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The Gangs of Tucson

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Being so close to the Mexican border provides Tucson police with a unique set of problems when it comes to gang activity. Drugs coming across the border are a huge draw for gangs all around the country.

"We're like a Wal-Mart for drugs," said Officer Delia Marquez, who works in the Tucson Police Department's Gang Outreach Unit. "We have members from Phoenix, California and even Chicago coming to Tucson because the drugs are so cheap here."

From 2008 to 2010 the Tucson Police Department (TPD) has come into contact with 13,807 gang members. A number that gets inflated by multiple contacts with one person and contact with members from outside of Tucson.

In July of 2007 the Gang Outreach Unit was created by Chief Richard Miranda in order to reduce gang membership by focusing on intervention and prevention. Officers like Marquez are assigned a group of at-risk kids to mentor. The program provides activities and constant contact with the youth to ensure that they stay busy.

"We get students assigned to us by counselors or principals and we work with them for a year," said Marquez. "The goal is to just keep them busy and away from the streets. A lot of these kids come from broken homes, so gang life looks appealing in the way that they provide that family that they never had."

Along with the Gang Outreach Unit, Tucson also has a tactical unit and a detective squad committed solely to stopping gang activity. According to the 2009 Arizona Gang Threat Assessment most of the crimes attributed to gangs are assaults and aggravated assaults. The gangs also depend on drugs for most of their income.

"Drugs are definately their money maker," said Marquez. "It's also their way to have fun, their way to self-medicate. Most of the gang activity in Tucson is directly drug related."

According to the 2011 FBI National Gang Threat Assessment, gangs along the border have become increasingly active and violent in order to prove themselves to the drug cartels in Mexico. They aim to gain favor with the cartels and act as U.S.-based enforcers. 

While there are many gangs active in Tucson, most are not organized enough to pose a serious threat. There are some gangs, however, that are constantly surfacing. 

Barrio HollywoodThe Barrio Hollywood gang has proven to be the savviest and most connected gang in Tucson, followed by the Southside Posse Bloods, the Juggalos, Barrio Libre and Sur 13. These gangs focus primarily on drug sales and other crimes. 

"They get into a little bit of everything, but it mostly revolves around drugs," said Marquez. "They don't really tag that much though. A majority of taggers working in Tucson aren't even gang related. They're just taggers who made up their own sets."

The Juggalos are rather unique in that only three other states besides Arizona consider them a gang. From 2008 to 2010 the TPD has come into contact with just over 700 Juggalo members. Origianally, Juggalos were just fans of the musical group The Insane Clown Posse, but recently they started exhibiting gang-like activity by engaging in criminal activity and becoming violent. Juggalos are often linked to assaults, personal drug use and possession and other petty crimes. However, the FBI also stated that some Juggalos are forming more organized subsets and engaging in felony assaults, drug dealing, thefts and robberies. 

And while TPD continues to try and curb gang membership, other organizations have joined the effort. Organizations like the Boys and Girls Club, which provides a place for youth to go rather than spending their time on the street. They also look to provide the sense of family many of the youth attracted to gangs are looking for.

"Family is a big part of it because a lot of kids have older brothers, parents or uncles that are apart of the gangs," said Jazmine Canez, the Youth Development Specialist at the Boys and Girls Club Holmes Tuttle Clubhouse. "We try to get them involved in sports, dance, cooking or basically anything to keep them off the streets."

Often the Boys and Girls Club will strategically place clubhouses in neighborhoods with lots of at-risk youth. The Holmes Tuttle Clubhouse is located on 2585 E. 36th St. And while Canez says  that gang activity isn't as prominent as it used to be, it is still an issue. According to Canez, sometimes kids will come in "flamed out", or wearing gang colors.

"We ask them to either put a jacket on, turn their shirt inside out or to go home and change," she said. "But a lot of the time we don't have a problem."

One thing making gang prevention easier for TPD and the Boys and Girls Club is that most of the gangs in Tucson are not "blood in, blood out." This means that they don't require members to kill to get in, and that they can leave without the threat of death. 

"This isn't to say that once you become a member, they won't ask you to put in work," said Marquez. "But it does make it easier to convince kids that they don't need to be a part of the gang. They don't have to worry about being killed just because they left. Especially if they're young, they have a chance to continue their life."

Those people who don't leave and are caught face a whole different set of challenges. But even after they are arrested, there are ways to divert youth from gangs. Many first time offenders are given the chance to enter a diversion program.

Southwest Intervention Services (SIS) is one of these programs. In domestic violence and other criminal cases, they offer a way to get the charges dismissed without a criminal conviction. Entering the program however, means that the person must follow the strict rules they enforce. For example, defendants are subject to blood, urine and breath testing. Defendants can't quit the program without permission, and they must also follow no-contact orders.

"This is a way for these kids to pay their debt to society without having a criminal conviction on their record," said Nathan Medina of SIS. "It gives them a chance to avoid gang life. It might be the only real chance they get at bypassing that route."

While gang problems will continue to be an issue in Tucson, there are many programs in place in order to fight that problem.

"We're going to keep doing what we can to get gang membership down," said Marquez. "It might take a while but we're already seeing some results after only a couple years of doing this. It's working."

On to the next story in the series, Tucson Tagging.

On to the last story in the series, On the Front Line.


Written by Matt Lechuga You are reading The Gangs of Tucson articles

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