Unwittingly, California exports gang violence
In hard times, families leave the state - and their kids take gang culture with them.
LAS VEGAS — Six miles northwest of the Las Vegas Strip, the only glitter to be found is from shattered glass. Broken beer bottles speckle the yellowing grass near the Buena Vista Springs Apartments, better known as the Carey Arms housing project.
But even more than the glints of light, perhaps what most catches the eye is the color many people are wearing: powder blue - the telltale hue of a local street gang.
For the past year or so, Carey Arms has been home to not only the blue-attired Rollin' 60s, but also the Kingsmen. With only a street separating them, dozens of shootings have erupted, at least eight of them deadly. Police are scrambling to put a cap on the violence, which they say constitutes one of the worst years ever.
For decades, gang warfare was largely foreign to Las Vegas and other Sun Belt cities. But as these places have turned into full-fledged metropolises, the all-too-familiar problems of other big cities have been cropping up.
It's the problems of Los Angeles, in fact, that have sparked the recent flare-up of gang activity in the Southwest: The stalled California economy has driven many families - including gang-affiliated children - to relocate to places like Las Vegas in hopes of better fortune.
"It's not a conscious thing on the part of the gangs to take over new territory," says Gilbert Sanchez, an expert on gang violence at Cal State, Los Angeles. "It's that their families are moving, and it just so happens that the kids maintain their gang affiliations. They create chapters of that gang in their new areas."
Indeed, an uptick in gang activity has registered in such cities as Tucson, Ariz. Last year, it recorded 62 homicides, six of which were gang-related - a record number since 1995, when there was another outbreak of violence, says Sgt. Mark Fuller. As of last month, 42 murders had been reported this year, five gang-related.
In Las Vegas and North Las Vegas, there have been 146 murders so far this year, up from 105 for all last year. The increase is due to a rise in domestic violence and gang-related murders, says Las Vegas Lt. Wayne Petersen.
And the prime instigators there are the Rollin' 60s and Kingsmen, both of which originated in Los Angeles, says North Las Vegas Sgt. David Jacks.
These Los Angeles roots can be hard to shake, says Randall Shelden, a criminologist at the University of Nevada. "There's an Interstate 15 connection between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, what I call gang migration. When they move from L.A., what these kids do is retain their gang affiliation. It's like an identity that stays with them almost for life."
In the case of the Rollin' 60s and Kingsmen, hard-ingrained loyalties have segued into open combat. A barrage of drive-by shootings has upended Northtown - the downtown area of North Las Vegas - and the Westside section of Las Vegas.
The situation turned acute, Sergeant Jacks says, when a housing project about two miles away, Gerson Park, entered a reconstruction phase some two years ago. Families, including teenage Kingsmen, moved to Carey Arms, where Rollin' 60s gang members already lived.
"We refer to it as 'Crips City,' " Jacks says.
Unfortunately, at least three bystanders, caught in the crossfire, have died. One was a church deacon who was passing through Westside on his way home from work, Jacks says.
To stop the shootouts and round up suspects, Las Vegas detectives have been sharing information with their North Las Vegas counterparts, Lieutenant Petersen says. In addition, North Las Vegas police recently opened a substation within Carey Arms. Although it hasn't quelled the violence, the problems have lessened, Jacks says.
Still, police have succeeded in getting the upper hand before, during a flare-up of gang activity in the early 1990s that involved 18th Street members, who also had originated in Los Angeles.
"We ran them out of the neighborhood [Northtown]," Jacks says. "That's what we're trying to do with the latest gangs."
Such efforts join federal programs like Weed and Seed, which was implemented several years ago in an effort to rout out crime and lay the foundation for a better community with social programs.
The manager of the Carey Arms complex, Washoe Affordable Housing Corp. of Reno, Nev., is trying to help, too. It applied for and received a federal grant to erect a seven-foot iron fence around the project. That in effect makes Carey Arms a gated community, "to keep out undesirables," says Maureen Cole, a contract administrator for Washoe.
"Obviously, there isn't a magic bullet to turn it around," she adds. "There's not one thing that's going to change that project overnight. The police substation can only help, and allowing access only to residents and their friends also will help."
But for Mr. Sanchez, himself a former gang member, all these efforts aren't nearly enough. "If you don't occupy the young people's lives with something positive and something to replace their gang activity, it's going to not only continue, but increase."
He advocates the implementation of social programs, but because of Sept. 11 and other problems, "money is not going toward gang intervention."