The migration of two California-based street gangs to Denver has caused crack sales to soar and led to five slayings this year, say authorities who fear the problems will grow.
"Don't wait another day. These kids are recruiting, getting stronger and more organized," warned Los Angeles gang counselor Kenneth Wheeler.He told a meeting of Denver residents that just two days here reminded him of several years ago when Los Angeles' gang woes were in their nascent stages.
Bernard C. Parks, Los Angeles' deputy police chief, said his department has the names of 26,000 gang members on file, more than double the number in the 1970s.
Denver police point to the arrival of the California-based gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, as the main cause of the growing gang problem here.
"They came here to make money selling crack. The byproduct was street gangs," said police Sgt. Dave Dawkins, who is specializing in Denver's gang problem.
About 700 gang members are in Denver, and they are recruiting two or three more daily, police said.
The Crips and Bloods, lured by the prospect of untapped markets for crack, have been moving into other parts of the country. The gangs, depicted in the movie "Colors," have been reported as far north as Anchorage, Alaska, and as far east as Denver.
Dawkins estimated that gang-related crimes are "at least doubling" each year and that 25 percent of the Denver gang members are from Southern California originally.
"L.A. gang members said we were easy, kind of hicks, because we weren't as hard on them and our methods were a little different," said Dawkins.
The most recent victim of gang slayings here was Cameron Smith, 18, who was gunned down Nov. 3 on a sidewalk. Police said he was shot because he was wearing a red cap, the color of the Bloods. Smith, however, wasn't a gang member.
"Had he been just another gang member, it might have been different," said the Rev. Acen Phillips, who organized a rally after Smith's death. "The fact is, he was a Christian young man and he gave his life."
Mayor Federico Pena was outraged by the death, blamed on a Crips member upset over the shooting a day earlier of another Crip. Their color is blue.
"I am not going to tolerate a situation in which citizens have to worry about what color clothing they are wearing for fear of being shot," Pena said.
Nearly 100 police officers are assigned to the gang situation. Intensified efforts include coordinating information and efforts with other law-enforcement agencies.
Pena called for "zero-tolerance."
"That means if they're caught jaywalking, they're arrested," he said.
Gang members themselves see only further escalation.
"We ain't gonna get along," said one young gang member who refused to give his name. "I'll die a Crip. I'll die straight up."