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Police saw writing on the wall: Gangs are here

Yolanda Rodriguez - Staff Sunday · December 26, 1999

(ATLANTA, GA) - With Hispanic gangs, metro Atlanta law enforcement officers are facing a new breed of street society.

Unlike the gangs of a generation ago, alliances and rules of behavior change quickly within the groups, said Ed Spiva, who teaches a gang course at the Georgia Police Academy in Forsyth."They used to follow rules. (Now) when one of the leaders goes to jail, the structure changes," he said.

In March, police investigators from several metro Atlanta counties formed the Georgia Gang Investigators Association to share information and educate themselves.

They've learned that with Hispanic gangs, they often find themselves navigating new cultural waters.

"With motorcycle gangs, if you are going to arrest a member, you have to approach the leader first so that you don't disrespect the gang," said Smyrna police Officer Bill Turner. "With Hispanic gangs, if you want to talk to a member, you want to talk to him alone. . . . If they are in a group, then everybody has to try to prove their manhood."

Smyrna police began tracking gangs about three years ago when they noticed graffiti going up in several neighborhoods.

The writings on the walls were advertisements for the gangs. Turner, who speaks only a smattering of Spanish, taught himself how to decipher the lettering. And he began collecting data on the gang members he ran into.

So far, most of the crimes committed by the Hispanic youths in Smyrna haven't expanded much beyond graffiti and stealing cars. But members are getting more daring.

In September at an apartment complex on Cobb Parkway, several shots were fired at three men. No one was injured. Police have issued a warrant for a member of the 18th Street gang.

In October, a 16-year-old boy police said is a member of the Sur 13 gang was shot in the chest at the Highland Apartments. Police believe the assailants were rival gang members. The teen survived the attack. No one else was injured, but several bullets whizzed through an apartment while a resident was lying in bed. No arrests have been made.

On Nov. 14, a 16-year-old girl reported to police that she was sexually assaulted by a member of the Latinos Never Stop gang.

Police have issued a warrant for the suspect, who is also 16 years old.

"The increasing amount of violence among them ... is the greatest concern," said Smyrna police Sgt. Keith Zgonc.

But police are making inroads. They visited one apartment complex so often that the managers gave officers an apartment for weeks in the summer of 1998.

Their efforts paid off: Police were invited by one of the leaders to a 15-year-old's birthday party.

"We just hung out and watched and conversed," Turner said.

Recently, he asked one of the leaders when the next party would be held.

"He said 'We're not having those anymore,' " Turner said. "They don't like coming down here any more because there are always so many police officers."