With 20 major gangs operating within its borders, Lynn is emerging as the gang capital of the northern suburbs, according to local law enforcement, with police identifying at least 1,600 gang members in the city -- up from 1,300 four years ago.
While there are pockets of gangs in Chelsea, Revere, Everett, Salem, and Peabody, Lynn has become the center of gang activity, according to police and prosecutors, with the growth in gang membership and overall numbers outstripping its neighbors.
"It's a problem that's becoming a bigger issue all of the time," said Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett, who has made gang prosecution a priority, and has assigned three full-time assistant district attorneys in Essex County to work on gang cases.
Last week, President Bush and Massachusetts legislators called for increased aid and programs to combat the spread of gangs. In his State of the Union address, Bush unveiled a three-year, $150 million program to fund faith-based organizations that offer mentoring to the approximately 750,000 gang members identified nationwide by the US Department of Justice.
In Massachusetts, state lawmakers have issued a report calling for stronger prosecution and targeted policing of gang members. State Senator Jarrett Barrios, who represents parts of Chelsea, Everett, Revere, and Saugus, has proposed legislation that would create a witness protection program and more partnerships between law enforcement agencies and anti-violence organizations.
"If you don't feel safe walking down your street, and if you don't feel your child is safe to go to the park in the neighborhood, then you're a prisoner in your own home," Barrios said. "This is the case in many towns across Massachusetts."
Blodgett, whose office prosecuted 54 Lynn gang members in 2004, welcomed the legislators' report. Blodgett called the witness protection portion of the legislation a "great step to keep victims safe so they're not intimidated by trial."
Lynn's gangs began in the city in the early 1990s, according to Bob Hogan, Lynn police gang unit detective, and continue to grow, enlisting boys and girls as young as 10. Several gangs were started by members who had moved from California and Illinois, Hogan said, bringing nationally known sects such as the Crips, Bloods, and the Latin Kings. Other Lynn gangs now include MS 13, the Avenue King Crips, and the Deuce Boyz,Lynn's largest gang with more than 200 members.
Both male and female gangs have spread throughout the city, Hogan said, and nearly all include white, black, Asian, and Hispanic members. According to Hogan, the lure of a surrogate family, which promises respect, money, and protection, attracts boys and girls from the ages of 10 to 18 into gangs.
The gangs are loosely structured as criminal enterprises, with members earning money by stealing cars, selling drugs, and committing armed robberies, Hogan said. Last year, he said, 253 gang members or associates were arrested in Lynn, up from 230 gang-related arrests in 2003. While there were no murders, Hogan said violence is the common thread among the gangs, with members fighting rival "sets" or "cliques," with knives, guns, and anything they can grab off the street that will serve as a weapon.
Gangs are identified by colors -- the Crips wear blue; the Bloods red; the Deuce Boyz black. Bandanas are worn in back pockets; tattoos display affiliations. Crips often identify themselves with a triangular tattoo on their left hand, representing their credo of "My Crip Life," or "My Crazy Life." Several gangs sport a happy-and-sad face tattoo, which represents the motto "Laugh now, cry later."
Prospective members are individually "jumped in" by older members in a ceremonial brawl that can last as long as one minute, according to police. Many gangs meet monthly. Members who do not attend are subject to a "violation," according to Jonathan Bruno, a member of the Avenue King Crips. Females can also be "jumped in" or can be "sexed in" -- having consensual sex with several gang members, according to police.
"That's part of keeping a gang, a set, together," said Bruno, who is 19 and homeless. Members who receive a violation must stand against a wall, said Bruno, and receive two punches to the ribs or to the chest. Bruno compared it with children who are punished by teachers. "It's like standing in the corner when you do something wrong," he said.
Lynn police officer Mark Smith, who works inside the Thurgood Marshall Middle School, estimates that at least 120 of the students there are affiliated with gangs. With more than 900 students, Smith said the school is a fertile recruiting ground.
"I think it's probably the biggest problem we're facing," said Smith, who is one of eight Lynn police officers working in the middle and high schools. "I think it's pretty bad. You have thousands of kids influenced by gangs, they get in fights with them, get bullied by them, and intimidated by them."
He said between eight and 12 gangs operate within the school.
"The way it works on the street is the tough person gets the respect, and that transcends into the school, and these kids are impressionable and they're looking for something," Smith said.
Police say it's not uncommon for older gang members to assign younger youths responsibilities such as holding weapons or dealing drugs.
"The gangs in this city are more and more turning toward selling drugs to make a buck, and they don't have a problem with sending a middle school kid into the school with five bags of weed. The earlier they can get these kids into selling drugs in the schools, and fighting, the stronger the influence they have over the kids," said Smith.
Tony So believes the gangs have drifted away from their original mission of providing protection to young people who were tired of being attacked. So, who is 28, came to America from Cambodia 25 years ago and was one of the five founders of the Deuce Boyz back in 1991.
"We got sick and tired of getting jumped every day, and we started our own group," said So, who left the gang seven years ago after serving time in the Middleton House of Correction for stabbing a rival gang member with a machete. So said he does not miss the regular gang fights or the occasional joy ride that came from stealing a car.
"I left my gang because when I was in jail no one was there for me. We were supposed to be a family," said So, who is now married and a father. He has worked for several years as a roofer. "I started to realize that these are not my real friends."
Jay Fraher, the assistant chief probation officer for the Essex County Juvenile Court, says he is now dealing with at least 100 juveniles who are affiliated with Lynn gangs.
"Our job is to keep them out of jail," he said. Fraher, along with Department of Youth Services workers, ride along with Lynn police to make sure youths keep their terms of probation. He also visits schools to make sure young people are going to classes and tries to help them find work.
Police, law enforcement officials, and social workers say there is no single answer to ending street gangs.
Sharing intelligence, say law enforcement officials, is one of the best ways to fight gangs. Gang forces from several police departments north of Boston, including Chelsea and Lynn, meet monthly in Boston to trade information on known members and criminal activity.
ROCA, a social service organization based in Chelsea, offers ESL, GED, literacy, and employment-finding classes to gang members at North Shore Community College and provides two caseworkers who focus on gang members. Building relationships, says ROCA worker Anisha Chablani, is one of the ways the caseworkers find common ground and gain the confidence of gang members.
Tony So, the former Deuce Boyz member, believes no amount of counseling can force a gang member to leave if they're entrenched in gang culture. He says the decision to build a new life, and leave a gang, must come from within.
"Half of the kids will go to jail, and half of the kids will become good," he predicted. "That's how it will be."
Steven Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com.