Las Vegas Sun

October 18, 2017

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Gang culture is changing with leadership, social media and spike in youth violence

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L.E. Baskow

Skaters ride past graffiti about Jaycee Park near where a man was found dead on a sidewalk and may have been killed in a gang-related shooting according to Metro Police on Thursday, May 25, 2017.

Audio Clip

  • The evolution of gang violence in the Las Vegas Valley as seen by ex-members and law enforcement.

It’s 1:54 a.m. on July 30, 2006. The call to Metro Police dispatch is from the east valley, about a house party loud enough to rattle a neighbor’s windows. “I don’t know what they’re doing, but it’s trouble waiting to happen out here. The dogs are going crazy,” the caller says, guessing there could be 100 kids at the party. “Nobody in this house is sleeping, or on this block.”

Officers swarm the residence on Miner Way, sending partygoers scrambling, including 16-year-old Abraham Barragan and a woman he’d danced with earlier. The two are suddenly blocked by a black SUV. One dark-tinted rear window rolls down, and a passenger says “What’s up?” before shooting Barragan in the arm, stomach and chest.

No arrests are made in connection to Barragan’s death that Sunday. Detectives can’t pinpoint a motive, but they see two possibilities: Barragan’s dance partner (whose statements to police were inconsistent) may have had a jealous boyfriend at the party, and Barragan may have been in a gang. His family and friends deny any affiliation, but the teen’s tattoos suggest he was part of a group that sees itself above the law.

Jaycee Park Graffiti

Graffiti about Jaycee Park near where a man was found dead on a sidewalk and may have been killed in a gang-related shooting according to Metro Police on Thursday, May 25, 2017. Launch slideshow »

That ruthless, senseless killing was a vision of the developing shift in gang violence in Las Vegas.

Younger members are now quicker to pull triggers over simple disputes, police say, and the old codes of conduct and family dynamics have gradually been overshadowed by the drive for wealth and individual standing. Instead of being motivated by honor, turf and colors, so-called hybrid gangs appear more into the profits of criminal enterprise and boasting about their power on social media.

Some former gang members say this strain is full of punks who are only loyal when it serves them.

Gang presence in Las Vegas

The Las Vegas area is home to more than 588 gangs, equating to roughly 12,237 identified gang members, according to Metro. Authorities say numbers are fluid because not all who are identified stay active, and not all who are active are identified.

In about 40 percent of the homicides Metro investigated last year, the suspect, victim or both had gang ties, though killings weren’t necessarily gang-motivated. In fact, such shootings are rare. An exception was the case of Adan Gavilanes, 23, who died May 23 on a sidewalk in the 2700 block of St. Louis Avenue. Lt. Dan McGrath told reporters the shooting likely stemmed from an argument between rival gangs, and detectives found fresh graffiti at a nearby park, a typical calling card.

“When these younger people are together at a party and there’s an argument ­— not even a fight — it goes from an argument to a shooting,” says Lt. Dan McGrath with Metro’s homicide unit. “It’s something that’s difficult to explain, the level of violence ...”

According to the National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC), members can be as young as 12, and recruitment efforts in some cities now target elementary school students as early as first grade. The youngest homicide suspect Metro arrested last year was a 15-year-old gang affiliate who took part in a bloody incident April 23 at the Hollywood Recreation Center in the east valley. A stabbing and more than 60 gunshots left a teenager dead, four other people wounded and the 15-year-old facing a murder charge.

The risk of retaliation was “extremely high,” recalls pastor Troy Martinez, founder of the nonprofit 10,000 Kids Partnership and a leader of the local chapter of antiviolence group Rebuilding Every City Around Peace. So Martinez, a 56-year-old former gang member, joined Metro and community partners in trying to quell tensions at the scene and at a vigil the next day.

“Words don’t do it justice, but to hear the deep groan and cry from the very depth of a mother who has just lost her child ... it’s just so moving that you wish you could do something,” Martinez says, eyes squeezed shut, speaking generally about one of the toughest parts of his outreach. “There’s nothing you can do other than try to comfort her.”

In the year since that homicide, detectives with Metro and North Las Vegas police continued to see violent cases involving people linked to it.

“There’s been some back-and-forth shootings,” McGrath says. “I think we’re lucky that nobody else has been killed in those two groups. You would think if your family member was killed in a gang-related shooting, that it might change your life or change your way. But no, we haven’t seen that.”

EROSION OF GANG LEADERSHIP

When “Miklo” (a fictional name to protect his identity) was 12, his parents worked long hours. Often unsupervised, he and his friends hung out at a Las Vegas park where an LA-based gang easily recruited them into a local satellite.

It was petty crime at first — stealing quarters from coin laundries and clothes from stores, then bikes and cars. Now 23-year-old Miklo recalls that it went from “let’s play ball to let’s go here and smoke a joint” to let’s rob, stab or shoot a rival.

Despite the lifestyle’s volatility, there was a hierarchy, a code, even work schedules. The money made an impression, but the teens’ loyalty to their gang was more about belonging. And violence only targeted opponents, not innocents, Miklo says. That was partly motivated by business, as unnecessary acts of brutality could lead to a “hot block,” attracting police attention to operations in a particular neighborhood.

Up-and-coming “gangbangers” don’t hesitate to shoot their friends, Miklo says, describing them as “crazy” and addled by drugs — a formula for distrust and paranoia.

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Metro Police Lt. Dan McGrath addresses the media Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016, regarding a shooting at a smoke shop that killed a 13-year-old boy on Friday. To his right are Metro Capt. Roxanne McDaris and Pastor Troy Martinez.

Martinez grew up in a different reality, born into a gang family in California in the 1960s. When he was active in the life, older leaders kept young members in line. Now, seniority doesn’t seem to preclude a deadly strain of adolescent self-centeredness. “They will turn on each other if it’s in their best interest,” says Martinez, who thinks gang activities in today’s Las Vegas would make past leaders of those groups roll over in their graves. “The money and the girls and the guns mean more than if two groups, somewhere down in history, were potential rivals.”

Barragan, the local kid shot to death leaving a party in 2006, demonstrated this to Martinez. The pastor says that sometime before the shooting, he tried to counsel the 16-year-old about the dangers of his hardened lifestyle. He remembers asking Barragan why he joined a gang, to which he replied: “For the girls.”

Top 9 cities for gang-related firearm recoveries

Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Omaha, Neb., Phoenix, Richmond, Calif., Toledo, Ohio (ATF data for 2011-2012; listed alphabetically and not by volume)

Hybrid groups in Las Vegas and other cities, also called “movements,” might be affiliated only in name to traditional gangs in legacy cities such as Chicago, LA or Houston. According to Clark County gang prevention and intervention expert Alex Bernal, members of what should be rival gangs now frequently mingle and go on crime sprees.

Bernal points to the weakening of the Rolling 60s gang starting in 2003, when a grand jury in Las Vegas indicted 21 high-ranking members in a racketeering case. Likening the lost structure to the movie “Home Alone,” 48-year-old Bernal says: “The parents are on vacation, and now you gave the kids the neighborhood. It became a free-for-all lovefest of gangs getting together, and they cliqued up.”

Martinez said another factor in the demise of traditional gangs in Las Vegas was the gradual breakup of low-income housing areas through federal initiatives, as there were no longer “barrios” to protect. So certain moves to make life better in poor communities may have served to make the criminal element more unpredictable, if not more dangerous.

Metro Capt. Robert Plummer says he has seen Hispanic gangs — typically the largest share both locally and nationally — maintain much of the hierarchy, discipline and reliance on family. Black gangs are more prone to hybrid traits, Plummer says, having watched their focus overall expand from street-level drug sales to prostitution and human trafficking.

MOTIVATIONS OF GANG LIFE

Gang recruitment is considered a serious social problem. Risk factors tie to other social problems.

Poverty strongly correlates with cycles of addiction and abusive relationships, and children born into unstable homes naturally seek protection and opportunity.

In 2013, Psychology Today published a story by Robert Muller on the findings of investigative reporter Joe Killian, who years earlier had interviewed 40 gang members from Greensboro, N.C. They said gangs provided an “intense feeling of family,” and that membership held the promise of Cinderella stories they’d seen in movies. “Coupled with a lack of support and guidance from positive role models, oftentimes a life of relative poverty and few alternate activities to occupy their attention, it becomes easy for these youth to be wooed by the false promise of a glamorous lifestyle and for older gang members to step into the role of mentor,” Muller wrote.

As a kid, Miklo looked up to his uncle in Mexico, a gang member who was murdered. And he was obsessed with “Blood In, Blood Out,” a 1993 film about Latino “cholos” in LA based on the memories of poet Jimmy Santiago Baca. Miklo craved the approval of gang leadership, so he started using and selling drugs at age 13 to join them on the streets.

Major gangs in the West

Aryan Brotherhood; Banditos; Black Guerilla Family; Bloods; Crips; Gangster Disciples; Hells Angels; Mexican Mafia: Mongols; Neighborhood-based gangs: Norteños, Sons of Silence, Sureños (including 18th Street and MS-13), Vagos (National Gang Intelligence Center data from 2013)

The only acceptable feeling was anger, he says, because other members frowned on fear and sadness. “I did what I did, you know? I made my choices. I lived through that and I chose to do that. I don’t think (people will) understand me. What can they understand?”

Multiple stints in juvenile and adult jails and becoming a father made Miklo think of change. He recently left his gang, and he says that while members have tried to coax him back, they haven’t made any trouble.

“It’s hard. There’s a lot of ways to go wrong,” he says of the residual anger and draw of the easy money. “Fighting myself not to go back. ... I can’t go on and be comfortable with being in jail while (my kids) are out there, for me not to protect them.”

Click to enlarge photo

Alex Bernal, Back on Track coordinator, leads a class at the Walnut Community Center. He helps at-risk teens get high school diplomas, find jobs and avoid gangs.

For Bernal, the entry point was a common problem in school — bullying. He was picked on for the clothes his mother bought for him, so he started wearing Dickies pants, white T-shirts and Chuck Taylors, the standard gang uniform at his school. “Look like a duck, walk like a duck, well I started quacking,” Bernal says. “I started hanging out with those kids and picking up bad habits.”

Like Miklo, Bernal went from smoking weed and tagging walls to home invasions and assault. “When you get in, you don’t realize what you signed up for. You just get in to be cool, but you don’t realize that there’s steps, there’s levels,” Bernal says. Also like Miklo, he was steered straight by fatherhood, at age 17.

“Inside, I was a good kid. I was raised right. My mom was church-going. I knew right from wrong, but the problem was I was addicted to being accepted,” he says. “A lot of these kids, inside, they want to stop so bad, but they’re scared of being hurt. They’re scared of people looking at them, like, ‘you punk’ or ‘you coward.’ ”

Research out of England’s University of Kent last year indicated that data on the mental health of gang members are scarce. The study points to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the violent lifestyle, and suggests that effects of being both victim and perpetrator are “likely to have a negative impact on their behavioral, social and psychological functioning.”

“My body has holes from .38s, stab wounds ... (I went through) overdoses, incarceration and many gang battles,” says Martinez, whose extended family had heavy gang involvement in California. He said access to drugs was rampant, and that the failing education system deepened the cycle of poverty. It’s something the Las Vegas community should be concerned about, Martinez warns, as he sees such symptoms stirring.

Mentors he calls “messengers” helped Martinez kick the lifestyle and dedicate his life to religion and intervention.

Outreach to hybrid gangs is especially tough, because they might be motivated by pop culture’s glamorization of the lifestyle. Power and wealth are associated with gangsters in music and movies, and Metro’s Plummer says some kids want to follow that path.

Bernal says youngsters are a product of their environment, that they’re also emulating what they see at home and at school.

“These kids have a lack of respect for life. They’re angry,” Bernal says. “To them, I think it’s cool to have a gun; it’s cool to go to jail.”

Plummer, who has worked in law enforcement in Las Vegas for 25 years, backs this up. While gang shootings took place in the past, he said they were a last resort.

“Now, pulling out a gun and shooting is the first resort,” Plummer says. “The young gang members today are much quicker to violence than the gang members of the past.”

GANGS ON SOCIAL MEDIA

“I truly believe a big impact in the gangs today, in Las Vegas and across the world, has been this phone,” Alex Bernal says, pointing to a smart device on a table.

Through Clark County’s Back on Track program, the gang intervention expert interacts with young gang members and those at-risk of joining, and they are never without their phones. He believes their addiction to attention from peers on social media is behind the troubling trend of kids recording and sharing violent behavior, ranging from verbal bullying to beatings. It’s their “15 minutes of fame,” Bernal says.

They also might boast about their prowess in a way that motivates confrontation.

Primary platforms

The NGIC’s 2015 National Gang Report found that Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat — in that order — have become “ubiquitous” in gang activity, with usage increasing significantly compared with the previous report. Gangs employ such tools to communicate covertly, establish targets, enhance criminal operations and monitor law enforcement, though intimidation and recruitment are the most common usages. The latter might involve videos promoting the gang’s brand and lifestyle.

“They get on social media, jibber-jab back and forth about what they’re going to do, and they’re seen with guns,” Metro Capt. Robert Plummer says. “And then what happens is, (rivals) end up in the same location together, and now they have to actually have a fight for real … that’s where you get a lot of violence.”

As a graduate student, Columbia University social scientist Desmond Patton came across the case of Gakirah Barnes, a 17-year-old Chicagoan labeled by the media a “gun-toting gang girl” after she was slain by a rival. On her Twitter account, Barnes had claimed to have killed two people, and often posed with guns while throwing gang signs.

When Patton dug deeper into her tweets, he found messages that surprised him, such as “the pain is unbearable” and “my pain ain’t never been told.”

Patton saw missed opportunities to intervene. He now works for the SAFE Lab initiative at Columbia, helping to develop algorithms to “detect and predict content that may lead to physical offline violence.” Predictions could be trickled down to community-based groups in the hope of preventing tragedy.

The phenomenon of social media communications escalating to real conflicts certainly isn’t limited to gang members. “Millions of people end up getting into little tiffs online because of visibility,” Patton says, adding that gangs often use digital platforms in similar ways to the general population. “They’re sharing their everyday life, but again, in a context where you have to defend yourself or promote yourself as being tough — that’s how things actually turn south. ... These are young people who make mistakes. They’re in a critical developmental period.”

LAW ENFORCEMENT STRATEGY

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo in late February declared violent crime the top priority of Metro Police. The speech followed the announcement of the reintegration of a centralized gang unit paired with the vice squad.

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Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo appears with confiscated firearms at a news conference Wednesday, July 6, 2016, addressing violent crime in Las Vegas.

Centralization puts officers working investigations and gathering intelligence under one command to help connect the dots. Decentralization spreads those specialized officers around the area commands to tailor enforcement by neighborhood.

As violent crime ticked up last year, with homicide detectives investigating a 20-year high 166 slayings (although the valley’s population doubled in that time period), critics of Metro argued that decentralizing the gang unit in 2015 contributed.

Lombardo held that it would have been successful with more funding for the necessary manpower, still conceding: “If it’s not working, it’s not working.”

Few details about the new unit have been released, but Lombardo said that the “marriage” between gang and vice investigations would be effective.

“I don’t think there’s anyone who questions that it was the right decision,” McGrath says. He predicts that the public will soon see more gang-related arrests and prosecutions. “That might prevent a homicide if there are more officers out there, stopping them, taking them to jail, taking the guns off them, tracking them.”

William Sousa, director of UNLV’s Center for Crime and Justice Policy, says gang activity varies from city to city and that law enforcement strategies must be locally tailored. He asserts that centralized units make sense in areas where the violence crosses jurisdictional boundaries. Hybrid gang activity does.

They are difficult to manage, Sousa says, because their criminal activities aren’t done as much to further the group. Martinez says they don’t wear the colors and might not even have inked skin. “If you were to bump into them at the local grocery store … you wouldn’t even recognize them as being gang members.”

Nationally, strategies that have proven successful in rooting out hybrid gangs include examining chronic offenders, tracing seized guns and taking better advantage of officer-initiated stops, though Sousa stresses that officers must be trained not to alienate or lose the trust of the community. He adds that gang members might not take any effort by law enforcement seriously, considering arrests a “badge of honor.”

“You really can’t arrest your way out of a problem,” Sousa says.

 

    • Jon Ponder with Hope for Prisoners speaks to inmates about his rocky path and eventual success at the Clark County Detention Center on Friday, April 14, 2017.

      Jon Ponder with Hope for Prisoners speaks to inmates about his rocky path and eventual success at the Clark County Detention Center on Friday, April 14, 2017.

      IF SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS IN A GANG

      For families and friends of gang members or those vulnerable to recruitment, social programs in the valley can help steer them in the right direction.

      Clark County’s Back on Track program is focused on violence prevention and early intervention. And the county’s Gang Intervention Team/Department of Juvenile Justice provides services to current and former gang members to help them improve their grades, find jobs and learn social skills while engaging in constructive recreational activities through the Cambridge Recreation Center, Walnut Community Center and Dr. William U. Pearson Center.

      The Harbor is another resource established by the county, targeting youths who haven’t yet gotten in trouble with the law. Parents who suspect their kids are experimenting with drugs, misbehaving in and after school and/or struggling with depression have a place to turn. Located inside the Family Court and Services Center (651 N. Pecos Road), Harbor staff assess referred teens to pair them with appropriate mentors and counselors offering drug education, behavioral therapy and other resources.

      Rebuilding Every City Around Peace is a collaboration between local police and clergy members. When there is a chance of gang retaliation after a violent act, detectives call faith-based partners who then talk with community members — at the scenes of crimes and ensuing vigils or funerals, in hospital rooms and on the streets — and make themselves available 24 hours a day until tensions subside.

      10,000 Kids Partnership offers a range of services by connecting law enforcement, faith-based partners and service agencies. Programs range from graffiti removal to training for parents.

      Hope for Prisoners offers reintegration services to those who are or have been incarcerated in Nevada (at the end of 2016, Nevada’s prison population included 3,852 validated gang members, according to the Department of Corrections). As recidivism rates are high for those with gang ties, they stand to benefit from the perspective of founder Jon Ponder, a former gang member whose mission is to help other offenders rehabilitate and successfully re-enter society.

      Other resources: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southern Nevada, Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Nevada, Nevada Youth Alliance, Partnerships for Youth At Risk, Southern Nevada Police Athletic League, YMCA of Southern Nevada