Gang violence on the upswing
Seattle Times staff reporter
Francisco Green, 23, was killed in a gang-related shooting in Seattle's Pioneer Square in late April. In early September, Wayne Molio'o, 18, was fatally shot at a Tukwila bus stop after a run-in with rival gang members at Southcenter mall.
Police say the two deaths come amid a year that has seen a disturbing trend: Gang violence is on the rise throughout the greater Seattle area, a phenomenon that's being mirrored in regions across the country.
In Seattle, the number of cases investigated by the Police Department's gang unit thus far has already eclipsed the number from all of last year. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 101 cases were referred to the unit, up from 94 in all of 2005 — numbers that don't include suspected gang cases being handled by the department's homicide and narcotics units.
According to police and gang experts, a combination of factors seems to be fueling the escalation in gang-related crime: increasing criminal sophistication, demand for drugs, demographics, migration patterns and generational conflicts play roles in the violence.
Quantifying the increase in gang-related violence is especially tough since there isn't a nationally accepted definition of what constitutes a gang. Many law-enforcement agencies, including the King County Sheriff's Office, don't categorize or track the number of crimes committed by suspected gang members.
That's because it's not illegal to be a gang member, so instead of trying to determine someone's gang membership, many agencies focus on criminal behavior.
Despite the challenges in determining the scope of the local gang problem, efforts are now under way to combat gang violence. The state Attorney General's Office is conducting a statewide survey to better understand the extent of gang-related crime; federal agents are in the early stages of compiling a database of gang members from Everett to Tacoma; and state and federal prosecutors are working together to ensure that the most violent offenders spend significant time behind bars.
"I don't want to say gangs are running wild in the city, but I don't want to close an eye" to the issue either, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske said.
"Gangs aren't just a Seattle problem ... and there's a lot of concern right now," both locally and nationally about rising levels of gang violence, Kerlikowske said.
30 to 60 gangs operating
Seattle police estimate there are 30 to 60 street gangs operating in the city and its suburbs. Of the 101 cases referred to Seattle gang detectives this year, 34 were aggravated assaults — a criminal category that includes shootings, knifings, beatings and brandishing of weapons. Drive-by shootings accounted for 19 of the 34 aggravated assault cases.
In addition, there were 23 drive-by shootings in the city between June and August that weren't assigned for investigation because no one was hurt and no evidence was left behind, according to Seattle's gang unit.
"We're just trying to catch up," said Lt. Eric Sano, who until last week was commander of the gang unit. "We've definitely seen an uptick in shootings and drive-bys."
Though crack cocaine has long been Seattle gangs' big moneymaker, heroin, crystal meth, marijuana and prescription narcotics are increasingly being peddled on the streets, Sano said.
But gangs, he said, aren't just trafficking drugs anymore: "It's all the vices — prostitution, gambling, check fraud, identity thefts, computer crimes. They're getting much more sophisticated."
Al Valdez, a retired gang investigator with the Orange County District Attorney's Office in Southern California, said the country's gang problem is likely to grow as America grows.
This year, the number of 14- to 24-year-olds is expected to reach 30 million, or one-tenth of the population — an important milestone, Valdez said, because U.S. Department of Justice studies suggest that 70 to 75 percent of gang members fall into that age group.
Valdez, who taught a three-day gang workshop in Tukwila last week for law-enforcement officers from several local agencies, said the drug trade remains gangs' "primary source of income."
Not only are gangs proliferating in number, they're also becoming more diverse, with gang members now representing a wide socioeconomic spectrum that cuts across all races and ethnicities, said Gabe Morales, a gang consultant from Des Moines who teaches police, corrections officials and local school-district officials about gangs and gang-prevention strategies.
"We've got white kids who are members of Hispanic gangs and Asian kids who are members of black gangs. We've got poor kids, middle-class kids and even some rich kids," Morales said.
Though Seattle remains a hub for gang activity, gentrification and housing costs are pushing gangs into new territory — cities like Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and SeaTac — where a growing number of suburban kids are being lured into the gang lifestyle, he said.
"But what we see is these dispersed gang members going back to their old neighborhoods — Third and Pike, the Rainier Valley, the Central District. Seattle is where people gather and it's where a lot of the drug and gang activity is happening," he said.
O.G.s return from prison
Valdez, Morales and Sano said there's another phenomenon at play: The return of so-called O.G.s, or Original Gangsters, to their neighborhoods after serving 10- or 20-year prison sentences.
But they're returning to a changed landscape, where younger gang members, many of them representing a family's second or third generation in a particular gang, are now clashing with them over control of drug-selling turf.
For instance, Sano and Morales pointed to an ongoing war that's pitting gang members in the Central Area against rivals in the Rainier Valley. Several of the summer's shootings can be traced to gangs in those neighborhoods, where police have also noticed inter-generational fighting between younger gang members and O.G.s., they said.
State officials suspect Western Washington gang members are migrating to Eastern Washington cities and have set out to determine how many communities are feeling the impact of gangs, said Chris Johnson, policy director for state Attorney General Rob McKenna.
A statewide "threat assessment" is under way, and though it's too early to say what will be done with the information, Johnson said McKenna could suggest that legislators create sentencing enhancements for crimes committed by known gang members.
In summer 2005, Kelvin Crenshaw, special agent in charge of the Seattle office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), formed a Violent Gang Task Force with members from the FBI, Seattle police and the King County Sheriff's Office. So far, the task force has launched eight investigations.
Unlike local police, gang members aren't restricted by jurisdictional boundaries, which is why the Seattle ATF is taking the lead on creating a regional database of gang members, Crenshaw said.
The database will better facilitate information-sharing and intelligence-gathering between the task force's member agencies, said Crenshaw, who hopes eventually to make the information accessible to all local agencies.
Crenshaw's second-in-command, Doug Dawson, said the database will also help officials determine what cases meet the threshold for federal prosecution, which is determined by a gang member's use of firearms and the amount of drugs a suspect is caught with.
Already connected to gang databases in Maryland and Arizona, the Seattle database will link to California's gang database next month, which will allow officials to better track the movements of gang members as they move to different areas of the country, Dawson said.
This fall, Crenshaw also plans to ask his bosses in Washington, D.C., for permission to establish a permanent gang field office here — which would mean more manpower and money for long-term, complex investigations aimed at dismantling street gangs' sophisticated criminal operations.
Prosecutors team up, too
Just as local and U.S. law-enforcement agencies are teaming up to battle gangs, so too are state and federal prosecutors. Though U.S. prosecutors "have to pick and choose their cases" because of resource limitations, just the threat of a federal prosecution can lead a gang member to plead guilty or cut a deal in the state system to avoid the federal system, where defendants are typically sentenced to longer prison terms, said Mark Larson, chief criminal deputy for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng.
Whereas King County prosecutors are responsible for prosecuting a range of crimes, from drug possession to homicide, federal prosecutors focus their efforts on gangs whose members have shown a greater propensity for violence and who are involved in trafficking large quantities of drugs.
"We look at people we think are the most serious violators and try to make a case against them to get longer sentences," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Todd Greenberg.
And while King County prosecutors are working more collaboratively with members of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle, Maleng's deputies are still responsible the bulk of gang-related cases, Larson said.
They've already charged suspects in connection with Green's April 22 homicide and the Sept. 9 slaying of Molio'o.
Kevin Monday Jr., 20, is facing a second-degree murder charge, accused of gunning down Green during a fight in Pioneer Square that Kerlikowske has characterized as a gang-related shooting.
Prosecutors have also charged Israel Velasquez-Marquez, 26, of Seattle, with second-degree murder in connection with Molio'o's death.
According to one Tukwila police source, Velasquez-Marquez is associated with an El Salvadoran gang that now has a presence in Seattle's South Park neighborhood.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654
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