370: Documented number of gang members in Hall County in 2008, a 44 percent decrease from 2006
5: Number of gangs documented in Hall County (SUR-13, MVS, La Onda-05, BOE-23 and PLC)
11: Number of times the Georgia Street Gang Terrorism Act has been used to charge criminal suspects in 2008
89: Percentage of gang members in Hall County who are Hispanic
7: Number of confirmed gang-related fatalities in Hall County since 1994
20: Number of years in prison being served by suspected BOE-23 leader Charles Douglas Graham
Sources: Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force, Times research
Juan “Baby P-Nut” Gomez said he wanted to get out of gang life, but he didn’t do it soon enough.
The youngest of four siblings, 16-year-old Juan looked up to his brother, Roberto “Big P-Nut” Gomez, a member of the La Onda street gang who served jail time last year for a gang-related group beating. Their mother struggled to move her children out of a Gainesville apartment complex because she disapproved of the people who hung around her sons, according to his older sister, 24-year-old Martha Garcia.
Garcia said she warned her baby brother about gang life, pointing out the trouble Roberto had found.
I said ‘look how he is,’” Garcia recalled this week. “If you want to end up like that, that’s your problem.”
Baby P-Nut expressed to some that he didn’t want to end up like his brother. In an application to the Georgia Youth Challenge Academy, he wrote of leaving gangs behind.
“I am tired of being out on the streets and getting into trouble with police,” he wrote. “I want to change and get out of gang life. When it comes to the point in life where I have a family, I don’t want them to see me as a low-life gangster.”
Juan Gomez’ family will never know if those words were sincere. A day after writing the letter, he was shot to death in a gang confrontation at the entrance to an East Hall subdivision.
“I never thought it would go to this limit,” his sister said.
Latino street gangs maintain a presence in Hall County, though their memberships appear to have dwindled in recent years, authorities say. Gun violence like the Aug. 9 shooting that killed Gomez and wounded three others is rare, but does occur every few years when tensions between rival gangs escalate. This month’s shooting was the first time since 2002 someone has died as the result of gang violence in Hall County.
“This shooting is much more the exception than the rule, particularly regarding the gang climate in Hall County in the last few years,” said Scott Ware, commander of the Gainesville-Hall County Gang Task Force, a partnership of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office and Gainesville Police Department, which was created in the wake of a fatal gang-related shooting in 1997. “But unfortunately it only takes one person with a lack of regard for human life and you see where we’re at today.”
Today the task force counts about 370 confirmed gang members in its database, down from as many as 630 in 2006. The numbers have fluctuated before. In 1998, authorities estimated there were as many as 900 gang members in Hall County, and by 2002, task force officials said the number was down to 250.
Officials say there are five primary gangs operating today in Hall County: Sureños, or SUR-13; Mexican Vatos Society, or MVS; La Onda-05; Busting on Everybody, or BOE-23; and Pure Latin Crew, or PLC.
Their spray-painted graffiti “tags” can be found on the sides of storefronts, abandoned homes and street signs throughout the county. Nearly as quickly as they’re sprayed on, Hall County Sheriff’s officials are covering them up.
All but the PLC gang have a presence within the city limits of Gainesville and East Hall, an area of the county with a large Hispanic population. Authorities say a large number of SUR-13 members live in the Harmony Church Road area off Gillsville Highway, where the most recent shooting occurred.
Two confirmed SUR-13 members, Robert Jacob “Soldier” Montez and Miguel Guerra “Smiley” Garcia, were indicted Friday on murder charges in Gomez’s death.
Officials believe SUR-13 members were challenged on their turf by members of La Onda, Gomez among them.
Most gangs are natural rivals of others. Of Hall County’s five major gangs, only La Onda and BOE-23 appear to be allies, officials say.
Authorities say territorial, or “turf,” disputes drive most of the rivalries, with graffiti a major factor.
The smallest of incidents can touch off gang violence like this month’s shooting, Ware said. It could be a graffiti “tag” in a rival’s neighborhood, a quarrel over a girl or any perceived slight or sign of disrespect.
“These kids are really big into what they consider to be respect and whether someone is disrespecting them,” Ware said. “We’ve seen how things like that can very quickly escalate into incidents of violence, and ultimately, people can lose their lives.”
Task force members say gangs in Hall County seem less structured than in the past, without a clear hierarchy within the ranks of membership.
“They’re young, and their gang has no objective,” gang task force Sgt. Jason Smith said. “There seems to be no reason for the gang except to tag and steal and see what they can get to. It’s just kids with guns, and to me that’s more scary than a gang with a purpose.”
The Internet has become an extension of the streets in furthering gang propaganda.
On Gomez’s MySpace accounts, news photographs of gang members being led into Hall County Superior Court in jail jumpsuits are among a collection of pictures labeled “Homeboys.” Comments and postings under the pictures glorify four members of La Onda and BOE-23, who received long prison sentences for shooting into occupied homes.
In another series of photos, Gomez grips a knife in one hand and gestures a gang “sign” with the other as he stares into the camera, the words “East Side 05” shown underneath. He holds a baseball bat in another photo.
Frances Hernandez, a former member of SUR-13, said the gang mentality involves putting forth a certain image.
“We thought that we were fighting for something, for respect, and to be known and everything,” she said.
Gang crimes in Hall County mostly are confined to vandalism, petty larceny and drug use. The gang task force investigates all entering auto cases because the majority are attributable to gangs.
But violence can and does happen. And when bloodshed occurs, it draws more attention to the problem.
“We’re concerned when any act of violence is carried out whether it’s against a gang member or an innocent bystander,” Ware said. “These people who were shot, they may have been in a gang, but they’re children. They’re 16 years old, and they’re someone’s sons and nephews. So it’s all unfortunate. This violence is senseless.”
While nearly 90 percent of gang members in Hall County are Hispanic and have ties to Mexico, it is an American problem. The vast majority of teenage gang members in Hall were born in the United States. They range in age from 12 to 22, though most grow out of gang life by their late teens or early 20s.
Hernandez, the ex-member of SUR-13, said as she’s grown older, she realizes how “awful” gang existence was. Hernandez was beaten by other gang members as part of her initiation, a common gang ritual known as a “beat-in.”
“With time, I saw that most of them weren’t my friends, they were just using me,” she said.
Ware said just because the membership numbers are down and fatal gang shootings are rare, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.
“My stance has always been, if someone asks whether we have a gang problem in Hall County, my reply would be ‘yes we do,’” Ware said. “And while that may raise some eyebrows, I believe that if you’ve got one gang member in your county that’s one too many. Because it only takes one person with bad intentions to cause a lot of problems.
“Do I live in fear and expect my family to live in fear? No. But it is here. And we prepare for the worst and ultimately hope for the best.”