Police say 30 gangs operate in Longview
By Sarah Thomas firstname.lastname@example.org
April 13, 2013 at 10 p.m.
After gunfire rang out March 4 in Kilgore, police suspected a shootout between two rival gangs. Officers collected more than 30 shell casings from several different caliber guns at the scene.
While gang activity is most commonly associated with urban inner cities, Longview police say 30 gangs operate in and around the city and are responsible for a wide variety of crimes, including murder. A recent statewide assessment found a variety of gangs are funneling illegal drugs through East Texas on their way to destinations in the north.
The annual Texas Gang Threat Assessment report, recently issued by the Department of Public Safety, estimates there are more than 100,000 gang members in the state representing 2,500 gangs.
"Every gang you would have in a big city we have represented here," said Longview police Detective Lanie Smith, who investigates gangs. "Folks transplant from big cities and bring in what they were doing there. And we see young people who just want to emulate what they see on TV."
Varieties of Crips, Bloods, Latino, Mexican, white supremacist and motorcycle gangs are involved in criminal activity across Longview, police say.
"We do have gangs here that are extremely organized," Smith said. "We have gangs here that federal agencies take notice of."
Because of the secret nature of their operations and the loyalty members show to their leaders, gangs require a more watchful eye from law enforcement, he said.
"Gang members are involved in all types of criminal activities - everything from theft to murder. I can't think of a crime that has not been committed by gang members," Smith said.
Gangs and crime
According to FBI gang data from 2011, gang members commit 90 percent of violent crimes in Texas - almost twice the national percentage.
Texas gangs that pose the greatest threat to public safety are the Texas Syndicate, Barrio Azteca and the Texas Mexican Mafia. They are more dangerous because of their relationship with Mexican cartels, large membership numbers, level of national criminal activity and organizational effectiveness.
The gang threat assessment report found organized crime gangs are funneling illegal drugs into the nation's heartland along Texas highways including Texas 31, U.S. 59 and Interstate 20.
It's difficult to determine how much violent crime is attributed to gang members in Longview, Smith said. But the most common crimes committed by gang members are theft, robbery, aggravated assault and tagging, which is the process of marking territory using graffiti.
According to the state's gang threat assessment, Mexican cartels are recruiting an increasing number of street gangs for their criminal enterprises.
"We closely monitor the activity we know about," Smith said. "We work closely with the district attorney's office and with other agencies to seek out the maximum sentences."
But monitoring gang activity can be difficult, because the community typically refuses to get involved with law enforcement.
"There are victims out here that will not report against a gang member because they are so afraid of retaliation," he said.
Law enforcement agencies have an effective tool to document and track gang activity. State law requires cities with populations of 50,000 or more to collect and enter gang intelligence in TxGang, a statewide database maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
"Intel from across the state is kept in that database, so if a gang member who is documented in Corpus Christi makes contact with law enforcement here, we will see all intel that has been collected and entered into the database," Smith said.
Adult gang members remain in the database for five years, and juveniles remain in the database for two years.
That means if a gang member stays clean for five years after contact with law enforcement in the state, he or she will be removed from the database.
Who are members?
In Longview, documented gang members range from 14 years old to 59 years old. Some local gangs include female members.
Smith said Longview police officers have conducted interviews with 80 percent to 90 percent of the gang members they come into contact with to gain insight into why people join and how they are initiated.
Initiations vary by gang and gender.
"Depending on the gangs, there are some that have strict rules, like maybe for a male member you have to fight four of us for 59 seconds," Smith said. "Others aren't that strict. They may just fight until they are tired.
"We often get reports about disturbances and fights, and these could be initiations or out of retaliation."
For female gang members, the cost of initiation is different. "They usually have a prearranged idea of, 'Hey, you're going to have unprotected sex with so many of us,' " Smith said.
The number of gang members she must have sex with can range from several to all members.
Still other members have been accepted by gangs because of family.
"Some have been 'blessed in' because they have family members in the gang," Smith said.
In Longview, street gangs can be territorial, claiming certain streets or entire neighborhoods.
"When police get the opportunity to speak with gang members, they often ask why they joined. We like to know why they joined. Lots of kids do it for respect, and others do it for acceptance," Smith said.