turned out for a recent community meeting at the Hispanic Cultural Center.

''I want to make it an area where my children can go outside and play in the yard and not worry about getting shot," said Jennifer Bennett, 33. ''We want to take back our neighborhood."

Police said their efforts have been hindered by witnesses and victims who are afraid to cooperate.

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