Utah gangs more covert, more focused on money

Social media becoming the new graffiti for gang members

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Sgt. Duane Jensen of the Metro Gang Unit works the streets during a ride along with the Metro Gang Unit, Sunday, March 29, 2009.\r\n (Scott G Winterton Deseret New) Sgt. Duane Jensen of the Metro Gang Unit works the streets during a ride along with the Metro Gang Unit, Sunday, March 29, 2009.\r\n (Scott G Winterton Deseret New)

SANDY — Natalie, a high school senior in the Granite School District, is getting ready to graduate from high school and go to college.

It's a far cry from when she was in sixth grade and was a self-proclaimed Juggalo, dealing drugs and once getting into trouble for biting a school resource officer.

The difference for Natalie was the school district's Step program. She now considers those teachers and counselors members of her family.

Natalie was one of several high school students who spoke during a workshop at the 22nd annual Utah Gang Conference Wednesday at the South Towne Expo Center. They spoke under the condition that their last names would not be released because of potential for gang retaliation.

Darrion, a junior, talked about how he had smoked his first joint in sixth grade and how he one night, at the same age, drank a fifth of vodka by himself. He, too, was able to turn his life around thanks to programs offered by the Granite School District, namely Skills for Success. But he also felt the need to change after a night of getting into trouble and seeing the reaction from his mother.

"It's not cool to see your mom cry and not cool to hang out with people who don't want to see you succeed," the teen said.

The gang conference, which runs through Thursday, is one of the largest in the western United States with about 900 people in attendance.

Unified police detective Ken Hansen, a law enforcement veteran and the person responsible for writing the grant in 1990 that started what would become the Salt Lake Area Gang Project, gave one of the keynote addresses.

Hansen compared gangs of today versus gangs in 1990. He noted that they are still racially mixed along the Wasatch Front, mobile and for the most part still not turf-oriented.

Gangs today are more violent, more organized and are driven predominantly by money. Almost every time police make a raid on a gang house today, they find stolen checks and IDs inside, Hansen said.

Another difference between 1990 and today is that 22 years ago, approximately 80 percent of documented gang members were juveniles. Today, Hansen said, that number is just 8 percent.

But what's not clear is how much of that is due to actual decreasing numbers, and how much is due to younger gang members trying to stay more covert. While gang membership is aging, Hansen said younger gang members have not gone away.

"I think that gangs are a little more covert because of money and drugs. That's really changed a lot of things. They don't want to be (noticed) because they want to be out there making money selling drugs. They want to make money doing fraud," he said.

University of California Irvine professor Al Valdez, who delivered another keynote speech on West Coast Latino gangs, said the Hispanic gangs of California no longer require their members to get tattoos so they can blend in more with society.

"It's all about money," Valdez said.

"These kids don't present the same," Hansen added. "They don't have the presentation in terms of colors and so forth. A lot of them look like regular kids."

Although gang members are becoming harder to document, they can be found if the right places are searched. Many have turned to social media sources, such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube. Hansen said if a person knows where to look, gang members have a strong presence on Facebook.

"It's almost the new graffiti," he said. "Instead of spraying paint on a wall, it's easier just to go to Facebook or MySpace and you can put a lot more information up just in pictures. … A lot of the gangs are really putting it out there."

In a generation that has grown up with the Internet, Hansen said gang members communicate through Facebook, conduct some drug marketing and post pictures with gang references. Sometimes the pictures are of people whom a gang member is having a conflict with, he said.

Another trend is for gang members to form a large circle around two rival gang members who are fighting, video record their fight and post it later on Facebook or YouTube.

Gang members are also using social media for recruiting.

"They can make (their Facebook page) look attractive to new people or friends of friends," Hansen said.

They do that by finding common likes, such as music, with prospective members.

Homicides, robberies, burglaries, thefts and weapons offenses were all down in 2011 compared to 2010, according to the Metro Gang Unit. But aggravated assaults and drug-related crimes were both up and drive-by shootings more than doubled from 2010 to 2011.

Nearly half of all documented gang members were Hispanic, according to stats compiled by the gang unit. Approximately 35 percent of gang members are white, up from 30 percent in 2009. Black and Pacific Islander gang members each make up about 5 percent of the total gang members along the Wasatch Front.

Hansen said last year's RICO prosecution of members of the Tongan Crip Gang had a significant impact on the gang. Federal prosecutors indicted 17 TCG members on about 30 crimes. Six members were convicted in October. The remaining members are to go on trial this year.

One of the biggest noticeable trends has been the increase of Norteno gang members, now being called the fastest-growing gang in Utah. The Nortenos and Surenos have taken over where the Crips and Bloods once ruled.

One of the workshops being presented this year focuses on gang prevention and intervention programs in school districts along the Wasatch Front. Representatives from the Granite, Canyons, Jordan, Salt Lake, Ogden and Provo districts each talked about what they're doing to tackle the gang problems in school.

A Jordan district representative talked about how he had to have counselors talk to a third-grade boy who was flashing gang signs. It was determined the boy was imitating an uncle, who was a gang member.

Santana, a senior in the Salt Lake district, said she had been around gangs her whole life and her parents were both heavily into drugs.

"That was their occupation. That was their lifestyle," she said.

Because she felt her parents didn't care for her, she decided she didn't care about herself either, she said. That changed when she got into the Colors of Success program and met others who had stories similar to hers.

"It was like a safety net. I learned I'm not the only one that has been forgotten," she said.

Another senior, Megan, had siblings in gangs and said she would get into fights herself defending them. That changed one day when she witnessed a small boy being jumped by a gang. The boy was violently beaten, including being smashed with a skateboard.

Because of Colors of Success, she is about to graduate high school with a 3.9 GPA and a scholarship and wants to become a preschool teacher.

When asked what adults should know about at-risk teens, many in the group said adults need to be more open with juveniles and work to become closer to them and let them know they are respected.

"The best thing to remember is you guys were kids once and made mistakes," said one teen boy. "Give us the benefit of the doubt."

While each of the school district representatives said their programs have been successful, they each noted how their programs have had to operate with increasing budget cuts. The Jordan district noted it had gone from six counselors in recent years to just one.

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