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Youth gangs no longer just a big city problem

Hooded gang members

FBI: Gangs spring up when families relocate

April 23, 1997
Web posted at: 8:20 p.m. EDT

(CNN) -- Violent gangs, long a fixture on America's urban landscape, have become firmly entrenched in the nation's heartland, the FBI says in a new report.

Gangs have for years been a problem in Los Angeles, where they account for about half of the city's murders. But gangs are now responsible for 41 percent of the homicides in Omaha, Nebraska; drive-by shootings rose 3,000 percent in Wichita, Kansas from 1991 to 1993; and Oklahoma City is home to 80 separate gangs. In Wichita, there were eight drive-by shootings in 1991 and 267 in 1993, but the number decreased in the following years.

Violent street gangs are now operating in 94 percent of all medium and large-sized cities. But even in cities where residents are accustomed to leaving their doors unlocked, gang crime has become a menace.

"The small cities and towns of 25,000 and less are experiencing gang activity now," according to Steven Wiley, the FBI chief overseeing the fight against violent crime.

Senate targets gangs

Despite the overall drop in the crime rate nationally, the problem of violent street gangs is an unwelcome exception, Wiley said. Gang membership has grown to more than 600,000 nationwide.

Sen. Orrin Hatch

The territorial expansion of gangs show they "now resemble organized-crime syndicates more than small, romanticized neighborhood street toughs, like those once portrayed in 'West Side Story,'" Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said during Senate hearings on gang violence.

The Judiciary Committee chairman is co-sponsoring the proposed federal Gang Violence Act of 1997, which would provide $20 million to expand federal prosecution of gang members and allow for the forfeiture of gang-related assets. It also would toughen penalties for convictions, including a four-year mandatory minimum sentence for recruiting a minor.

"This isn't penny-ante crime," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who also is sponsoring the bill. "Gang violence is now more serious in this country than organized crime."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, expressed shock at the level of gang activity that has invaded his traditionally low-crime state. "What are they doing in my state"? he asked.

Gangs spread primarily through family migration

Part of the answer is family migration. When a young gang member moves from a city such as Los Angeles or Chicago to a small community, he'll be "revered in that community," David Gonzales, commander of the Arizona State Gang Task Force, said. "He has instant credibility, and boom, you have an instant gang."

Gang member arrest

Wiley said the first signs of migration from large cities were detected in the late 1980s, and set in motion violence and anti-authority defiance among youths in other areas.

He described the migration of gangs as a "social phenomenon ... fueled primarily by family relocation rather than a desire to expand into new criminal markets."

The makeup of gangs also is changing. About two-thirds of gang members are adults, many organizations are recruiting youngsters, and female membership is increasing.

The senators' call for a more intensive federal war on gangs was bolstered by a Salt Lake City mother who told the senators she watched two of her children get wounded in the cross-fire of a gang shooting.

Colleen Minson said her formerly peaceful Utah neighborhood has been ravaged by gang violence.

"The great frustration of residents is not being able to remove violent, dangerous gangsters from their neighborhoods," Minson said.

"Violent juvenile gang members are a particular frustration, because the juvenile system is not designed to deal with them."


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