Las Vegas Sun

September 26, 2022

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Younger gangs, bolder violence

Greg Damarin rolls through the low-lit streets off Weaver Drive with his head half-cocked out the window of an unmarked town car. He's wearing green fatigues, his hair is cut close to the scalp and his neck turns only a tick to eyeball a group of kids peddling gearless bikes.

"Those are the kids you need to worry about," he says .

Damarin is a sergeant in Metro's Gang Crimes Bureau. The kids, peddling, are probably in junior high.

"They're reckless. These younger kids will just shoot anybody, anything. You get eight or 10 kids together with that philosophy, and they just feed off each other," he says. "They don't want to look weak. They have to prove themselves."

It's these kids - teenagers skulking inside of their hooded sweatshirts - that detectives in Metro's gang unit are focusing their efforts on.

In the past four or five years, police say a new type of gang has emerged in Las Vegas and is responsible for a recent spate of shootings. Younger, less organized and more violent, they're called "hybrid gangs," because, as Lt. Chris Darcy said, they're a loose combination of the worst of the worst. This new school of teenage gangsters has turned everything police knew about gangs inside out.

" 'Hybrid' is really a new term, a new phenomenon," Darcy said. "It's the next generation of gang members, young up-and-comers trying to make a name for themselves with violence."

Problematically for police, hybrid gangs are defined by their indefinability. Unlike traditional gangs, such as the Crips and Bloods that started in Los Angeles, hybrid gang members may belong to several gangs at once, they don't adhere to explicit codes of conduct, they don't answer to one clear ringleader, they don't hail from any one particular neighborhood and they shift allegiances constantly - merging with other hybrid gangs, then breaking apart, then merging anew.

Las Vegas' three most prominent hybrid gangs are "SquadUp," "The Wood" and "HTO," short for "Hustlers Taking Over." Their members are typically 12 to 18 years old. Teenagers but "with a gang flair," Damarin says. High school cliques with guns.

On Wednesday night, Damarin was driving by a row of government-subsidized housing south of Owens Avenue with his windows rolled down. When he was almost clear of the apartment complex, a staccato shout rang out above the street pitch and a glass bottle came hurling toward the car. It cracked about a foot away from the passenger door. Damarin called for backup.

Metro started documenting hybrid gang members in 2002. Since then, they've encountered and logged details on 231 young adults claiming hybrid affiliation. And while hybrid gang members reflect only a small portion of the more than 7,000 gang members Metro Police say live in Clark County, the new generation of gangsters are reportedly some of the most violent. Hybrid gang members commit robberies and burglaries to make a name for themselves. They do it, Darcy says, for the performance.

"It's all about bravado," Darcy says. "They have to be a lot harder, a lot tougher. In certain areas, it's a survival mechanism. It emboldens them."

In hybrid gang parlance, police say, committing crimes for cachet is called "putting in the work."

Within half an hour of calling for backup, Damarin's crew was assembled inside the gated complex from which the glass bottle was hurled. Damarin's team found five teenagers in black hooded sweatshirts and they all started running. Only one of the teenagers didn't clear the parameter fence in time. He was 14 years old.

"It's my birthday," he told Damarin's detectives. It's illegal to loiter outside government subsidized housing that's not your own - he would turn 15 in Juvenile Hall.

Across the street, the teenagers who jumped the fence but didn't get away from police sat on a curb with their arms in plastic cuffs; three were 18 years old or older, one was 15. Earlier, they emptied their pockets of a joint and a small plastic baggie packed with some illicit substance. Waiting for the paddy wagon, detectives took photos of the teens and asked them questions: What are their monickers? What gang do they claim? The detectives got a few mealy-mouthed answers but mostly silence.

"There are just no rules out there now," Damarin said, driving slowly south of Martin Luther King and Lake Mead boulevards - bleak neighborhoods where gang unit detectives do most of their work. "It really takes a lot of intelligence (gathering) for us to understand it."

The gang unit is approximately 60 officers strong, and they're dead-set on curbing what they describe as a growing gang problem. Since January, they've taken 380 guns off the street - more than double the number of guns they impounded in 2005. Sometimes, detectives say, they'll find firearms on children as young as 12.

"We're not so foolish as to think that we're going to eradicate this overnight," gang unit Capt. Albert Salinas said. "This is a second- and third-generation problem now. If it goes unchecked, it will continue to exist and grow."

It's likely police have only encountered a fraction of the hybrid gang population, crime analyst Patrick Baldwin said. The grand total is impossible to tally. For starters, how do you count someone who claims allegiance to three different gangs? Or one person who has changed gangs three times?

"The morphing, the shape-shifting," Baldwin said. "It's complicated."

At one point, The Wood and SquadUp were going to merge and form "Squallywood." Before the merger could happen, however, the two groups found new reason to remain rivals - their feud started with teenage gossip, Baldwin says, but their fighting hasn't been casual. In September, 17-year-old Teren Evans was accused of firing three shots at a school bus full of Canyon Springs High students. The incident, gang detectives say, was just one in a series of attacks and counterattacks that started during summer break.

"The consequences are incredibly real," Baldwin said. "They're shooting each other."

Police aren't the only ones adjusting to the new playing field - established gangsters, older gangsters who are involved with higher profile crimes, have started to resent the showy aggression that sets hybrid gangs apart, Salinas said.

"The (older gangsters) seem to have the same issues with the younger crowd that any family does," he said. "They don't show respect, they don't listen, they resort to guns just like that. They're raw recruits. They have their own set of rules."

Toward the end of his shift Wednesday night, Damarin's detectives lamented the gangland newcomers with Ronald Williams, 42, a founding member of Las Vegas' Gerson Park Kingsmen gang. Williams, who says he left the lifestyle more than 20 years ago after some time behind bars, still had his gang tattoos - names and naked women splayed across his chest, back and arms.

Leaning against his car with both arms folded, Williams says he could "see through" the teenage gangsters.

"They don't have support," he says. "They don't have guidance. It's like they're out there running themselves."