Gangs first made headlines in Idaho Falls about two years ago after a confrontation between white students and a group of Hispanics wearing "MWA" insignia on their jackets.

At the time, members of MWA - or Mexicans With an Attitude - were surprised by the attention.Hispanic youths formed the group because they wanted an identity, said Al Romero, who taught at Skyline High School at the time. He also led the Idaho Falls Cultural Awareness Committee, created shortly after the incident.

"When Hispanic youth are grouped together and pick names for themselves, it scares people," Romero said.

But MWA is no longer a small group of friends. It's grown to a gang of more than 30 members and many have criminal records, said Todd Ericsson, an Idaho Falls police detective.

"They're doing everything gangs are doing," he said.

MWA isn't the only gang Ericsson works with in Idaho Falls.

Law enforcement officials have identified at least two other gangs in Idaho Falls: the Mexica Familia, a gang based in Mexico that's been tied to the drug trade; and the Norwalks, who have ties to a gang in Los Angeles.

There also are signs that the East Coast Crips and the Inland Empire Locos, based in San Bernardino, Calif., also have made inroads.

But there are differences between eastern Idaho gangs and those that plague many of the nation's inner cities.

In Idaho Falls, unlike Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., there have been no intergang rivalries, territory disputes or drive-by shootings, Ericsson said. Most groups have formed alliances, often through family relations.

Gangs are formed voluntarily in the Idaho Falls area, not out of necessity. People join because they want to be involved, not because they may be killed if they don't, he said.

Gangs are made up mostly of Hispanics, but they also have black and white members, Ericsson said.

The Posse, a gang of white teens, formed at Skyline High School about the same time as MWA. It disbanded when some of its members were sent to the St. Anthony work camp after they vandalized an Idaho Falls home.

Hispanic leaders say some kids join the gangs because they want to find a place for themselves.

Some kids join because they're searching for an identity, but they also provide protection to Hispanic youths, who are a minority in the community, said Lew Rodriguez of the Idaho Migrant Council in Idaho Falls.

"They're organized to flex a little muscle," he said. "Not to rip off Kmart."

Faulty stereotypes, such as the belief that all Hispanics are gang members, and the lack of positive Hispanic role models also may influence youths to join gangs, Romero said.

"They see what they're supposed to be, they play the role," he said.