Ride around the streets of Salisbury, a historic North Carolina town about halfway between Charlotte and Greensboro in the rolling hills of the Piedmont, and you will see some graffiti that looks way out of place.
Gangs in this small Southern city some 2,500 miles from South Central Los Angeles and 500 miles from Brooklyn have splattered once pristine walls with messages pledging their allegiance to the Eight Trey Gangster Crips of L.A. and the Nine Trey Gangsters of New York City's United Blood Nation.
Salisbury Police Department gang investigator Det. Todd Sides says the local thugs that claim affiliation with big city street gangs probably have a very tenuous connection back to those gangs and they aren't involved in red vs. blue warfare. "Here the violence is between the guys on the east side of town vs. the guys on the west side of town, not Crips vs. Bloods," Sides says as he points out the letters "ESP" for "East Side Pride" sprayed on a stop sign.
Regardless of the reason for the beefs between local gangs, they are no less deadly than any other gang battles. "We had never had a juvenile kill another juvenile in this city, until last year," Sides says.
That incident last May shook the city.
A party resulted in a gang fight between crews representing the east side vs. crews representing the west side, and a 13-year-old girl named Treasure Feamster had the misfortune of being the innocent bystander. Feamster was killed by a stray round.
Salisbury is not alone in its pain. Small towns all over America, far from the mean streets of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, are now being plagued by gangs.
How places like Salisbury, Rogers, Ark., Hazleton, Pa., Iowa farm communities, and thousands of other communities, towns, suburbs, and small cities became gang turf is a complex story of money trails, family relationships, American and international migration patterns, and cultural influences. But it can be easily boiled down to some basic root causes.
There's money to be made in small towns. Gangs are all about money. So if a town doesn't have a drug distribution network, a gang will step in and provide one.
Ironically, one of the reasons why a town sometimes has an opening for a gang to establish a drug distribution network is that law enforcement has been doing its job.
Det. Tony Verna of the Lebanon (Pa.) Police Department believes this phenomenon played a role in giving gangs a leg up in the local drug market. "Some of the people who were established before, we were lucky enough to build a case against them and they are now serving some time. So that freed up things for the gang members."
In most cases, gangs discover these markets purely by chance. A member will move to a small town and discover that there's money to be made and then cut a deal with his homies back in the city. The profit margin is especially high for L.A. gangs who sell drugs in the East because drugs are so much cheaper in Los Angeles.
"It's not like the whole gang has to move to North Carolina," explains retired Los Angeles Sheriff's Department gang investigator Richard Valdemar. "One member of the gang goes to, say, Charlotte and calls his homies and tells them how much money he can make for them if they send him some drugs. That entrenches the gang in another city."
Once the gang infests that new city, its tentacles are also likely to reach out to suburbs and surrounding rural areas. For example, Sides says that one of the more active former L.A.-based gang members in his jurisdiction came to Salisbury via the much larger North Carolina city of Greensboro.
Most gang investigators say that it's rare for a gang in a big city to actually plan to take over the gang trade in a smaller city or town. Still, it can happen.
Valdemar says he helped investigate a 2003 case in which the Mexican Mafia plotted to seize the drug market of Oklahoma City. "A crew of eight guys was sent there by the Mexican Mafia, and they took over the Oklahoma City drug market, brought all the local dealers under their control, and indoctrinated them as Sureños (gang members loyal to the Mexican Mafia)."
Obviously, Oklahoma City is not a small town. But Valdemar says he wouldn't be surprised if the Mexican Mafia and other powerful prison gangs were behind some of the spread of gangs into smaller cities and even towns.
And there is some evidence that he may be right. Sides says that last year one of the workers laboring on a hospital expansion project in Salisbury tagged the roof with "Sur 13." (The number 13 is gang code for Mexican Mafia.) Also, officers in Rogers, Ark., have discovered that local Sureño gangs are in contact with veteran Sureños in Los Angeles via MySpace.
Leaving the Homies
Despite suspicions that some gangsters move to small towns on the orders of prison gangs or big city shotcallers, the truth is that most move out of the city for two reasons: heat from police and rival gangs and pressure from parents.
"They are really being hit in the big cities [by police crackdowns] so they see smaller towns as places they can operate with less interference," says Steve Edmunds, a gang specialist with the Iowa Department of Corrections.
The other reason gang members are moving into "Mayberry" is that Mom and Dad think that getting them out of the city will get them out of the gang. It's a good theory.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Valdemar says he has seen every ethnic group try this desperate solution, and it usually results in Junior establishing his big city gang on the streets of his new town.
Officer Jon Smith of the Rogers (Ark.) Police Department agrees. "It's sad because the families actually have good intent," he says. "But the kid is already indoctrinated in gang life."
Another problem that arises when a gang member moves from the big city into a small town is that he can live large on his reputation, or at least the reputation of his gang. This is particularly true if he is from California.
Rogers PD gang investigator Cpl. Craig Renfroe says that California gang members moving into his jurisdiction gain instant status. "He may be a little fish in a really big pond in California, but when he comes here, he's a big fish."
Rogers is a town of 50,000 in the northwest corner of Arkansas, and it has benefited greatly from Wal-Mart's national headquarters in nearby Bentonville and Tyson Foods in neighboring Springdale. Laborers have flocked to the area to work in construction and in the food plants, many of them Hispanic people—legal and illegal—from California.
About five years ago the city started to have a problem with street gangs. "We now have three gangs with ties to Sureños," says Officer Smith.
Smith believes the gangs were not imported from California so much as the gang culture itself. "A lot of the gangs we have here were started locally," he explains. "But they were started by kids whose brothers, parents, and uncles were in gangs in California."