Gangs in Athens
By Joe Johnson email@example.com
Retaliatory shootings. Cryptic graffiti. Secret handshakes. Those are among the hallmarks of the modern urban gang, and gang evidence abounds in parts of Athens. Staff reporter Joe Johnson spent three months immersed in the local gang culture to produce a series of nine stories examining what's happening here and why.Signs of a ProblemThe writing is on the wall: Seeming to mock the party line that Athens-Clarke County doesn't have a gang problem is a street gang's "tag," spray-painted some 6 feet high on a wall directly across the street from the Clarke Central High School faculty parking lot.Young Hispanics vulnerableIt's hard enough trying to start a new life in a new country, but many Mexican immigrants newly arrived to Athens have the added burden of trying to keep their children out of gangs.'P-wood' and 'The Duplex'When the New Life Baptist ministry was trying to establish a presence in Pinewood Estates North five years ago, gang members repeatedly broke into the chapel, vandalizing it and tagging the walls with their gang's name, Sur 13.A directory of local street gangsDuring a three-month investigation the Banner-Herald was able to identify the several named gangs.Their side of town - an identity that bindsWhen one of his friends was cut down in a hail of bullets last March, the teen calling himself Taliban Soldier knew there was only one thing to do: He and his fellow west-siders got their guns and went looking for payback. ''If someone is giving you a hard time, your people from the 'hood are going to represent you 100 percent,'' explained the teen, who lives at Jack R. Wells Homes, a public housing complex ensconced in the heart of Athens' west side.Gainesville takes gangs to taskCruising along Atlanta Highway one recent evening, Joe Amerling brings his SUV to a stop and points at the Red Barn pool hall on the other side of the street. "That's where four Mexicans with the BSV were shot by the BSL and MS 13," Amerling said. "One of them died."Violence hits home for family"Mario - Siempre estaras en nuestros corazones." That message - "Mario, you will always be in our hearts" - is tacked to the wall above the tub in Olga Hernandez's bathroom. It is signed by many of the friends left behind by her son, an Athens resident killed at the age of 17 in a gang-related drive-by shooting last year at a birthday party in Gainesville.Resisting gangsThey don't have to step over the painted outline of a dead body any more, but children going for help at an after-school homework program must still walk by the memorial of flowers marking the spot where two men were gunned down last summer. The crime scene is next door to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens' Garnett Ridge unit, which provides an after-school program and other services to the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of rental duplex homes in northwest Athens. Some taking actionMarco Silva once belonged to the Latin Kings, one of the nation's most violent street gangs, but now he's a cop.Club a refuge from the streetIt's 11:30 a.m. on a school day, and here and there in the Jack R. Wells Homes public housing complex youths are gathered in groups of twos and threes and fours, casting wary eyes at passing cars. Down the street from one such group is a building set apart from the other drab brown duplexes by the blue and white trim on its front, and sign stenciled on the door identifying it as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Athens' Jack R. Wells unit. Ex-A-C officer saw writing on the wallGang graffiti was becoming such a problem in Athens several years ago that Jean Horton took up a new hobby - photographing the gangster's "tags." Since then, the hobby has become more of a second vocation for Horton, a Georgia probation officer who believes gangs are firmly entrenched in Athens-Clarke County, and that the graffiti is not just the work of ''wannabes,'' or youngsters mimicking gang behavior.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on December 14, 15, & 16, 2003.