Not long ago, people in Utah referred to battling bands of youths as "rival groups." The notion of gangs in Utah was just too unthinkable.

Last week at the Utah Gang Conference, more unthinkable facts surfaced. Modern street gangs are becoming as sophisticated as Chicago's gangland "Mafiosos" of the 1920s. They recruit women now. They have Web sites, modern weaponry and are graduating from pitching pot on street corners to full-blown racketeering. Street gang involvement in prostitution, illegal gambling and money laundering is only a nightmare away.

Turning a blind eye to such things may spell disaster. Because gang activity tends to happen beneath the radar, many Utahns are unfamiliar with the terms — names such as the Straight Edgers and the MS-13s. And they are oblivious to their activity.

Law enforcement officials — today's "G-men" — feel it's time to get up to speed. Knowledge is power in combatting criminal gangs.

Here is some basic knowledge:

The largest gangs in the state are Hispanic, though Polynesian gangs are on the rise. Six shootings in the past 30 days can be tied to the rivalry between one black gang and a Polynesian gang.

Utah gangs are not so much concerned about defending their "turf" as they are with making money. Gang alliances are therefore easy to form. One gang with national ties has even been approached by al-Qaida to help smuggle terrorists into the country.

Kids as young as 4 have been photographed flashing gang signs and holding automatic weapons. Prison gangs are releasing CDs to promote their culture.

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Such details are both heart-rending and hair-raising. They are the kinds of images that decent souls instinctively turn from. But they are images that decent souls need to examine, expose and stamp out.

Gangs are here. And nobody's cheering.

If Utah is to maintain its reputation as a family-friendly state of law-abiding citizens, those citizens must show the courage to step forward and turn up the heat on the region's festering gang problems. Local governments and individuals need to shine bright lights and squirt disinfectant into the dark corners where gang activity breeds.