The slaying of a 16-year-old Boardman youth last week brought to the surface the four-letter word that gets everyone's attention and is guaranteed to stir up controversy whenever and wherever it appears.

"Gang."

In this case, it's directly attached to the cold-blooded killing of young Ariel Velasco. Officials from both the Boardman police department and the Morrow County Major Crimes team have strongly indicated that the shooting was gang-related, and that's touched off a firestorm of controversy as family and friends of Ariel - and the community in general - argue whether that is indeed the case.

I haven't been in this area long enough to even begin to make a judgment on how prevalent and how serious gang problems are in these parts. It would be foolish of me to even hazard a guess.

But it didn't take me long to find a man who does have a pretty good idea - and who isn't afraid to speak to the issue. Boardman police Sgt. Frank Rivera was blunt in his assessment of the situation when I reached him last week.

"The gang problem exists and we know that," Rivera said. "But whether this had anything to do with gangs isn't important right now. What's important is that a 16-year-old kid was gunned down by a bunch of thugs. He didn't deserve to die that way.

"The most important thing right now is that we bring justice to his family."

Rivera was initially the lead detective on the case in the hours immediately after the shooting, but the major crimes team is now working the case.

Rivera is passionate about bringing the perpetrators to justice. As of Monday, no arrests had been made in the case, but investigators believe they are inching closer.

"We know there are people in the community who know who did this and they're not talking," Rivera said. "That's been the biggest frustration in the investigation. We still desperately need the public to come forward and help us with this.

"I knew Ariel. I know his father. I consider him a friend. We need justice to be served here."

Rivera knows it's not easy for some members of the community to step forward. He knows the conflicts they face in such a situation.

"Being a member of the Latino community,?I understand some of the reasoning not to come forward," he said. "There are trust issues at stake here, and there are cultural issues.

"But that doesn't mean I agree with people not being willing to help us solve the murder of a young man."

Rivera spent the first few years of his life in Southern California, in an area where gangs and gang killings are as much a part of the scenery as the beach. When he was still a young boy, his parents - his mother was born in Mexico; his father is Native American - moved to Oregon to escape the gang scene.

"To this day, I thank my parents for moving us away from that," Rivera said.

But the move north didn't mean Rivera and his immediate family abandoned their California kin. What he's seen since reminds him of what he escaped - and has made him passionate about making sure that same culture doesn't overrun Eastern Oregon.

"I've attended more than a few funerals for my cousins who were killed in gang activity," Rivera said. "Now, I have cousins who are my age (he's 48), and they're pumping gas. They have no future. The gangs chewed them up and spit them out. All they have left is regrets."

Now, Rivera spends as much time as possible talking to the Latino community in Eastern Oregon. He tells them what he knows, and does his best to impress upon the youth that they have a choice.

"There's no glamour in the gang life," he said. "I try to teach them what's important. I don't want them to get caught up in that circle that has ruined so many lives."

Boardman and Morrow counties are taking steps to address the problem. But according to Rivera, there's still lots of work to be done.

"We need to make more strides," he said. "I see them making strides in Hermiston, and we need to continue to go in that direction here."

Hermiston Police Chief Dan Coulombe said Hermiston has take in a proactive approach to the problem. After a major spike in gang-related activity in 2007, the department instituted a number of programs and policies aimed at reversing the trend. Coulombe said statistics show a steady drop in that activity over the last three years.

"Education, enforcement, awareness, community partnerships - all those things have contributed," Coulombe said. "I do believe Hermiston has seen success in that area, and we need to be vigilant to make sure that trend continues."

Meanwhile, Rivera will continue to try to improve the community outreach in his area.

"We need more of that - not just in Boardman, but in all of Eastern Oregon," Rivera said. "It's an issue that's not going to go away. We need to get ahead of it and educate everyone about what it means."

Investigators in the case are asking anyone with information on the case to call 541-676-5317.

Elsewhere ...

It's not too late to make plans for the 2011 First Run, scheduled for Saturday at Kennison Field in Hermiston.

It would be difficult to find a better activity to kick off the new year. For starters, it's the perfect way for those of us who have resolved to get a little more exercise next year to get that resolution off on the right foot. Even better, it's a fundraiser for Jake Puzey's Hermiston High School cross country program, simply one of the finest programs in the entire state.

Pre-registration for the races is over, but you can still register on race day for the kids 1-mile run?(12-under) and the 2-mile and 5K events. The kids run starts at 9:30 a.m. with the 2-mile and 5K races at 10 a.m.

Race day registration and packet pick-up begins a 8:45 a.m. Cost is $15.

Speaking of New Year's Eve and the possibility of over-indulging, here are some common sense tips from the Oregon State Police:

• If you are planning to drink, plan ahead by designating a sober driver or arranging for a taxi to pick you up at a set time.

• If you are hosting a party, offer plenty of non-alcoholic beverages and help your guests be responsible. Don't let someone who has been drinking get behind the wheel.

• If you plan on walking or bicycling after dark, wear bright clothes to help you stand out.

• Buckle up, every trip, every time.

Yep, common sense. Most of us should know these things - but a little reminder never hurt.

Know of something we need to be reporting? A piece of news you'd like to see in the Herald? Drop me a note at nwoelk@hermistonherald.com or call me at 541-564-4533.

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