CHARLOTTE, NC - For two years we've reported what police and FBI agents adamantly say: Hispanic gangs are moving from California to Charlotte. This fact is highlighted in the 2008 "Attorney General's Report to Congress on the Growth of Violent Street Gangs in Suburban Areas." We obtained a copy of the 41-page report. It specifically lists Charlotte-Mecklenburg as a place where Hispanic gangs are heading in increasing numbers.
The Attorney General writes, "Gangs in the Charlotte-area have become more criminally active and have expanded their connections with other organized crime entities, including major drug trafficking organizations."
We sent Anchor Molly Grantham to Los Angeles to investigate why they're moving here, and what proactive moves Charlotte can make to deal with the gangs, crime and drugs heading our way.
You'd consider it a perfect Carolina blue sky over our heads, but surrounding palm trees give away the fact we're no longer in the Carolinas. Retired L.A. County Sergeant Richard Valdemar is sitting in front of me. We're at a cement picnic table in MacArthur Park, a place near downtown Los Angeles known for MS-13.
"When I say ‘Charlotte, North Carolina'," I ask him, "What do you think?"
Valdemar worked with L.A. County Sheriff's Department for 30-plus years. He helped set up its Gang Intelligence Unit. He now goes around the country speaking about gangs, testifies at gang trials and considers himself a gang consultant. He responds quickly.
"They're one of the cities being invaded by the Sureno Army."
"Surenos" - (which means "south" or "southsiders") - are Hispanic gang members who align themselves with southern California's Mexican Mafia. MS-13 is one of the largest Sureno gangs.
According to Valdemar, MS-13 started in Los Angeles and then moved to Central America, not the other way around. He says immigrants came into southern California and got infected with the "gang cancer". When they'd go back to El Salvador, they'd carry that "cancer" with them.
"But it started here," he says. "This is the birthplace of MS-13. Right here. It's not of the El Salvadorian culture. It is of the American culture."
Valdemar lists five main reasons as to why MS-13 is moving to Charlotte. One is turf. California is so over-run with gangs, real estate is hard to come by.
"Sometimes one corner can be in dispute with five or six different groups," he says. "It's easier to move eastward and set up shop in a less-intensive gang area."
"One street corner is shared by multiple gangs?" I ask. "That's hard to believe."
"Yes," he nods. "And it eventually becomes hard to balance. Let's say a particular street corner where drugs are sold is occupied by one gang in the morning, another in the late afternoon and another in the late evening. So you have shifts operating on the same street corner selling drugs. Yet, they're from different gangs. Eventually that will run into conflict because of a struggle over power and money and turf, so they would rather move to an area that is not such in high density of gang activity."
Valdemar says the second reason they're moving here is that we'll pay more for drugs.
"The drug trade is a financially a good move," says Valdemar. "The drugs can be purchased cheaply on the west coast, and then marked up as they move further east. They're tripling and even quadrupling their profit."
"So you can sell crack for more in Charlotte then you can in Los Angeles?"
"Yes," says Valdemar.
"And that's why they're moving?"
"It's one of the reasons," he answers.
A third reason he says is illegal immigration, and the availability of labor-intensive jobs for migrant workers.
"MS-13 will follow the Hispanic community wherever it goes," he says. "The person you hire that's illegal doesn't look like a gang member to you. So you hire him. But then he brings along his cousin, his in-laws and then his children. And those people may have gang backgrounds. Plus, Charlotte is very unusual right now because you guys are growing. If there's construction in Charlotte, that's where they're going."
This is where he pauses, as if he's a bit unsure whether to go out on the next limb. "The other place they're going is where Hurricane Katrina hit. Because there is construction going on there, these people can find jobs there. So you're going to find... I predict... I predict you're going to find... an influx of active MS-13 in Katrina-hit areas."
Valdemar says the fourth reason they're moving to Charlotte is basic geography. After southern California gang members are deported back to El Salvador, they are closer to the east coast. It's easier to sneak back into America and come to our area, he says, then travel the whole way back out west.
"Washington D.C. is the first place we saw them re-establish after leaving El Salvador," he says. "D.C. and the Virginia-area. Then they eventually spread to Atlanta and Charlotte and other communities on the east coast. Now they're even moving to the central part of the United States."
The fifth reason Valdemar says gangs settle in cities has to do with the police department.
This is where he turns the tables and starts questioning me. "Are your police prepared to figure out who and where the gangs are?"
"We've got a gang intelligence unit with a solid Gangnet database," I say.
"But are they active?" he asks. "Your police have to be active in fighting gangs. Gangs will see how educated the gang unit is in law enforcement. If they're not properly educated, gang members will be more likely to settle."
"Charlotte-Mecklenburg's gang unit seems active," I reply, "but it's small. We have a new police chief who just doubled it, but up until two months ago, it only had nine officers. Nine officers out of about 1600 in the department."
"If you have a small gang unit," says Valdemar, "you're trying to address the issue, but you're running from fire to fire. That's not an efficient way to put out this problem."
"Problem" is a massively understated way to describe gangs in Los Angeles. Valdemar says they get between 550 and 600 gang murders every year. He says Hispanic gangs do the greatest proportion of those murders. Not Crips. Not Bloods. Hispanic gang members. It has been that way as long as he can remember.
"Most of the attention in Los Angeles is paid to the Crips and the Bloods," he says. "The real problem has been and seems to always be, the Hispanic gang members. But it's just like the immigration problem. It's one of those things politicians are loathe to talk about. And the community seems to protect these very gang members which victimize them."
That word - "victimize" - is one I hear often when talking with law enforcement in Los Angeles. Especially the next night.
Producer/Photographer Jeff Keene and I meet up early with L.A. County Gang Detectives Adan Torres and Gus Carrillo. We're riding along with them as they patrol Florence and Holmes Avenues in the south central part of the city. I ask how they think gang members "victimize" the people who live in the 3.6 square miles they enforce.
"How do they victimize?" asks Torres. "There are no rules. There are no boundaries. There is no respect. Gang members don't respect their parents, how are they going to respect me? How are they going to respect their neighbors? They just want to victimize those around them."
"In fact," adds Carrillo, "that's what motivates me. 99-percent of the people who live in this community are hard-working people who want to be left alone, but they're victimized by that small percentage of gang members who prey on them."
"Almost 99-percent," corrects Torres. "Latest numbers actually show seven percent of the population is committing ninety percent of the crime."
These guys are partners. Half the week they work the Florencia-13 gang. Two other gang detectives are assigned when they're not on. Torres and Carrillo say they know their beat. They know exactly who should - and shouldn't - be in their neighborhood.
"When a case comes across our desk sometimes, we can pretty much tell or figure out who's involved because we've spent five hours or six hours out in the field with them," says Carrillo.
It is now time for us to go out in the field. This means putting on a flak jacket and getting in an unmarked car.
What we see driving around with these two veterans, is what Charlotte doesn't want to become. We don't want to be a city where gang detectives frisk random gang members they see walking down the street.
It happens so fast.
We're in the car talking, in mid-sentence, when Carrillo suddenly pulls over to the side. Torres is somehow already out on the street, getting some guy to put his hands up. The guy has a "God bless the dead" tattoo on his arm. He tells Torres his name is "Martinez".
"But you go by Slim, right?" asks Carrillo, who is by now beside them.
"Yeah," he answers.
"Slim", it turns out, is a 29-year-old Florencia-13 member who just got out of jail in May. The detectives quiz him, search him (when his shirt is lifted you see his chest covered in "F-13" tattoos) and fill out an identification card which will later be filed into a computer system. "Slim" declines an interview - "No ma'am," he tells me - and walks away.
"We recognized him as one of the local gang members," Carrillo says as we watch him walk. "This was good because we just made sure he's up on all his current parole violations. We knew one of his conditions was he could be stopped and talked with by police at anytime."
As we get back in the car Carrillo lets me know that even though the street seems relatively empty, lots of eyes are watching.
"Right now we're being looked at," he says. "Probably two or three gang members looking at us at all times. They're constantly looking because they're worried. They're just always watching each other. They'll stop ‘Slim' in a few minutes... they'll call and ask him, ‘Why did they stop you? What did they say? Why is that.. why is that white chick with them? What is she saying? Why is that camera guy filming you?' They're constantly being asked."
It is not a comfortable feeling to hear we're surrounded, and outnumbered.
"He was actually polite," I say.
"Oh yeah," he says. "They know we're the gang unit so they treat us a little different."
As we drive I can't help but notice these gang-run homes don't look so bad. Torres tells me this used to be a nice, middle-class area that is now scarred by the graffiti of violence.
Then, just like last time, we're driving along smoothly when Carrillo rips the car to the side. Torres is out before it's in park. Two kids had just ridden by us on one bike - Torres now has one of the guys at the back of the car with his hands behind his head. By the time we're out, the other guy is in the same position on the front of the car.
"Calm down," Carrillo is telling the older kid up front. "Calm down."
They're brothers. Carrillo and Torres pull them because they are violating a bike-riding law; one guy on the handlebars. This gives the detectives cause to search.
Carrillo pulls an almost-gone joint behind the ear of the boy up front. He also finds a fake one hundred dollar bill in his wallet. Carrillo recognizes him. Says he goes by the name "Blackie".
"Is this real?" Carrillo asks, taking the hundred out.
"Huh?" Blackie looks him in the eye.
"Is this real?" Carrillo asks a little louder.
"Nah, I took it from work." Blackie mumbles.
"Counterfeit. A counterfeit one hundred dollar bill?..."
The boy laughs.
"...Yeah, laugh all you want," Carrillo says. "That's a serious offense. You know what that is, right? That's a federal offense."
Blackie suddenly gets silent. "Yes sir," he says. "I know."
The quiet change is amazing. I realize there is some level of law gang members fear.
Blackie says he'll answer my questions. I first ask about his one visible tattoo. He says it's in honor of his older brother who was shot and killed in 2003.
"He was shot in an alley," he says. "He died with one shot."
He admits to being a part of F-13, but says his younger brother - the one standing at the back of the car with Torres - is not a member. I ask Blackie why he joined.
"People make mistakes, and you know I chose the wrong path, but I take care of my business, you know." He looks me in the eye. He sounds incredibly cocky. "I take care of my family and that's what matters."
"Are you making money being in the gang?" I ask.
"Then how is it helping you take care of your business and family?"
"Well, I mean, like, I said..." he stumbles for words. "...Like I said, when I was young, you know, I made mistakes, but, but I got to work the jig, you know."
"Got a real job?"
"What do you do?"
"How old are you?"
Wow, I think. He's not really a kid. "When did you get in?"
"When I was, like, 12."
"How did you get in?"
He pauses and looks away. "I'm cool already, man." He won't answer.
"Answer this then for me," I say. "You ever commit a crime?"
"Yeah," he says. He's eye-to-eye again. "I committed a couple minor crimes, you know. Riding a bike with no helmet. That's about it."
"The only crime you've ever committed is riding a bike with no helmet?" He knows I don't believe him. He could care less.
"Yeah," he says, "You know. Like little tickets. Fix-up tickets. That's about it."
Only, that's not about it. When we ask when he was last arrested, he says in 2004 on a domestic violence charge. When we ask where he got the scar on his head, he says from being shot in a drive-by over the summer. He says he spent two weeks in the hospital, part of it in a coma.
That's when Torres cuts him off. "You guys know who did it? Who shot you?"
"Nah." The 23-year old's head is back down. He clearly knows and is even more clearly not going to say.
Before we leave, I ask Blackie if he would get out of F-13 if he could.
"I don't regret what I did." He back to looking straight on. "I said, you know, it's like, it's just my path."
"So you're proud of it?"
"Right." He pauses.
"Do you want your younger brother to be in a gang?"
"No." He sounds semi-convincing. "He's going to school and everything and getting good grades. But sometimes he gets a little bored when we be out here, so that's when I got to snatch him up."
With that, Torres and Carrillo give these brothers a pass on the bike violation, the weed and the counterfeit bill. They tell them to stay out of trouble. The younger brother actually waves as they ride off. Two weeks later Carrillo sends me an email: Blackie was picked up with a loaded gun. No break on this one. He'll be in jail, Carrillo writes, "for a very long time."
This is where you stop and scratch your head.
This is where it hits you: you could ride-along with Carrillo and Torres for any five hour section on any random weeknight, and it'd all be the same. This is where you figure out it doesn't matter that an hour later, they find a 15-year-old gangbanger with a loaded gun standing with 5-and-6-year-olds at an ice-cream truck. This is the point you start to feel numb, truly numb, when you hear the mother of that gun-toting teen say, "Arrest him. Take him. I don't want him. I can't control him. I don't want him."
This is where you realize L.A.'s unstoppable gangs can be Charlotte's big lesson.
"Get ahead of the curve," Valdemar says to me as we walk through MacArthur Park, looking at elaborate graffiti. "People always talk about being proactive, but I don't usually see the budget or manpower or attention given to being proactive. That only comes after some poor six-year-old kid gets shot. Then we see activity. But get out there with a gang unit now. Find out what you already have."
"They're trying to document it," I tell him for a second time. "A new police Chief is putting officers towards it. But that's just one thing. What do you think really needs to happen?"
"The community has to get behind it," he says quickly. "The police can't do anything unless the community is supporting them. It's the community who calls up and says, ‘So-and-so is hanging around this park' and ‘These gang members accosted me while I was shopping'. If the people who live in Charlotte deny this problem, there's no way to work against it."
"What are the first visible signs we'll see in Charlotte?"
"We already have that," I say. "Nothing like this..." I refer to an entire tunnel we just crossed through covered with spray paint of MS-13 and Wanderers-13. "It's not this bad, but we definitely have it."
"People will get killed over crossing out this kind of stuff," Valdemar says, studying one area with words crossed out, re-sprayed then crossed out again. He looks back at me. "But after graffiti, you get the takeover of local parks. Then malls, or hangout spots. And schools. Yes, yes, yes..." he shakes his head. "...schools. Schools are one of the first places they'll be felt."
"So we would need to have the school system definitely on board with police in acknowledging a problem?"
"No doubt about it," he says. "One of the first things we did when we had our gang unit in L.A., is at 3:00 o'clock, we stopped all activity. Didn't matter what we were doing. We stopped and frequented and patrolled around the schools."
At the end of our interview I thank Valdemar for his time, and ask one final question. Almost as an afterthought.
"If you had to put everything we talked about today in one main message, what would you say?"
Little did I know how powerful his final words would be.
"Charlotte, you need to wake up. If your kids are really important to you, if the lives of your young people mean something to you, you don't wait until they're dead. Get involved now. As a parent, as a boy scout, coach or through your church. You all need to get involved right now before you have the problem L.A. turned into."
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