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Deseret News Photo
Salt Lake City police officer Bruce Evans patrols the Horizonte School in Salt Lake City on Feb. 26.

Danny is 15 years old. He's been a gang member since he was just 10.

"They told me, 'You earned your jump-in,' " he says of his initiation into his gang five years ago.

Today, Danny has all the markings of a hard-core gang member. He has a small "w" tattooed under one eye for "Westside." He has an "X" and a "3" under the other eye for his gang, Surenos 13. Each of his knuckles and hands is inked, including a tattoo of a "1" on one hand and a "3" on the other, again making a "13" when flashing a particular gang sign. Across his back in big letters is the word "Tepa" and another "X3."

"I have to earn them," he says of each of his tattoos.

When asked what he had to do to earn them, Danny is purposely vague with his answers.

"Go bust up somebody," he says, apparently referring to rival gang members. "Go hit 'em up."

Danny's mother is standing nearby while he shows off his tattoos. She does not speak English, but she understands what is being talked about. Despite his many tattoos, Danny's mother apparently did not know her son was in a gang until recently when police stopped by her house to tell her.

She says several times in Spanish that her son is no longer in a gang and won't be getting any more tattoos. When asked if that's true, Danny gives a small smile and says he's not doing as much gang-banging any more.

Just then, a white SUV drives by while Danny and two of his friends are standing in front of his house. One of Danny's friends, Julio, and the driver of the vehicle give each other long stares as he drives by.

When asked who was in the vehicle, Julio simply replies, "Enemies."

Danny's story is not unique in Salt Lake City. There are many juveniles, particularly minorities, who are gang members. But their parents, many of whom were not born in the United States and do not speak English, are oblivious to their children's activities.

The Salt Lake Police Department last week tried to make an impact on the gang problem in the city with a weeklong saturation effort. Members of the Salt Lake Gang Unit, along with other officers assigned as part of the Gang Community Action Team, tried to curb the gang problem both with both enforcement and with proactive educational messages.

Results of the weeklong saturation are expected to be announced during a press conference Tuesday.

On the enforcement side, gang detectives rounded up wanted fugitives, field carded suspected gang members for documentation, and responded to any problems that arose.

On the intervention side, members of the gang unit made sure they had a highly visible presence on the streets and in the schools. The result was officers made contact with more than 100 gang members last week.

In addition, they paid home visits to between 30 and 40 documented gang members to let their families know what was happening and what options were available for helping their children get out of gangs. In many cases, the parents were completely unaware of their son's or daughter's gang involvement.

Bruce Evans and Troy Anderson are veterans of the gang unit and spent many hours last week making contact with gang members and their families.

During one day on patrol last week, Evans and Anderson pay a visit to the Horizonte School just as it is getting out for the day. They pull aside a student who is wearing all blue, including a blue rosary.

"I just dress how I dress," he tells them. "I'm not in a gang."

While the officers are speaking to the boy, his mother arrives at school to pick him up. She does not speak English. Evans, who speaks Spanish, explains to her that her son is dressed like a gang member.

Despite the boy's protests that he's not in a gang, the officers soon discover he has a big tattoo on his back that says "Brown Pride" and another that is a "13" and the word "Southside."

The boy says his "homies" did the tat while still maintaining he isn't in a gang. When told maybe he should mix his colors up, possibly throw in some red, the boy simply replies, "I don't like red."

"You can't be dressin' like you're in the game if you don't want to be in the game," Anderson tells the boy. "The bullet's not going to be picky, you're going to be dead, and we don't want you dead."

A similar scenario plays out near East High School. Evans and Anderson stop two Latino juveniles dressed in all blue who appear to be flashing a gang sign. The boys deny they are in a gang or that they were flashing a sign. Again the message is repeated that if they're going to dress like a gang member, then others will treat them like gangsters.

"Other (gang members) will recognize you as the same, then what's going to happen? Bad things are going to happen," Anderson tells them. "If you're going to dress the part, people might think you're in a gang. When you dress head to toe in one color … if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it must be a duck."

The hours between the time school gets out and about 6 p.m. are among the busiest for gang activity. In addition to the high schools, Evans and Anderson do routine checks of the middle schools. Over the past two weeks, the two have arrested 10 13-year-olds for gang-related robberies.

In another disturbing case, a 12-year-old boy was among a group of middle school students recently arrested for assaulting a 14-year-old girl because she wore the wrong colors to school, Anderson said.

At Danny's house, he and three other friends are sitting around a couch when Evans and Anderson stop by for a visit to bring Danny's mother information about programs aimed at keeping kids out of gangs. The smell of marijuana is present in the house. A check of the boys' mouths confirms what the officers suspected.

When asked what appeals to them about the gang lifestyle, Danny says his "homies."

"Ride with my homies. Kick with them," he said.

"I like that there's loyalty," said another juvenile, Julio. "We respect our own family. No one is larger than anybody. Everyone is on the same level."

Reporters are apparently not on the same level, however. As some of the gang members speak to the Deseret News, they stand with their feet touching at the heels, forming a V. The feet are meant to resemble clown's feet, or the giant shoes clowns traditionally wear. Standing with their feet in that position, gang cops say, is a way for gang members to disrespect the people they're talking to, whether those are reporters, police officers or rival gang members, by calling them clowns.

By being in a gang, Julio says, he also feels "comfortable" being out in public, even though he is a minority who came from a broken poor home.

"I know I can walk around and my family will back me," he says.

Julio says members of his gang, another offshoot of Surenos 13, aren't "stupid" and won't do things that will draw attention to themselves.

"We don't do things to be noticed," he says. "We only do things when they have to be done."

During yet another stop, Anderson and Evans talk to three documented gang members whom they've dealt with before. One of the gang members tells them his name is Ramon, a name he hasn't used in the past.

"I was lying to you then, but this time I'm not lying to you," he tells the officers.

The gang problem in both Salt Lake City and the rest of the county has received a lot of attention from the media and the public for about the past year because of several high-profile gang-related incidents.

A 14-year-old boy was arrested after a gang-related homicide at a West Valley golf course on Feb. 5.

A man, 18, was shot and killed on I-15 in January in an incident believed to be gang-related.

The popular manager of the Family Dollar Store, 1145 S. Glendale Drive (1350 West), was shot and killed in 2008.

Also last year, Maria Del Carmen Menchaca, 7, was shot and killed while playing on the sidewalk in front of her house during a drive-by shooting. Police say Menchaca was an innocent victim caught between two feuding gangs.

It's about 50/50, the number of parents who know their child is in a gang compared with those who don't, according to Anderson.

Giving juveniles an alternative to the gang lifestyle is what police are hoping to accomplish. Danny's mother, as well as other parents whom police visit, are given a list of organizations aimed at keeping at-risk youths busy with alternative activities.

Anderson and Evans stop by one west-side neighborhood during their patrol to play football with some of the kids. Anderson ends up donating his football to the group after looking at the only ball the older teens had: a pee-wee league ball in serious need of air.

In one case, police were able to get a boy who had been "jumped" into a gang into a boxing program because that's what he liked to do. The only stipulation for staying in the program was staying out of gangs.

The Stand A Little Taller program also gives juveniles an alternative to gangs by involving them in sports. At least three recent SALT members are now looking at continuing their sports careers and junior colleges, according to police.

Police were even helping former gang members get into the military. At least five former gang members are in the process of applying for the Marines, according to police.

E-MAIL: preavy@desnews.com