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NASHUA

City guards against gang culture's spread

'Tha Fam' faces drug charges

They call themselves ''Tha Fam." Many of the members wear the name on their forearms, etched in black ink carefully by a professional tattoo artist or more crudely by an amateur. The apparent leader of this group bears a somewhat different tattoo: "Fam 4 Life."

While allegedly dealing crack cocaine in the city for the last three years, members of Tha Fam often used various street names, such as "Macho," ''Machito," "Bebe," "L Boogie," or "Black Rob," according to a federal court affidavit. A few members came from New York City; others were recruited locally, Nashua police said.

In the underworld of drug trade in this border city, Tha Fam has emerged as the most notable group with organizational aspects resembling those of a street gang, akin to those in such cities as Lowell and Lawrence, police said. However, an investigation by local and federal law enforcement found no evidence to suggest that members of Tha Fam -- short for ''The Family" -- carried weapons or engaged in bloody turf wars, as street gangs in northern Massachusetts do.

Nevertheless, Nashua police characterize Tha Fam as a street gang, and last week, police said, they achieved a big step in trying to keep that kind of organized activity south of the state line. Five members of Tha Fam and three female associates were arrested or charged with conspiring to distribute crack cocaine in the city during the last three years. Nashua police say they hope the federal charges will effectively put Tha Fam out of business.

''We nipped it before it took off," said Nashua police Lieutenant Ron Dickerson. ''If people saw they were successful, they would have tried to emulate that."

Street gang activity in southern New Hampshire is fairly rare, despite its proximity to Lawrence and Lowell. The mere talk of gang activity can elicit laughter from many local residents. After all, with its plunging granite cliffs, acres of apple orchards, and ever-increasing number of large suburban homes, the area hardly seems to be a breeding ground for gangs.

But southern New Hampshire does have its economically challenged urban centers, particularly in Nashua and Manchester, and its share of drug abusers, who are increasingly turning to purer and cheaper forms of heroin.

So the possibility of street gangs moving their turf into the Granite State does creep into conversations, especially when discussing population growth, changing demographics, and the need to ease congestion along major throughways between New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Some residents worry that extending commuter rail service from Lowell to Nashua will import the ''wrong elements" into the city. A similar assertion surfaces in debates about widening Interstate 93 -- a project that could make for a quicker pipeline between Lawrence and Manchester, and the communities along the way.

''What happens in rural areas with low crime rates and Normal Rockwell appearances" when gang activity moves in, asked Ted Kirkpatrick, director of Justice Work, a criminal research group for law enforcement at the University of New Hampshire. ''I think for some law enforcement -- they have been concerned about gang activity from Massachusetts. . . . But I think they are being vigilant, cutting it off as quickly as they can."

Representatives from various police departments in southern New Hampshire have been crossing the border monthly into Massachusetts for regional meetings on gang activities with local law enforcement there. The meetings provide New Hampshire police the opportunity to learn from the experiences of their counterparts in northern Massachusetts so they can adopt strategies to prevent gangs from migrating northward.

Brian O'Keefe, a community police officer in Manchester, said street gangs are not a major problem in his city, but it is something that officers watch for.

''We have a lot of wannabe gangs," said O'Keefe. ''It's nothing hard-core, like the Crips and the Bloods. . . . It's nothing like Lawrence or Lowell."

The kinds of activities, he said, that local police most often observe are groups of kids wearing similar colors or professing to be part of a large national gang network, such as the Latin Kings, although checks by the police never establish a link. Other young adults might loosely organize themselves by the name of their street, such as some gangs in Boston do, and engage in purse snatching, auto thefts, and small-scale drug dealing.

''Unfortunately, kids join gangs because they have no family structure or guidance at home, and this becomes their family," O'Keefe said.

The more problematic organized groups for New Hampshire communities are motorcycle gangs, such as the Hell's Angels and the Outlaws.

But street gangs believed to have ties to national organizations have tried to make inroads into southern New Hampshire. About four years ago in Nashua, a gang from Northern Massachusetts drove its souped-up cars with fluorescent lights and hung out at the basketball courts on Ledge Street, said Marc Plamondon, a city alderman. But pressure from the police eventually forced them out.

''Gangs really haven't gotten any type of foothold in the city," said Plamondon, who started a neighborhood crime-watch group 13 years ago. ''We hope word gets out that you don't want to go to Nashua, that the police will follow you anywhere and cite you for any infraction, regardless how small, even littering. It takes a lot of resources we don't have, but we're not going to tolerate it and look the other way."

Nashua police first detected Tha Fam in their city in 2000. Although the group lacks a strict hierarchy, Angel Rosario, a 37-year-old who moved to Nashua from New York City a few years ago and is known as ''Macho," functions as the leader in many ways, according to a federal court affidavit. Rosario, who collects $525 a month in Social Security benefits due to a disability, wears a tattoo reading ''Fam 4 Life," the affidavit said.

As of Thursday, Rosario was being held in the Valley Street Jail and couldn't be reached for comment.

Other members, ranging in age between 18 and 29, wear tattoos that say ''Tha Fam," and they flash ''gang-type hand signs," according to the affidavit.

Dickerson said he couldn't recall another group in Nashua suspected of conducting illegal acts, bonding together with similar tattoos -- something that many street gangs do.

''This is one of the most organized groups," Dickerson said. ''Seeing it, we wanted to put a stop to it right away."

Over the last three years, Nashua police, working with State Police and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, gained evidence that suggests that members of Tha Fam and female associates sold small bags of crack cocaine for between $40 and $500.

The deals went down in apartments or in more public places, such as the parking lot at Chicken-n-Chips. Members, while talking about the pending deals over cellphones, sometimes referred to the bags of cocaine as ''cans of soup."

Federal grand jury indictments will be sought within 30 days, said Assistant US Attorney Joseph Laplante.

If convicted, the defendants could face prison sentences of five years to life, depending upon the quantities distributed by the individual.

''They may have left New York City to come to New Hampshire possibly thinking it's a little more laid back here, and maybe they could apply their trade easier," Dickerson. ''I hope the arrests signal that there are dedicated officers here and throughout the country."

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com

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