Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 17, 2012.
When thinking about gangs, cities like Los Angeles and Compton may come to mind. But what about Colorado Springs and Pueblo?
In Colorado Springs alone police officers have documented 97 different gangs and around 1,300 gang members.
“They are the same as other national gangs that you see to include the Bloods, the Crips, the Surenos, the Nortenos,” Colorado Springs Police Sgt. Josh Benner said.
Pueblo Police officers said the same ones can be found there as well, along with a few hybrids.
Officers said in both the Springs and Pueblo the gangs don’t have specific turfs, so they can be found throughout the cities.
“We actually see some gang members associated with each other for whatever reason,” Benner said.
Officers said the gangs in southern Colorado aren’t as violent as they are in some other cities, but they do still participate in criminal activity, which does make them dangerous.
“They carry weapons, they usually sell narcotics and with that, with that type of crime it comes with a danger aspect that the general public should know about,” Benner said.
Pueblo Police Detective Chad Jeffries said most of the violence that occurs is gang on gang.
“Typically they’re not dangerous to the general public unless you get involved in between a rival fight,” Jeffries said.
Sometimes though innocent bystanders get caught in the crossfire.
“That’s what we’re most worried about,” Benner said.
“A lot of these drive-by shootings that happen here in town or across the nation, a lot of the times that they happen the shooter’s not aiming at any particular person, they’re just indiscriminately shooting,” Jeffries said.
According to police, graffiti is a good sign that there may be some type of gang activity in the area.
“You’ll see gangs put their name on a certain wall or a certain area, and then you’ll have a rival gang come out and cross that out and put their own gang sign on it,” Benner said.
Some other things to look for are large public gatherings of people dressed in a similar fashion.
“You’ll see a high volume of younger kids coming to either a particular house, one or two houses,” Jeffries said.
The CSPD’s graffiti removal team works quickly to remove any tags in the area, which they said has been shown to have an impact on gang activity.
“Another aspect of the graffiti removal program is that it also kind of stops the public from knowing there is a gang problem within their area, because that program has been so successful at getting the graffiti removed at a very quick pace,” Benner said.
Officers said they aren’t trying to hide the issue from the community, but they don’t want to scare them either.
“It’s more or less just saying ‘I am going to be here’ or ‘this gang is living in this area.’ It could be one gang member that’s putting this tagging up on a street or a wall, it may not be a whole gang set,” Benner said.
Officers said it is crucial that the community reports gang activity.
“The biggest thing for us to be able to solve the gang issue, we need to have the information to begin with,” Jeffries said.
CSPD has a Graffiti Hotline (719-634-5713) and the Pueblo Police Department has an anonymous Gang Hotline (719-553-2939).
Officers said there are different reasons why people join gangs, but many join early in life.
“The earliest age that we’ve seen a gang member claim that he was in a gang was 14 years old. The majority of the gang membership is between 18 to 24,” Benner said.
Gang life is often portrayed as fun and glamorous, a lifestyle that appeals to young teens.
“When I hear that or and when I see that or when people tell me that ‘yeah the lifestyle, look at all the money I have,’ it’s very short lived because there’s not a lot of loyalty when it comes to criminal activity,” Benner said
A former gang member said gang life is not what you see on television.
“It start as like a roller coaster and it goes down and down from there, and then you can’t even walk down the street without having to look behind your back,” the former Sureno said.
He said he joined at the age of 16 after getting into a fight for his friend.
“It was basically the same thing as before. We really didn’t try to look for trouble, but as a gang you already create enemies,” he said.
And trouble found him. He said he witnessed multiple beatings, stabbings and shootings. Eventually even he took part in it.
“One night I had a machete, and I stabbed some guy with it,” he said.
After getting caught by officers for a different crime, he decided to get out.
“Finally when I realized I caught a case and none of my friends were there for me, that’s when I realized it was time to get out,” he said.
He is now working on a better future, but his past will forever haunt him.
“I’ve been with a lot of different people that done bigger crimes than I have, and I still have the fear that one day or some day they’ll find me and they’ll get me back for leaving them, or for talking about them,” he said.
Officers said the gangs here are unusual because there doesn’t appear to be a hierarchy.
“The purpose of the gang nationwide is mostly that hierarchy and to do crimes or to commit crimes for the furtherance of the gang. We haven’t seen that as much as we would think here in Colorado Springs,” Benner said.
Benner said the purpose of gangs in Colorado Springs appears to be a social network.
“Either they’re missing that at home or they’re missing that at school or whatever the case may be, so a lot of them will join it for that reason and then the criminal activity starts to become a little bit more apparent,” Benner said.
“It’s more for the love and the nurturing for a lot of these kids. They don’t have the family background so they go to their friends who might be involved in gangs, and that’s how they get involved,” Jeffries said.
Officers said parents trying to keep their children out of the gang life need to be looking out for warning signs.
“Anytime that there is a change in the child or the person’s demeanor, if he’s a little bit more apt to move from his regular friends that he’s had in the past to different friends that may or may not be staying at home, dropping grades, any type of difference,” Benner said.
“The biggest sign is who they hang out with,” Jeffries said.
Benner also added to look for changes in their wardrobe.
“If they start wearing certain colors all the time or certain sports attire. Let’s say they were a fan of one sports team and all of a sudden they become a fan of another sports team, and you’re not real sure why,” Benner said.
Some other signs to look for are certain numbers, strange tattoos and any other physical attributes that may seem odd.
“The generic thing here in Pueblo and across the country is the 13. The 13 is the 13th letter in the alphabet is M,” Jeffries said.
The M stands for the Mexican Mafia.
“That’s where the Sureno based gangs get their letter from is 13 and it means from the south, so they’ll use 13 in their graffiti, tattooing and clothing,” he added.
The Surenos’ rival gang, the Nortenos, use the number 14.
“The Nortenos use the number 14, which is the letter N of the alphabet, which stands for Nortenos and Northerners. Bloods will use the color red, Crips will use the color blue, and as time has progressed all these different gangs have come up with different little insignias they use to represent their little cliques or the sets of their gangs,” Jeffries said.
They also said communication is crucial in keeping kids out of gangs.
“What I tell the parents is be involved in your children’s lives. It’s kind of hard to be a parent, you want to be a parent and you want to be a friend, especially kids around the middle school thing, but your main goal is to be a parent, and know what your kids are doing at all times,” Jeffries said.
“Look in their rooms, what they’re wearing, search their backpacks, I mean just know what your kid is doing at all times,” he said.
While the majority of gang members are males, officers said there is a growing number of females joining gangs.
“A lot of times the females will have a cleaner record so they’ll have them drive the vehicles, they’ll have them hold onto the weapons, they’ll have them do all that other stuff,” Benner said.
For some, escaping the gang life is difficult.
“Here in Pueblo a lot of kids join gangs number one because of family. We have up to three generations of gang members now here in Pueblo,” Jeffries said.
But if they don’t get out the outlook is bleak.
“They’re either going to prison or end up dead,” Jeffries said.
CSPD now has a gang unit who works to track members and activity.
“I hate to say it’s a gang problem, it’s just a gang issue. We have a burglary issue, we have a people breaking into cars issues, we have an assault issue,” Benner said, but he added it is something they are watching. “I think we need to look at it a little bit more seriously than maybe we have in the past.”
Pueblo’s new Police Chief Luis Velez made every officer a “gang officer.”
“What that means is to gather information, gather intel on these gangsters, whether it be on the streets or in the schools or during an investigation of a homicide. It’s everybody’s responsibility to keep track of and focus on these gangsters on the streets,” Jeffries said.
“I don’t think the gang issue in Pueblo is a problem. I think it’s something we need to be concerned about and keep on top of but I don’t think it’s this out of control problem,” Jeffries said. “I think if the PD continues to focus on the way we’re going with gangs I think we can put a good hold on the issue with them.”