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Gang fears grab hold in Washington County

TOWN HALL -- Sheriff's office holds community meeting to talk about proliferation of violence

Gang violence is a problem people typically associate with New York, Los Angeles, and even Portland - not Forest Grove and Cornelius. While crime is certainly more prone to fester in major metropolitan areas, smaller cities are not immune to the insidious influence of gang activity.

More than 600 known gang members reside within the Washington County boundary, said Sergeant Bill Steele of the Interagency Gang Enforcement Team (IGET). That's actually a very conservative estimate, he added, since it only counts individuals arrested for gang-related crimes. In all likelihood, the number of gangsters is actually higher.

'These people are involved in everything from homicide to vandalism,' said Steele, noting that gangs have been responsible for about five murders in the county, 15 stabbings, and many other incidents of rape, assault, and criminal mischief.

Earlier this summer, a local teenager was repeatedly stabbed with a knife and beaten by five rival gang members in a neighborhood park, but escaped with his life. The crime occurred in Aloha's Melilah Park, but police interviewed suspects in Forest Grove, Cornelius and Hillsboro. So far, four of the alleged perpetrators have been arrested.

In light of the county wide implications of the incident, the sheriff's office and the Washington County Juvenile Department organized a town hall meeting last week to educate citizens on the prevalence of gangs in the region and the facets of gang life.

'We'll talk extensively about the culture of gangs. It has become a strong culture,' juvenile counselor Jon Biles told the audience, which packed the Reedville Presbyterian Church in Aloha on Tuesday evening. 'They're willing to die for the gang. This is all about the culture of violence…It's an addiction, just like methamphetamine.'

Most of the gangs in Washington County are Hispanic, and the largest set is the so-called 'Surenos,' which derive from Southern Californian gangs, said IGET deputy Tony Hernandez. Groups such as the Brown Crowd Raza, Hillside 12th Street, Tiny Boys Surenos, Tepa 13, and 18th Street all belong to this faction - despite their mutual allegiance to the color blue and the number 13, many of these gangs are enemies.

Gang activity in Washington County can be traced back to the early 1990s, said Sgt. Steele. Ironically, much of the outlaw culture was transplanted by the children of people fleeing Southern California's gang violence, he said, and gangs like Hillside 12th Street sprung up on their own.

'(There was an) influx coming from Southern California, but we have homegrown gangs as well,' he said.

Part of Cornelius and Forest Grove's gang problem stems from this 'homegrown' variety; Hillside 12th Street originated in Hillsboro and spread out toward the west as it grew, Steele said. The gang's local rivals are the Sur Trece Califas. Much of the crime is linked to turf disputes between gangs, but breaking into cars or dealing drugs may be used for financial sustenance.

'If you're in a gang, you're probably barely scrapping by in life,' said Sgt. Steele. 'Not many gang members are living in $600,000 houses.'

Although aggression is a key component of the gang mentality, these groups also instill members with a sense of belonging and loyalty. Turning youngsters - some as young as 13 - into hardened criminals involves a cult-like indoctrination process, in which the gang becomes emotionally closer than family.

'These kids are losing the identity of who they were when they were younger,' said Biles, causing previously docile children to become belligerent with their parents and other authority figures.

Vulnerable and alienated teens who come from broken families or get teased at school are especially susceptible to gang 'recruiters' because they want to fit in with peers. Lacking other points of social reference, the gang becomes their entire life.

Muscle-bound gangsters, their bodies etched with tattoos from years in prison, appeal to young boys who see them as guardians and macho role models, said Biles. 'These kids who've been bullied don't want to deal with this bullying anymore. Therefore, they seek out protection and acceptance.'

Crime prevention specialist Julie McCloud said the primary factors that entice children into gangs are known as the four Ps: 'Protection, power, prestige, and party.' The glamorization of gangsters in rap music and popular culture also predisposes youth to emulate the lifestyle, she added. 'A lot of these kids are influenced by the media.'

After the initiatory act of being beaten by fellow members, called 'getting jumped in,' novice gang-bangers exhibit their allegiance with hand signs, gang colors, graffiti, and tattoos, and commit crimes to move up in the gang's hierarchy.

Graffiti is the prime method gangsters use to identify their terrain; crossing out a rival group's 'tag' is a major sign of disrespect, and may trigger violent skirmishes between gangs.

'It's important to clean it right away so they can't claim that as their territory,' Julie McCloud advised homeowners concerned about graffiti.

Sgt. Steele said that citizens should be keenly aware of graffiti in their neighborhood, as well as other signs of gang activity. Even though it isn't illegal to be in a gang, tips from neighbors can help police track and gather data about gang-bangers, he said. In situations like the Melilah park assault, such information can be tremendously helpful in making arrests.

Increasing gang activity can be correlated to exponential growth in the region, but Steele said that even in the countryside, criminal groups pose a threat. While cities may draw more Hispanic gangs, rural areas are a breeding ground for white supremacists and anti-government zealots.

Ultimately, the root cause of the gang problem is simply a lack of structure in young people's lives, he said. 'Kids are looking for direction in their life, but unfortunately, parents are not always there to give them direction.'

WARNING SIGNS

Parents should pay attention if their children are exhibiting one of more of the following behaviors, say crime prevention experts and those who've studied the gang subculture:

- Clothing changes. Backwards baseball caps and baggy pants are hardly unusual attire among teenagers; in many cases, trends with origins in gang culture have established themselves in the mainstream. Nonetheless, certain clues can indicate a child has become involved in gangs. If you're concerned about your teenager's activities, talk to their school counselor or contact the Washington County Juvenile Department at 503-846-8861.

- Unexplained injuries. Teens who come home bruised, cut, or otherwise injured and refuse to explain why may have been in a gang fight.

- Behavioral change: Dropping grades, drug use, foul language, slang and poor school attendance are common among children in gangs.

- Gang insignia: Notebooks, backpacks, and rooms decorated with graffiti depicting specific numbers and colors may be a sign of gang involvement. This includes tattoos and the use of gang-related hand gestures.

- New friends: Becoming a gang member engulfs young people's social lives, and may cause them to withdraw from old friends and keep their new circle at a distance from parents.