Editorial: MILPA should change its ways or shut down

| A Voices Editorial

A community responds
MAIN STORY: How a criminal organization took control of a nonprofit community group in Salinas

There’s a reason Voices of Monterey Bay is running a story based on information provided by a number of anonymous sources, and it’s the same reason we decided this issue was important and urgent enough to join forces with the Monterey County Weekly and KSBW to report it: because lives are at stake.

And there are three reasons why MILPA remains working in Salinas and beyond, even after recent revelations that MILPA staffers are steeped in gang-related scandals.

First, there is a desperate need for the work agencies like MILPA provide. On any given day in 2015, 47,000 youth were incarcerated in the United States, and 69 percent of them were young men and women of color. Of those, 73 percent were held for nonviolent offenses, according to the The W. Haywood Burns Institute. It’s hard to deny the racism of a system that imprisons people of color at much higher rates than white people. Also, while many want to believe that imprisoning youth  prevents them from re-offending, in many instances these stints just train them for life in the prison system. Preventing young people – people of color — from engaging in a life of crime through restorative justice and leadership programs is something we could use more of, especially in East Salinas, where practically everyone is a person of color.

Second, MILPA has been the fortunate recipient of a well-intentioned, deep-pocketed, out-of-town foundation. The California Endowment launched its Building Healthy Communities initiative nearly a decade ago, with a promise to invest $10 million in Salinas so its East Salinas residents could become more resilient and healthier along the way. Although there are hundreds of not-for-profit organizations in Monterey County, few have benefited from such largesse, and perhaps none could have survived the pressure MILPA has been under in the wake of scandals of its own making, without that distance. Out of sight, out of mind.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that MILPA continues to receive considerable support from local leaders. Community leaders, people who have worked and lived in Salinas and Monterey County for decades, believe that MILPA and its members deserve a chance, that the work is too important to allow it to die, that these former “felons” left behind a life of crime that put them behind bars to begin with. They believe that MILPA employees, men who grew up lacking resources and role models, are victims of the same unfair system that continues to incarcerate thousands of men of color and that are being unfairly maligned.

MILPA’s employees, after all, come from the same communities their allies serve. The Center for Community Advocacy, one of MILPA’s many supporters, organizes families at Acosta Plaza, one of Salinas’ poorest neighborhoods, an area that used to be a gang stronghold. If CCA can’t believe MILPA’s staff have turned their life around, can they believe there’s hope for their work with Acosta Plaza residents?

In spite of MILPA’s many complaints about media bias and “bullshit narrative,” it has been the organization’s own narrative that has dominated their trajectory. Newspaper stories have portrayed them as changed men who deserved an opportunity, well positioned to do the work of setting troubled young people on the right path because they’ve been there. Most reporters, believing MILPA’s members’ assertions that they’ve “changed,” didn’t even look into their backgrounds.

Here’s where the problem lies: Some of these men have not changed. Israel “Cholio” Villa, “un guerrero hasta la tumba,” continues to “put in work” for Nuestra Familia, one of the bloodiest criminal enterprises in California. It is a gang whose members will not hesitate to order their soldiers to kill their own mothers or wives.

It is an “organization” that is more than likely behind many of the unsolved murders of 216 people killed between 2014 and 2018 in Monterey County alone.

And it is a criminal enterprise that has exerted undue influence in a legitimate, desperately needed, community organization — MILPA — so it could fly below the radar and expand its realm and its criminal ways beyond California.

It is true that Salinas police officers have never liked MILPA or its mission, and they always suspected its members were not the reformed crew many believed them to be. Did Salinas PD seek to discredit MILPA? Perhaps. The brass abhorred MILPA’s efforts to prevent the Salinas Police Department from setting up school resource officers at two school districts. Cops figured the reason the organization would be “anti-police” is because they’re just criminals waiting for the opportunity to continue committing crimes. The cops figure that MILPA knows fewer police officers on the streets means more opportunities to rob, to steal, to sell drugs.

But the confirmed presence of gang members among MILPA’s ranks not only discredits the work done by the real non-gang members of the organization, but all of the organizations that work with MILPA. Recently, Building Healthy Communities sent a flyer to all Salinas residents urging them to support more funding for recreation services and less funding for the Police Department. On the return address, the flyer had BHC’s logo right next to MILPA’s. Former Salinas Councilwoman Kimbley Craig posted a photo of the flyer on Facebook, and next to the flyers, she posted the mug shots of two former MILPA employees now in prison. She then questioned – sarcastically – why these organizations would want fewer cops. In other words, she cast doubt not only on MILPA, but on Building Healthy Communities.

For many community organizations, the answer would be obvious: recreation is prevention. If more children are involved in after-school programs and recreational activities, fewer police officers are needed on the streets. But seen through the lens of a group run by active gang members, the intentions are not as innocent.

Perhaps the strongest reason why MILPA should not be allowed to continue its operations — at least not under its current model — is because of its proximity to troubled youth. Young people who need the services that MILPA offers should not be exposed to the lifestyle these men continue to embrace. We don’t want to see adolescents beat up on the streets “for the benefit of the Norteño gang.” We shouldn’t allow troubled youth to join the ranks of a ruthless, criminal enterprise. And we definitely should not allow a man who’s threatening another man’s life – as Israel Villa does in the jailhouse video — to remain in a community leadership role.

Is there room for ex-convicts to return to their communities, work with troubled people and offer guidance so they don’t follow in their footsteps? Absolutely.

Should the involvement of a criminal organization be a part of it? Absolutely not.

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Voices of Monterey Bay is a nonprofit online news source serving California's Central Coast.