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Rural gangs claim public lands

This week we're taking a look at what police say is a resurgence of gang activity - especially in rural areas. In part one of our series “Living In Gangland," we go on patrol with a Washington Fish and Wildlife cop.

Gang violence is mostly a big city problem. But in parts of the rural Northwest, police are grappling with gang rivalries, graffiti and even drive-by shootings.

Just ask Darin Smith, chief of police in Royal City, Washington, population 2,000.

"People think 'oh, these are just a bunch of wannabes.' I go anytime a kid picks up a gun and points it at somebody else – that's the real deal. Anybody who doesn't accept or acknowledge that there's gangs and there's a problem, they're a little naïve."

It's not just a problem in the small towns. Gang members are frequenting public recreation lands: boat launches, fishing holes, hunting areas. 

Deploying Fish & Wildlife agents to combat gangs

Officer Chad McGary pulls his state-issue pick-up into a public boat ramp. We're near Potholes Reservoir in Grant County in Central Washington.

"I have three kids myself and I don't come down here unless I'm armed and I know where I'm going to be going fishing.," McGary says. 

This fishing spot is gang turf. 

"Every single sign that we have here is tagged up."

So are the public bathrooms, even the large rocks and boulders. Everywhere you look there's gang graffiti on top of gang graffiti – giant spray painted letters in blue. Red for Norteno. Blue for Soreno. These are the main rival gangs around here.

"And then crossed out in red saying blue came in and tagged it up and red says 'no this is our area, not your area.'" 

In rural Central Washington, and across the Northwest and nation

According to the sheriff's office, there are more than 400 known gang members in this sprawling, rural county of just 85,000 people. Last year, there were:

  • 3 gang-related homicides
  • 66 times when someone brandished or fired a gun
  • 337 reports of gang tagging

Grant County Deputy Joe Harris compiles these stats, and can tell you the stories behind the numbers: like the time he responded to a call of a 10-year-old boy wounded in a drive-by shooting.

"He's just laying there in his bed and he gets woken up by a gunshot, a bullet that went through his head."

He survived. Police believe the boy's older brother was the intended target.

Gangs in rural America are not new. The National Youth Gang Survey showed a dramatic increase in rural gangs between 2002 and 2008, the last year those numbers are available.

In the Northwest, that can mean a collision of outdoor recreation and gang culture.

The kids talk

As we drive, Officer McGary spots three boys fishing in a small creek. It looks like a Mayberry moment. But when he stops to check their fishing licenses he finds some marijuana. Soon the youngest of the boys is in handcuffs. McGary writes him a ticket for the marijuana, he notices gang writing on the kid's shoe.

"Norteno killer?" McGary asks.

"Ya," the kid replies.

We'll call him "Eduardo" to protect his identity as a minor. He claims membership in a local Soreno gang, the South Side Locos. "Eduardo" tells Officer McGary hes been expelled from school. He can't read. He's on juvenile probation. And he's just 13.

After he is uncuffed, and with his mother present, I ask him if he's a gang member or just a gang associate.

"Gang member," he says. "Gang member and you're proud of it?" I ask. "Ya." "Why don't you want to just be a nice kid and go fishing and get a job, go to college?" "Because that life is boring."

It's hard to believe I'm having this conversation in such an idyllic setting: a fishing hole surrounded by pasture land. A big Eastern Washington sky overhead.

I ask "Eduardo" if I should believe what the cops are telling me about gangs in this pocket of rural Washington. "They say that you guys burglarize, you tag, you run some marijuana and you shoot at each other. Does that pretty much sum it up?" 

"Ya," he says.

"So they're telling me the truth?" 

"Pretty much." 

By now the other two boys have come up from the fishing hole. The oldest is 17. I'll call him "Jose." He too says he's a South Side Loco and has an arrest record. I'm still trying to understand, and ask him why he needs to be part of a gang:

"That's how it is man, that's just how it is." 

"Just what everybody's doing?" I ask.

"No, I'm just saying it's how I grew up and stuff. It's how it is, man," he tells me. 

"Were your parents gang members?" 

"No, it's just what you see, it's how you grow up, place where you grow up," says Jose.

Gangs target officers

Back in his truck, Officer McGary says he ran the boy's name on the computer. An officer safety alert popped up: he's known to carry a gun. It's a warning McGary takes seriously. He says police out here in sagebrush country have had some pretty violent run-ins with gang members in recent years.

Even off-duty officers have been targeted, including McGary. It happened two years ago, when he was burglarized. McGary and his wife came home to find their house ransacked. But the real shock came when they ventured downstairs. Spray painted on the wall was a Soreno gang tag.

"They put a big SSL on there, Southside Crazy Boys, saying this is the gang that took your stuff."

It happened just as Officer McGary was leaving the Royal City Police Department to join Fish and Wildlife. He thought he was signing on to chase poachers. And he does. But he can't escape the gangs.

His new assignment? He's been named to the Columbia Basin Anti-Gang Taskforce, a first for a Washington Fish and Wildlife Officer. 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.