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Gangs still intimidate, but quietly

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Siou Bounketh helped broker deals between police and Southeast Asian leaders that helped quell gang violence. When Bounketh closes Legin Restaurant later this month, he will also vacate his position of authority in the Asian community. There are days when Adrian Galvez feels like half his job is trying to pry secrets out of people who don’t want to talk to him, but want his help.

A year and a half ago, Galvez says, a jewelry store owned by an Asian family in East Portland was robbed. But the family never reported the robbery to police. That means they can’t even file an insurance claim to recover their losses. The reason? The robbers were members of their extended family, with ties to a prominent gang. The store owner felt if he reported the crime to police, his family would be in danger.

But there is more than fear behind the victims’ silence, according to Galvez, who has met with the family numerous times in his role as youth gangs program coordinator for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

“I could pull my teeth out and they still won’t go to the police. They’d rather (lose) a few thousand dollars than lose their respect in the community or have people think they are weak,” he says.

Some leaders of Portland’s Asian-American community insist that the violent Asian gangs of the 1990s have disappeared, and there’s virtually no organized Asian crime now. But others say there are a number of organized and semi-organized men and women preying on others within the community — gangs that don’t look like typical gangs.

Conflicting reports

In a community and culture where airing dirty laundry in public is considered indefensible, it is almost impossible for outsiders to know whether reports of Asian against Asian gang crime are true or not.

“For the past five years, they’ve been by and large off the radar,” says Captain Ron Alexander, who oversees the Portland police Gang Enforcement Team.

But not completely.

In August 2009, a North Portland home was firebombed and the homeowner claimed a Hmong gang that was trying to recruit his sons was responsible.

In July 2011, 18-year-old Larry Ma was shot and killed in his Mercedes in Southeast Portland, a murder that Galvez says was gang-connected, though Ma was not a gang member.

With leaders among Multnomah County’s Asian community starting to demand that their community receive more attention and government resources to address a variety of ills, Asian gangs have become a symbol of the paradox confronting civic officials. A quiet, insular minority can easily get overlooked.

“It’s hard to take action when people don’t call us, whatever their background,” says Robert King, public information officer for the Portland police.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Adrian Galvez reaches out to young Asians and Pacific Islanders at risk of getting involved with gang activity as youth gangs coordinator for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.Galvez says he has been working with Asian parents whose sons are committing crimes but who simply won’t kick their children out or turn them in.

“There are a lot of Asian families living in fear, and they don’t know who to reach out to, and they don’t know what to do,” Galvez says. In addition, he says, any Asian family whose child goes to jail faces community disgrace.

Galvez isn’t optimistic that police could make much progress in fighting Asian gangs, even if they increase patrols in Asian neighborhoods. Outreach and gang prevention efforts aimed at the young before they become gang members might be the only hope, he says.

Still about money

Thach Nguyen, manager of juvenile counseling and court services for Multnomah County, says Asian gangs have learned how to keep from showing up on police radar. They purposely avoid easy identification as a gang. Practically all their crimes are committed within their own ethnic communities, limiting the possibility that anyone will report them.

And while some Asian gangs deal drugs, Galvez says, the dealing isn’t on the level of the larger black and Hispanic gangs. Instead, he says, local Asian gangs have opted for extortion, identity theft, gun trafficking, illegal gambling and robbery — within the Asian community — to finance their activities.

“The way (Asian) gangs are established right now, it’s money- connected,” Galvez says. “They’re not going to shoot you over a color. Black or Hispanic gangs, wearing the wrong color, they’re going to shoot you. (Asian gangs), they’re more calculated and more organized.”

And when violence does take place, Galvez says, it is well thought- out.

“They clean up their mess,” he says. “A black gang might do a drive by and leave a huge mess. They (Asian gangs) are an organization, and they operate like an organization.”

Many grew up in camps

Portland’s Asian community, especially its Southeast Asian members, is top-heavy with refugees, many of whom spent years in impoverished refugee camps before emigrating to the United States. Galvez says he sees over and over the same pattern leading to gang involvement among Asian youth here. It’s a pattern that is much less overt than commonly seen in black or Hispanic youth who join gangs, but it can be just as destructive.

The Asian kids, according to Galvez, get caught between two cultures. They see popular hip-hop culture on TV and mistake it for success in the U.S. culture at large.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Ronault Catalani, coordinator of New Portlander Programs for the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights, addresses leaders of the Asian and Pacific Islander community during a mayoral candidate forum. “What happens is they end up dressing like that because they think they’re going to get the same level of respect that the guy on TV is getting,” he says. Usually both parents in refugee families are working long hours, Galvez adds, so peer influence begins to counterbalance parental and cultural influences.

Once the Asian kids begin dressing in hip-hop attire, they gain the attention of the more established black and Hispanic gangs, often resulting in fights, Galvez says. He mentions one Asian high schooler with whom he has been working who was beaten up because he was wearing red gangster-style clothing. The youth was cornered in the school bathroom by kids who associated themselves with another gang, which wore blue.

Soon, the youth’s friends started dressing alike as a form of protecting each other. Next, the Asian youth went out and bought a handgun. After that, he and friends started stealing from their extended families to get money for drugs, knowing nobody would report them to police. Eventually, after beating his mother, he was sent to live with out-of-state relatives, never coming to the attention of police.

Police different in Vietnam

Nguyen says Portland’s Vietnamese Americans don’t view the police as allies, because in Vietnam police were corrupt, constantly demanding payoffs to provide protection. Even home invasion robberies in the ‘90s, in which Southeast Asian families were tied up and robbed at gunpoint, were never reported to police, Nguyen says.

With the Asian community maintaining silence about the crimes, Nguyen says, few Asian kids are getting caught and sent into the juvenile justice system. That keeps the Asian gang problem below the radar, so when it comes time to apportion government funds for gang prevention, Asian problems are undercounted.

“The police go by the definition, ‘Do they have a name? Do they have a color? Do they identify as a group?’ “ Nguyen says. “Asian gangs don’t. Why would I be visible? I just stay under the radar making money.”

Ronault Catalani, coordinator of New Portlander Programs for the Portland Office of Equity and Human Rights, and a long-time mediator between Portland’s Asian communities and local government, says a solution to the problem of Asian gangs exists, and it was successful in Portland 15 years ago.

Catalani and others within the Asian community say the city needs to learn a lesson from the ‘90s. Catalani describes Asian ethnic enclaves then as having been left “un-policed” until community elders and Portland police joined together to form the Asian Law Enforcement Council and signed a series of community policing agreements.

Those agreements led to police officers regularly meeting with Asian community leaders and, for a while, crimes were indirectly being reported to police. In turn, police brought community elders into the picture so that some punishments were handled informally by the community, in a model called restorative community justice.

It worked, Catalani says. The major Asian gangs disbanded, with key members of the Hmong gangs joining an exodus leaving for central California. Now, a new generation of Asian immigrants, according to Catalani, are mired in poverty, and watching their kids fail in school and turn to organized criminal activity. But the community policing model that worked before, he says, has been lost, with the officers who had committed to working with the Asian community replaced.

Catalani says the Asian community needs to start seeing police back in their cafes and restaurants and meeting with their elders. Capt. Alexander says he’s concerned that gang officers aren’t hearing from the Southeast Asian community as they once were.

“I’m not getting that feedback,” he says.