Tweets and threats: Gangs find new home on the Internet

By Sharon Cohen

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Bocanegra's understanding of kids and violence stems from his own history. He spent 14 years in prison for a gang-related murder, turned his life around and is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Through the Y, he mentors kids in communities where gangs are a constant presence.

He warns them of the consequences of their online activities. "I'll say, 'Don't you know you're creating a profile of yourself so police can see it?' ... How do you think this will impact you tomorrow, a month from now, five years from now?'... A lot of times, it's 'Who cares?'"

Some do.

Anderson Chaves, 17, changed his ways, removing a photo on his Facebook page of a man he once admired — Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord killed in a gun battle with authorities. Chaves says he now avoids the back-and-forth online posturing.

"It's part of a macho display, 'Look at me. Look at who I am,'" he says. "They're not thinking that one day they might be standing in front of a judge and someone will pull all this stuff out. They don't think it will happen."

But it does.

Dawn Keating, a Cincinnati police officer who trains other law enforcement about social media, says by the time gang members appear in court, authorities have a dossier of their words and videos online that challenge how they want to portray themselves. "If a guy goes in and says, 'I'm a good person. I've never held a gun,' we can say, 'Look at what he puts out about himself on social media. Here he is with a gun.' It helps debunk a lot of things."

Despite those successes, police say monitoring social media is time-consuming and frustrating.

Eric Vento, a Houston police officer and gang specialist, says he sometimes creates aliases to befriend gang members online.

"You have to build your persona," he says. "That comes through countless, tedious hours of posting comments. You have to get to be friends with these people. You have to let them into your fake world. You have to build their trust. Only then, will they let you in. Until that time, you're there twiddling your thumbs."

Older gang members tend to restrict public access to their Facebook pages, but they can sometimes be found online through their wives and friends, he says. "They bite all the time," Vento says. "It's a question of keeping the bite. ... Depending on how high they are in the (gang) hierarchy, they're pretty suspicious. They know law enforcement is on Facebook. Maybe they're not thinking about it 24/7. They see there are enough news stories. They know there are fake profiles."

Younger gang members seem less cautious and more accustomed to sharing their lives online. And that can be a boon to police.

In Daytona Beach, Fla., in October, after a group of teens claiming to be in a gang pummeled and kicked a 14 year old, the victim's mother found the beating video posted on Facebook that night, says detective Scott Barnes.

After she contacted police, they quickly tracked down the suspects in their schools, Barnes says. The five, 13 to 18, were charged with aggravated criminal battery, he adds, and all pleaded guilty.

"Everybody wants to be cool and get the street cred they feel they deserve," he says. "It's not very smart, that's for sure. ... It's sad it's come to this. Some of these kids will be OK, but there's a group out there who are going to ruin their lives and end up in prison a long time or be dead. It's hard to get ahead of this, but we're trying."

Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer and can be reached at scohen@ap.org.

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