As a member of one of Salt Lake City's street gangs for more than two years, Victor, now 14 years old, carried a gun with him wherever he went.

Dealing with guns and drugs is what he learned to do in his preteen and early teen years. "Just whatever came to mind, we'd do it," he said.But unlike most young people involved in the ever-growing world of gangs, Victor was lucky enough to get out. Thanks to persistent efforts by his mother and law enforcement officers, he left his gang and is starting his life over.

School, corrections, community and program leaders from throughout Salt Lake County met last week to discuss the influx of gangs and gang-related activities throughout the area and how to alleviate - or at least begin to attack - the growing problem.

"I think gangs are here to stay, not only here but all over the country," said Sgt. Ron Stallworth, who heads an area gang task force. "If we don't get a firm handle on it, it's going to get out of hand worse than it already is."

Stallworth said the gang presence is quickly spreading from California to areas including Salt Lake City. As of July 1, 39 sets of "Crips" and 22 sets of "Bloods" gangs are in the area. At least 10 Hispanic gangs from California also call Salt Lake County home.

The branches were set up here specifically to sell and distribute cocaine, he said. Many came to Utah because they felt they could get away with the crime more easily here because people wouldn't understand what was happening and take action against them.

"They view our community as a joke, both law enforcement and the residents. You people are naive to them. They tell us that all the time," Stallworth said.

"You need to be more aware of what's going on in your community and pass it on to the police department," he said. "We have more and more people calling us now. It works!"

The sergeant also suggested that schools crack down on youngsters that wear gang clothing, write gang signs and play "gang rap music"that glorifies pimping and even "cop killing."

"You either attack it head on, or let it kick you in the butt," he said.

Victor's mother said she knew there were problems when her son began acting and dressing differently, came home late, skipped school and his grades went down. "He didn't care any more," she said. "As a parent, I couldn't do anything."

"I just thought it was cool to get in and there was a lot of pressure to join," Victor said.

Although his mother tried, she could not get through to Victor. But when his brother, who was also a gang member, died last year, the family was greatly affected and attitudes began to change.

His family moved from the neighborhood. Fellow gang members beat him up when he was eventually "courted out" of the gang, but he said he is glad he did it.

"Now, I'm just trying to get my life back together."

Today, he spends his time in school and with his family. He is in a group home and has been receiving help in areas such as money management and drug therapy. Although it isn't easy, he said he would encourage parents and friends of other "gang bangers" to encourage them to get out while they can.

"Just let them know that it's dumb and getting pretty wild out there," he said.

Stallworth said 19 drive-by shootings have been reported this year - eight of them since July. While the gang activities have not been as sophisticated as Los Angeles and other areas, that is quickly changing, said Carlos A. Jimenez, director of Human Rights at Salt Lake Community College.

"I still think Salt Lake as a whole is still in a denial stage, preventing us from reacting to the problem in a productive way," he said.


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Warning signs

- Buying (or wanting to buy) an excessive amount of blue or red for wardrobe.

- Wearing baggy pants.

- Wearing an excessive amount of gold jewelry.

- Using excessive amounts of gang language.

- Withdrawing from family members.

- Associating with undesirables.

- Staying out later than usual.

- Wanting too much money.

- Developing major attitude problems with parents, teachers or those in authority.

- Starting to drink alcohol or use drugs.

- Using hand signs.