09/30/2007

'Hybrid gang' violence sweeping nation

By Francisca Ortega and Valeria Calderoni
Inside Bay Area

LAS VEGAS In May 2005, gang members opened fire on each other from opposite sides of the Las Vegas Strip, wounding three innocent bystanders. Months later, a 16-year-old gang banger trying to make a name for himself, shot three people in four days. Last year, gang members yelling Squad-Up the name of their group opened fire in a gated community.

A new breed of street gangs has arrived in Las Vegas and cities across the nation, with violent results. Squad-Up, one of the newest Las Vegas gangs, was formed by smaller gangs, some of them rivals, which banded together to form a larger hybrid gang. These new gang members are young and especially profit driven. They are, as one law-enforcement officer calls them, Gangsters 2000.

These groups tend to thrive in areas with relatively new gang problems and often are comprised of seasoned gang bangers who migrated from larger cities.

These kinds of gangs represent a sea of change in gang culture and bear little resemblance to the traditional gangs found in Los Angeles or Bay Area cities such as Oakland, Richmond, San Jose and San Francisco, where there is no room for new organizations to take root. In rapidly growing cities such as Las Vegas, however, these new gangs are finding ways to carve out territory, and their rise has triggered crime and violence.

Unlike traditional gangs based on race or neighborhood loyalty, this new generation of gangsters is devoted foremost to making money from drugs, robbery and prostitution, experts say.

Hybrid gang culture is characterized by members of different racial/ethnic groups participating in a single gang, individuals participating in multiple gangs, unclear rules or codes of conduct, symbolic association with more than one gang, cooperation of rival gangs, wrote David Starbuck, in a 2001 report for the U.S. Department of Justice. They are most frequently found in communities that had no gang problem prior to 1980s or 1990s, he wrote.

Hybrid gangs are cropping up in Wichita, Kan., Des Moines, Iowa, Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, among other cities.

After a spike in gang violence in the late90s, violent crime had been on the decline nationally until 2005 when the FBI reported the largest increase in crime in 14 years. According to a report issued last October by the Police Executive Research Forum, preliminary statistics show that trend continuing in 2006 for many cities, and the report cites gangs as the primary cause.

Capt. Mike Martin of the Minnesota Gang Strike Force said hybrid gangs are a major cause of that states increase in violence. Nearly half of their gangs are now hybrid, he said.

With its proximity to Los Angeles entrenched gang problems, Las Vegas provides a case study of how gang culture becomes hybridized as members leave power centers and blend into the local gang scene, putting their own stamp on it.

For more than 70 years, Las Vegas has been a mobsters playground. Just as a crackdown on illegal gambling and prostitution pushed organized crime to establish Las Vegas as a gambling Mecca in the 1930s, Californias three-strikes law has pushed a new type of gangsters into this fast expanding metropolitan area of over 1 million people about 300 miles from Los Angeles. Police say there are now nearly 300 gangs here and more than 8,000 gang members.

"(Las Vegas) is just an extension of Los Angeles because they go there to spend their gang money," said Sgt. Anthony Rivera with the Los Angeles Regional Gang Information Network.

After a decline in violence in the late 90s, gang-related homicides in the city have increased from 24 in 2005 to 42 in 2006, and police attribute many to hybrid gangs.

Capt. Al Salinas of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department gang unit said gang members move to Las Vegas because they can be bigger fish, with more opportunities and less competition from established gangs.

In Las Vegas, hybrid gangs are sprouting from predominantly African American gangs, while the citys Hispanic and Asian gangs are sticking to more traditional hierarchical structures.

"Black gangsters are spreading out. Theyre not being loyal and staying true to the gangs and its (angering) the O.G.s," Det. Sean McNulty said, using the slang term for older gangster, as he drove through a historically black neighborhood near the Strip.

During the daytime, teenage boys play basketball at the community center, couples sit together in the park and children walk to the library. In this deeply religious community, churches dot the city blocks and the Stratosphere, a towering Las Vegas landmark, shoots to the sky in the distance.

At the Abundant Life Seventh Day Adventist Church, Pat Everson, a 61-year-old grandmother, is teaching a group of youth to bake. Outside, more children throw a ball around the parking lot as they wait for their goodies to come out of the oven.

Everson has raised six children in the community and has seen it change. She worries about the lack of structure she sees in some of the communitys families, with parents failing to discipline their kids.

"During the day, the neighborhood is still quiet," Everson said. But she added, "(the gangs) are like roaches. They only come out at night," she said.

At night, Las Vegas Metro Police Departments gang unit hits the streets as well. Modern gang members are not likely to wear colors or any outward gang paraphernalia, so the gang unit stops anyone who seems suspicious.

If the police have problems identifying gang members, gang members themselves have a problem identifying each other. Gangs, like the community, are not as cohesive as they once were.

Twenty-year-old DeAndre Allen explains it like this when the police stop him outside a grocery store: "It's harder than what it was cause you never know who's out to get you. You've just gotta watch who you kick it with and put it in the hands of the Lord."

Allen tells police he is a Gerson Park Kingsman, a homegrown Las Vegas gang named after a housing project that no longer exists. He joined the gang because his father and older family members were in it. This night, however, he is hanging out with two younger gang members from the Playboy Bloods. In the parking lot where Allen stood, a member of the Bloods killed another member of the gang a month earlier.

Its not homeboys for life anymore, he said. It's a royal rumble.

This is where Squad-Up comes in. Police cannot agree on exactly when and how this gang formed, but the gang exploded on the citys crime scene in a dramatic way when members opened fire on another gang on the Strip after a concert in May 2005. The brazen fight between members of Squad-Up and the Donna Street Crips shocked locals and tourists alike as shots were fired into the crowded street, injuring three innocent people.

Last year, the gang created headlines again when gangsters shouting Squad-Up fired shots in an affluent gated community. A 2-year-old girl narrowly escaped the gunfire.

Squad-Up has a reputation for taking on any young person who wants to be gangster. Unlike conventional gangs that usually shoot rivals for reasons, police say, these youth tend to shoot just to shoot.

Inter-gang fighting among Squad-Up members caused a spin-off gang, The Wood, to form a few years ago. These two gangs are now locked in one of Las Vegass bloodiest rivalries. In December 2005, a 16-year-old Wood member shot a friend of his for talking about leaving the gang. The day after that, he shot the friends stepbrother. Before being arrested, he also shot a boy whose bike he was trying to steal.

"The problem with hybrid gangs is that they still hate each other," said Det. Tony Gross. "They say we'll come together and let's be one happy gang, but it starts to break up because of differences of opinion.

"How much trouble are these two (gangs) causing?" said Sgt. Tim Meamber of the North Las Vegas Police Department. "Pretty much the first time you hear of a shooting, the first question is: Is he Squad or Wood?"

Police departments across the nation say hybrid gangs are one of the reasons they are experiencing a surge in gang violence and that they are particularly difficult to track.

In Iowa, Des Moines Police Det. Mike Stueckrath estimated about 40 percent of their gangs are now hybrids. With the new gangs sprouting up, he said, it is hard to know who their leaders are or what their beliefs are.

In Kansas, Wichita Police Det. Loren Johnson said some experts would be very surprised by some of the behavior patterns they see in their hybrid gangs. Rival gangs co-exist peacefully on the same block, which police say is better for their crime business. Theres no loyalty beyond money, Johnson added.

In Las Vegas, the every-kid-for-himself mind-set has older gang members concerned because trigger-happy youngsters bring unwanted police attention to the neighborhoods.

C.J. McCloud, a 25-year-old Valley View Crip, dislikes the mixing of gangs. One reason the youth are running wild, he said, is because the older gangsters are not providing enough guidance or discipline.

"We've got to get rid of them," he said. "Theyre wrecking (our) town."

Copyright 2007 Inside Bay Area

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