10/30/06 — Gang markings show up more and more in region

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Gang markings show up more and more in region

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 30, 2006 1:45 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The sloppy graffiti tagged all over abandoned buildings, isolated barns, bridge sidings, street signs and in alleyways throughout Duplin County doesn't mean much to most people.

But gang members and Detective Eric Southerland notice it all -- all the spider webs, the numeral 13s, the curse words and the other cryptic symbols.

"There is no mistaking the fact that gangs are now, and have been in Duplin County for some time. One of the first indicators of gang activity is the appearance of graffiti in an area and we have a variety of gangs in Duplin County," said Southerland, a detective with the Duplin County Sheriff's Department. "Gangs mark their territory like a dog does. It means something to the gang members themselves and it means something to members of rival gangs. It's a challenge to rival gang members."

To date, Southerland and the sheriff's department have confirmed the presence of six gangs in Duplin County -- MS-13, Sur-13, the Spiders, the 18th Street Mexicans and the Bloods and the Crips.

"Those are just the gangs we have positively identified. We suspect there may be more out there," he said. "The majority of these gangs are going to have a specific ethnic group, but all of them are interracial, male and female."

Generally, though, MS-13, Sur-13, the Spiders and the 18th Street Mexicans are all Hispanic gangs. The Bloods and the Crips are historically black gangs.

They all, however, have been imported.

"Most all of these gangs originated out of California, in the Los Angeles area, and migrated across the United States," Southerland said. "They're all over now."

In recent years, as pressure has increased against them in their traditional urban centers, gangs have begun to move their activity to small towns and rural areas like Duplin County.

And though gang violence in such areas might not be as high-profile or as visible as it is in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Durham, crime is increasing.

In Duplin County, drug trafficking, home invasions and armed robberies have all been on the rise in recent years.

In June, the town of Wallace was the scene of a high-profile shooting and murder in broad daylight across from McDonalds. That incident resulted in the arrest of a number of MS-13 members, several of whom had come in from out-of-state and were later extradited to Maryland on unrelated murder charges.

But unlike in the urban centers, there are no areas of Duplin County where the gangs have completely taken over.

"Most of these individuals are working jobs during the day, and during the nights and weekends, they're out doing their gang thing," Southerland said. "But gang members don't hang out in the alleyways like in movies and large cities. We're not at that level yet anywhere in the county.

"There are areas in each town and in the county where I wouldn't want my wife or child to go because of drugs and gangs, but we don't really have an area or neighborhood that the gangs are ruling."

But each gang does have its specific turf.

The Hispanic gangs -- MS-13, Sur-13, the Spiders and the 18th Street Mexicans -- can typically be found between Warsaw and Magnolia, while the Bloods and the Crips are predominantly in the Beulaville area.

One of the most heavily targeted neighborhoods is the Hidden Valley Plantation mobile home park on Beasley's Mill Road between Warsaw and Magnolia.

There, the school bus stop has been tagged time and time again and gang members often can be found trying to recruit children as they come home from school.

"The schools are where the gangs operate. That's where they recruit from the heaviest," Southerland said.

But it's not an indictment of the mobile home park that the gang presence has appeared there.

"You've got a lot of good, honest, hardworking families who live in the mobile home park, but you've also got a lot of gang members who come here. They're kind of claiming it, if you will," he said.

And while the people living there aren't necessarily afraid for their lives, they are worried about their children.

"You've got a lot of kids who live out here and that's who they recruit," Southerland said. "The people here are tired of it."

But because of language and cultural barriers in the mostly Hispanic community, law enforcement often has a hard time combating the problem.

"We currently don't have anybody at the sheriff's office that speaks fluent enough Spanish. We're working to get the resources we can to assist us, but it boils down to the money," Southerland said.

But because of that lack of resources and manpower, driving the gangs out of Duplin County will largely fall on the shoulders of the communities.

"When you look at gangs it's not just a law enforcement problem, it's a community problem," he said. "We're not here saying we're going to be able to eliminate gangs, but the goal is to make it as uncomfortable as possible for them to operate in your area. Every time they show up in your area, call law enforcement. You can do it anonymously, but they know and understand it's coming from the people.

"If we can't get some sort of handle on it now, then this is what we have to look forward to. It's not going to get any better if people pretend nothing's happening.

"If you look historically, places where people pretended not to see and were scared, that's where they've taken over. Places where people have stood up and banded against it, the gangs have backed off."

One of the keys, he said, is keeping neighborhoods clean and not allowing the gangs' graffiti to remain.

A perfect example is a building at the intersection of Carlton Chapel Church Road and Buckhall Creek Road.

"He (the owner) has probably had to paint over it three or four different times, but it hasn't been retagged in the last three or four months," Southerland said. "They're going to test you and try your patience, but eventually they'll move on.

"Gangs are big on respect. You have to be diligent and send the message back to the gangs and let them know this is our turf."