Sampson gangs ‘hybrid’ from bigger cells in California
By Chris Berendt
Saturday, May 20, 2006 11:49 PM EDT
Robert Clifford, assistant special agent in charge for the FBI Charlotte Division, speaks on the dangers posed by gangs, notably MS-13, during a conference in Clinton earlier this week.
CLINTON — There are more than 9,000 gang members in the state of North Carolina who each have affiliations with specific gangs, of which there are many. Each “street gang” has different identifiable signs, symbols or colors, but nearly all have one main theme in common — violence and criminal activity.
In North Carolina, there are a number of prominent gangs, notably Hispanic gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), Surenos (Sur-13), Vatos Locos, 18th Street, Latin Kings and Mexican Mafia, according to officials speaking at a gang conference in Clinton earlier this week.
There are also gangs representing the Folk Nation, such as the Crips and Black Gangster Disciples, and those representing the People Nation, such as the Bloods and United Blood Nation. Each gang may have numerous subsets, cliques or posses, so the number of gangs can continue to grow. The list goes on and on.
Several officials speaking at the conference said that, in combatting gangs and gang activity, it was important to first have a uniform definition as to what a gang is.
Gangs are defined by N.C. law enforcement officials as “a group or association of three or more persons who may have a common identifying sign, symbol or name and who individually or collectively engage in, or have engaged in, criminal activity which creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation.”
“Criminal activity” includes juvenile acts that, if convicted by an adult, would be a crime.
Explained Richard Hayes, senior research analyst for the Governor’s Crime Commission, “with uniform definitions, we get better intelligence,” which in turn aids in the partnering and information-sharing between law enforcement agencies.
Gangs in North Carolina, most with roots in California, are termed by law enforcement as “hybrid gangs.”
Each gang has symbols and colors they use to show their loyalty to their gang and promote gang solidarity, along with identifying themselves, said Lt. Mark Bridgeman with the Fayetteville Police Department and president of the N.C. Gang Investigators Association.
They don the signs and symbols on clothes or etch them into their skin through brands and tattoos.
Bridgeman noted that disrespecting a gang’s symbols or colors is seen as the “ultimate humiliation,” and often calls for retaliation.
Many gang members, he said, join out of peer pressure or the want to be part of a group or pseudo-family.
They are initiated often by getting “jumped in,” which, in essence, means being physically beat for a certain amount of time by members already in the gang; “sexed in,” in which they will have to engage in sexual acts with gang members; or by committing criminal acts, to show their dedication.
The many acts that a gang member will commit simply to become a part of the gang is just the beginning. Once members, they will continue to prove themselves and their loyalty.
Robert Clifford, assistant special agent in charge for the FBI Charlotte division, knows all too well the lengths to which gangs members will go. He recalled the December 2004 attack on a bus in Honduras, in which several gang members gunned down 28 civilians — including six children — shooting and killing all at point-blank range.
Agents responding to the bus massacre found a note on the top of the bus. It read, “This is what happens when you take us on.”
“The attackers,” Clifford said, “were Mara Salvatrucha-13.”
The malicious attack, he noted, had been a response to a recent crackdown by law enforcement on gang activity.
MS-13 is believed to have roots in Los Angeles. Its members have been arrested for violent crimes including murders, robberies, drive-by shootings, malicious woundings, assaults and rapes.
Clifford called the gang a well-organized criminal enterprise, which can be better termed as participating in “organized crime” than in “gang crime.” MS-13 has a presence in 33 states, including North Carolina, notably the Raleigh-Durham, Winston-Salem and Charlotte areas, as well as rural areas including Sampson County.
It is a complex organization with good communication. Not all members can have their affiliations easily identified through tattoos and the clothes, because some have none, Clifford noted. Some are well-dressed, suit and tie-wearing businessmen, with high status in society, he said.
John Bowler, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, called the psychology of various gang members one that is different than any other he has encountered in his years as an attorney. He referred to those gang members as being “a distilled form of evil.”
He recalled a gang case being prosecuted in which the defendant “scoffed” at the federal judge who was to give him his sentence. The defendant openly bragged about the crimes he had committed.
Bowler said that gang members are not just satisfied in taking over an operation, they want to intimidate and humiliate in the process.
“It’s real and it’s showing up in court,” said Bowler. “It’s real, it’s here and you’re going to encounter it.”
In addition to violence, gangs are also linked to both human and drug trafficking.
Said James Lewis, senior intelligence analyst for the Organize Crime and Violence Unit of the National Drug Intelligence Center, “If you’ve got drugs, you’ve got gangs. If you’ve got gangs, you’ve got drugs.”
Lewis also pointed to statistics regarding the change in Hispanic population seen in the United States from 1990 to 2000. North Carolina has seen the largest spike of any state, with its Hispanic population increasing by five times in that time period, from 76,726 in 1990 to 378,963 in 2000.
“That’s what you’re living with,” said Lewis. “It’s all around you. You have to stop this at home.”
Tom O’Connell, resident agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), called on local law enforcement to use his agency as “another tool in your toolbox to disrupt and dismantle these operations.”
O’Connell said that, through work by agents out of the Raleigh office, 300 gang members have been deported, including members of MS-13, Sur-13 and Vatos Locos.
“This state is a magnet for illegal aliens,” said O’Connell.
Street gang members, including MS-13, often follow traditional immigrant paths, taking jobs at poultry processing plants, or jobs in agriculture, landscaping and construction, Clifford said. They will often use intimidation, extortion and violence as a means to their end, preying upon the immigrant community, he said.
The danger of gangs is serious, and it needs to be treated as such, expert officials implored.
“They’re the ones who make you fear walking down the street at night,” said Joseph Lenczyk, resident in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Fayetteville office. “They’re the ones who make you lock your doors and make you scared for your children.”
Lewis added, pointing to the estimated number of gang members nationally, “This is a one million man standing army that means this country harm and you’ve got a piece of that.”
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