GOSHEN, Calif. — In the wee hours of Jan. 16, a pair of intruders broke into a gray house in a gritty little town in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Six people inside were quickly shot dead, execution-style, the latest in what the authorities say has been an alarming rise in homicides in the state’s agricultural heartland.
The dead included a 72-year-old woman who was asleep in bed; a teenage mother and her infant, who were each shot point-blank in their heads; and a 19-year-old man who often stayed up late playing video games.
The town of Goshen, wedged between farmland and warehouses halfway between Bakersfield and Fresno, has had a steady spate of shootouts and stabbings in recent years, as turf battles between gangs over lucrative drug sales have become a feature of life. But no one was prepared for what happened last week, when four generations of a single family were slain by armed assailants, one of four mass shootings that have traumatized the state over the past nine days.
The killings shocked officials who are regularly called to investigate homicides in this part of the valley. While some members of the murdered family had been involved in gangs, the police say, the grisly nature of the attack appeared to be a calling card of the Mexican drug cartels, whose distribution tentacles have in recent years extended from the border regions and dozens of big cities into some of the farthest reaches of the country.
Gangs and cartels have sunk roots in rural America — to expand their drug markets, recruit new members and evade detection, by stashing drugs in sparsely populated areas. As they have proliferated, they have exported urban warfare from the streets of Los Angeles to places like the expansive, produce-rich Central Valley and the apple orchards of eastern Washington State.
“A lot of cartels are moving into rural areas in the United States,” said Nathan P. Jones, associate professor of security studies at Sam Houston State University in Texas.
“They can avoid major metro areas’ drug task forces, find cheap stash houses to keep drugs and be close to highways or interstates,” he said.
Violent crime and homicides in California remain significantly below the historical highs they reached in the early 1990s. But gun-related homicides of all kinds jumped by 52 percent between 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic, and 2021.
The most distinctive feature of Goshen, a dingy town of 5,000, is that it straddles State Route 99, a heavily trafficked commercial corridor that connects to Interstate 5, which runs from the Mexican border through California, Oregon and Washington State to Canada.
Tractor-trailers loaded with the bounty harvested in the valley ply the route day and night. Some trucks also play a key role in the transportation and distribution of illicit substances — for local consumption and for markets throughout the country. In the Central Valley, cartels are believed to collaborate with local Latino, African American and Asian organizations that distribute drugs at the retail level, law enforcement officials say.
It was about 3:38 a.m. on Jan. 16 when the gunmen invaded the Parraz family residence on Harvest Avenue, in an enclave of run-down stucco homes with unkempt yards near the train tracks, abutting Highway 99. The people they killed ranged in age from 10 months to 72 years.
One victim, Eladio Parraz Jr., 52, was a documented gang member who had previously been arrested on drug and firearm charges, the police said. But four of the victims, they said, had no gang affiliation: Alissa Parraz, 16, who tried to flee, only to be cornered by a gunman who stood over her as she clutched her baby, Nycholas, and fired rounds into their heads; her grandmother, Rosa Parraz; and Marcos Parraz, 19.
Also among the dead was Jennifer Analla, 50, who was the girlfriend of one of the three survivors.
An investigation involving federal agencies is underway, and details remain few.
But Mike Boudreaux, the Tulare County sheriff, who deemed the crime one of the most heinous in his 37 years on the job, said that the “targeted massacre” pointed to cartel involvement.
“These people were given clear directions to kill that entire family,” he said in an interview. “That is what is unique here.”
“Gangs do not prey upon innocent bystanders; women and children are off limits,” the sheriff added, and he said that Marcos Parraz had also had no known connection to any criminal activity. “He just played video games.”
The authorities are searching for the two gunmen and have been obtaining information from survivors, including two people who hid in a trailer on the property and one who barricaded himself in a room inside the house.
Gang violence is common across the Central Valley. Three of its counties in 2021 had the highest homicide rates in California. Kern County, around Bakersfield, ranked first, at 14 per 100,000, followed by 9.5 in Merced County and 8.8 in Tulare County, where the main city, Visalia, borders Goshen. The state’s homicide rate was six per 100,000 people.
Home to about 480,000 people, Tulare County has about 900 documented gangs, according to the sheriff. “The gangs and cartels are married in business,” he said, and he expressed concern that the episode in Goshen could usher in a wave of even more extreme violence.
Mexican cartels have come to dominate wholesale distribution in the United States of drugs like fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The majority of those drugs enter the country in trucks and cars crossing the southern border through official ports of entry, where because of the need to keep traffic flowing, not all vehicles are inspected.
Fentanyl seizures at the border soared last year and have continued to rise. In addition to that, “we imagine there is a lot that is getting through,” said Earl Wayne, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico.
“The growing demand and the profits these groups are making is clearly driving this,” said Mr. Wayne, a co-chairperson of the advisory board for the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank.
In Mexico, cartels have killed without restraint to establish or assert control of territory and to open smuggling routes, he said, highlighting the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known as CJNG, notorious for its vicious, brazen tactics. It has killed thousands of civilians in recent years as it pushes into new territory.
A National Drug Threat Assessment Report published in 2021 cited nine cartels “as having the greatest drug trafficking impact on the United States,” including the Sinaloa, Gulf and CJNG, which a map showed was active in the Central Valley.
But experts said the cartels had largely aimed to keep a low profile in the United States, shying away from the kind of murders that happened in Goshen because it is better for business to do so.
“Cartels have been very careful, in general, not to engage in that kind of violence in the U.S.,” Mr. Wayne said. “They know law enforcement and the justice system are more effective than in Mexico.”
Mr. Jones, the scholar who studies Mexican organized crime, said cartels preferred to subcontract violence to gangs, and he suggested that the deadly rampage in Goshen might have been the work of “an undisciplined soldier or an individual on drugs making irrational decisions.”
“Cartels try to avoid big, spectacular acts of violence in the United States,” he said.
In the Central Valley, an array of affiliates of the Sureños and Norteños gangs distribute opioids, marijuana and other drugs.
The carnage last week unfolded in a house that was known for drug activity.
On Jan. 3, police officers conducting a parole compliance check found shell casings on the ground outside the house and then returned with a search warrant and arrested the elder Mr. Parraz, who later became one of the victims. They found an assault weapon, a rifle, ammunition, methamphetamine and marijuana at the house, according to court documents.
Mr. Parraz was released four days later, after posting $50,000 bail. Sheriff Boudreaux said it appeared that Mr. Parraz was not the intended target; another man who was not at home when the killings took place was.
One man who has known the family for years, Eric Cortez, said the incident had been a shock for the community. “They were good people who didn’t deserve such an ending,” he said.
The authorities continue to search for two gunmen who fled the scene before deputies arrived, seven minutes after the first call to 911, and they have offered a $10,000 reward for tips that could lead to their arrest.
Among the questions that are still unanswered by what law enforcement officials have disclosed so far: Were drugs being sold on another group’s turf? Were there people at the house who were perceived as police informants? Was someone in debt to drug suppliers?
The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have stepped in to assist. On a recent afternoon, detectives, holding brown bags containing evidence, emerged from the house where the killings had taken place. Unmarked vehicles and sheriff’s cruisers idled in the street, which had been sealed off with yellow tape. On one curb, mourners had placed a dozen candles at the foot of a small wooden cross.
Signs of poverty, neglect and crime are ubiquitous across the small town.
Pillars holding up the Betty Drive overpass to Visalia were marred with gang graffiti, and many homes kept Doberman pinschers and German shepherds as watch dogs. Bars covered the windows of U.S.A. Market, a convenience store around the corner from the crime scene.
Despite receiving assurances from the sheriff that the attack was not random, many residents said they had been spooked by the killings, and most declined to discuss them.
Those who agreed to speak said their families were longtime residents of Goshen who toiled in dairy farms, almond orchards and warehouses. They said that they had grown up with gangs and that everyone coexisted, usually in peace.
Most clashes that erupted were between feuding gang members who otherwise kept to themselves and did not usually wield weapons in public — though stray bullets had occasionally struck innocent bystanders, they said.
But some said that they had to wonder whether something had changed.
“These murders have us all asking, ‘What the heck?’” said Martin Hernandez, 22, who was born and raised in Goshen. “‘Who would kill a grandmother? What did a baby have to do with it?’”
He added: “We have gangs, but they don’t do that kind of stuff. Our thoughts went right away to cartels. Only they would do something so ruthless.”
At the U.S.A. Market, where he had stopped to buy soda, Diego Velasquez, 18, said of the gangs: “Everyone knows they are present. They wouldn’t just bother anyone.”
But the recent tragedy had his family worried, he said. “This feels different,” said Mr. Velasquez, a high school student. “We’re watching the cameras at our house.”
Misael Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant, said that he had considered Goshen safer than Oakland, where he moved from 15 years ago — until that morning a little more than a week ago, when he arrived home at 4 a.m. from his job at a dairy to find blaring sirens and street closures.
“This surprised me,” said Mr. Hernandez, 43. “I had thought it was calm here.”
Adam Perez contributed reporting. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.