Gangs Inc.

These days, it's all about making money

Published: Sunday, Oct. 12 2003 5:59 p.m. MDT

Detective Jason Ashment of the Metro Gang Unit writes a report after making a routine traffic stop while patrolling Kearns for gang activity.

Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Utah gang members used to be easy to spot. Showing pride in your gang meant covering yourself in tattoos and dressing all in red or blue.

Not anymore. Such displays are bad for business. And that is what many gangs have become: businesses.

Today's gang members make money by dealing drugs, forging checks, selling weapons or stealing people's identities.

"Gang members got smarter," said Lt. Andy Burton, head of the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit.

Gangsters have gone high-tech, using computers and printers to forge high-quality checks. They are going to college, getting legitimate jobs as fronts for drug deals and entering the military to get instruction on combat and the use of firearms, according to a report by detectives Luis Argueta and Eric Jensen during the 2003 Metro Gang Conference in Salt Lake City.

Gangs 101: Trends in crime

Gangs in Utah may not be as visible as they were from the late '80s to the mid-'90s. But that doesn't mean they are any less active.

After reaching a four-year low in 2001, the Salt Lake Area Gang Project reported a big jump in gang-related crimes in 2002, a trend that seems to be continuing in 2003.

There were 4,044 documented gang members in Utah in 2002, down from 1998 when the number of gang members peaked at 4,446, but up from 2001. Actual numbers may be higher — documenting gang members has become more difficult in recent years.

"They used to be proud to boast being in a gang. If you were afraid to admit you were a gang member, it was a sign of weakness," Burton said. "Now they're proud to keep it a secret."

Utah gangs are more mobile than their counterparts elsewhere. Territorial issues are nonexistent. Today's gang members also place few limits on ethnicity, especially when drug profits are good. Hispanic gangs will work with Polynesian gangs, Crips will work with Bloods and white supremacists will work with black gangs as long as there is money to be made.

According to the latest statistics from the Metro Gang Unit, the average gang member in Utah is 18 to 24 years old, although many gangs are starting to recruit 14- and 15-year-olds, Burton said. About 45 percent of the documented gang members in the state are Hispanic, 30 percent are Caucasian, 9 percent are Pacific Islander, 6 percent are Asian and 6 percent are black.

Among the Hispanic gangs, Surenos 13 is one of the most violent and most active. The Baby Regulators and the Tongan Crip Gang are among the largest and most violent of the Polynesian gangs.

In the Asian gangs, the Tiny Oriental Posse and the Original Laotian Gangster have been the most active, mostly in a long-running violent feud with each other.

Utah had about 60 documented gangs in 2003. Burton estimated 35 to 40 of those were still actively committing violent crimes.

There were 1,252 gang-related crimes reported to the gang unit in 2002, compared with just 832 in 2001. That's the highest number since 1998, when 1,292 gang-related crimes were reported, according to the gang unit.

Every category of gang-related crimes was up from 2001 to 2002. Drive-by shootings were up 300 percent. Aggravated assaults were up 210 percent.

Through Friday there had been nearly a half-dozen homicides in Utah this year that could be attributed to gang violence, as well as many other violent attacks. All of those homicides were the results of shootings. Last year, the gang unit recovered 117 firearms from gang members.

The future of gangs

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