Living In Gangland: Rural Gangs Claim Public Lands

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Officer Chad McGary briefly detains a self-described gang member who was fishing with friends hide caption

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Chad McGary is the first Washington Fish and Wildlife officer assigned to a rural gang unit hide caption

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Gang graffiti is abundant at a boat ramp in the Potholes Reservoir area of Grant County, Washington hide caption

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NEAR MOSES LAKE, Wash. – 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.

Darin Smith: "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."

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

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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.

Chad McGary: "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."

That's because this fishing spot is gang turf. Check out the graffiti.

Chad McGary: "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.

Chad McGary: "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.'"

Red for Norteno. Blue for Soreno. These are the main rival gangs around here.

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 three gang-related homicides, 66 times when someone brandished or fired a gun and 337 reports of gang tagging.

Grant County Deputy Joe Harris is the one who compiles these stats. He can also 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.

Joe Harris: "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.

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.

Chad McGary: "Where you guys live at?"

As McGary writes him a ticket for the marijuana, he notices gang writing on the kid's shoe.

Chad McGary: "Norteno killer?"

"Eduardo": "Ya."

We'll call this kid "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 "Eduardo's" uncuffed – and with his mother present – I ask him if he's a gang member or just a gang associate?

"Eduardo": "Gang member."

Austin Jenkins: "Gang member and you're proud of it?"

"Eduardo": "Ya."

Austin Jenkins: "Why don't you want to just be a nice kid and go fishing and get a job, go to college?"

"Eduardo": "Because that life is boring."

Austin Jenkins: "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.

Austin Jenkins: "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?"

"Eduardo": "Ya."

Austin Jenkins: "So they're telling me the truth?"

"Eduardo": "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.

Austin Jenkins: "You're out here near Royal City, Washington. Why do you need to be a part of the gang?"

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

Austin Jenkins: "Just what everybody's doing?"

"Jose": "No I'm just saying it's how I grew up and stuff. It's how it is, man."

Austin Jenkins: "Were your parents gang members?"

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

Back in his truck, Officer McGary says he ran "Jose'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.

Chad McGary: "That's when I got 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.

Chad McGary: "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.

On the Web:

Highlights of the 2008 National Youth Gang Survey

http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/229249.pdf

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