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Conditions favorable for increase in Asian gang activity ; Conditions favorable for increase in Asian gang activity, experts say

BY: NICOLE SWEENEY of the Journal Sentinel staff, January 13, 2002 Sunday

As a high school junior, he appeared to be a model student. No problems at home and he pulled down straight A's at his south suburban school.

But after classes, he participated in drive-by shootings and auto theft, used drugs and racked up curfew tickets as a member of the Asian Crips.

Boredom and pressure from male family members lured him into the gang.

"He knew right from wrong. But that was the choice he made," said a 25-year-old community leader who worked with Hmong gang youth for four years.

Because gangs have threatened her before, she asked that her name not be used. For the same reason, the name of the young man also is not being used.

"He was more of a risk-taker," she said. "He needed or wanted something to do, and joining a gang was the best thing he could come up with."

That sounds all too familiar to other local families whose children have been lured by gangs. And experts fear that conditions could be ripe for an increase in Asian gang activity.

"It's a big problem," said Shoua N. Xiong, executive director of Lao Family Community Inc., in Milwaukee, which tries to steer kids back on track with its youth program. "We do our best, but we don't know what to do."

This month, West Milwaukee and Milwaukee police arrested five suspects in a string of burglaries that targeted mostly rural homes. At least four were part of an Asian gang called Imperial Gangsters, said West Milwaukee police chief Eugene Oldenburg.

West Milwaukee police have brought charges against three individuals, and a fourth suspect will also be charged, Oldenburg said.

Ozaukee County, which had four burglaries, also brought charges against the four individuals. Investigators from 10 agencies met at the Waukesha County Sheriff's Department Thursday to discuss whether the group was responsible for other burglaries in their communities.

"We're trying to share information and tie all these burglaries together, and I think we're probably going to be successful," said Lt. Dean Roberts of the Ozaukee County Sheriff's Department.

It's not the first time Asian gangs have made the news. In 2000, a Wausau 18-year-old was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the 1999 drive-by shooting of a rival gang member. In 1999, a 15-year-old was shot execution-style at West Milwaukee Park in what police suspected was a gang-related incident. The same year, four Wisconsin teenage girls were kidnapped from a Sheboygan home and taken to Detroit, where they were raped by as many as 20 gang members.

Then Asian gangs seemed to get quiet.

Never disappeared

Law enforcement officials say Asian gang activity never disappeared. It just stopped making headlines.

"We know that they're still out there and they're still active," said Sgt. Rich Straka of the St. Paul, Minn., Police Department, who has worked with Asian gangs for 11 years. "The shootings have slowed down, and that's because some of the main shooters have been put away for a long time. So now somebody has to come up and replace them. Someone else is always going to replace them."

Some fear that's already happening. The rise in runaways, the school truancy rate of Asian youth and the number of court cases seem to point to an increase in gang activity, said Nik Moua, the youth program director of Hmong Educational Advancements Inc., in Milwaukee.

The bad economy could also boost gang activity now, said Michael Borrero, a gang expert and social work professor with the University of Connecticut. "When kids are idle, they congregate. So they come together, and they begin to form these behaviors. When the economy is well and thriving, a lot of these kids could find jobs, and then they wouldn't be idle," he said.

Asian gangs tend to operate differently from other ethnic gangs. They are less hierarchal, and if there is a leader, other gang members can commit crimes without his permission, experts say.

The organizational structure is often made up of family members, said Deb Krsnich, a crime analyst with the Appleton Police Department.

"The clan structure itself is a very, very strong family network," she said. "When you have an Asian gang, those members are tied with the blood of their family as well as the blood of their gang."

Well-traveled

Mobility is another difference between Asian gangs and the more turf-oriented African-American and Latino gangs.

"They could be in St. Paul and Minneapolis for the Hmong New Year and then come back to Wisconsin to commit crimes," Straka said.

Travel is easy for gangs such as the Oriental Ruthless Boys, which has members in eight different states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota. "They can go to any of those states and feel right at home," Straka said.

Most Asian gangs are made up of teens or kids as young as 10 who commit mostly property crimes. When a gang gets more advanced, it moves into more "commercial enterprises" such as prostitution, Krsnich said. Of the 10 to 15 Asian gangs active in Wisconsin, she estimated five are at that point.

Gang rape as part of initiation rites has also been common.

"The thing with rape and prostitution is huge," Straka said. "When there are 11-, 12-, 13-, 14-year-old girls that are being raped or prostituted out, that's a huge problem."

The problem can be tough to crack because the girls are often transported across state lines or pimped secretly to members of the community, he said.

"I can't just go look for these girls on some avenue, because that's not how it works," Straka said.

Youth may get involved in gangs for a number of reasons, including boredom, said the 25-year-old community leader who asked not to be named.

"They had nothing to do. A lot of the other racial groups, they have the Boys and Girls clubs, the Y, but those kinds of activities aren't attractive to Asian youth," she said.

It can also be a way to rebel against family and culture. Anti-Hmong sentiment among Hmong youths has never been higher, she said.

"Our kids are caught between two worlds," she said. "That's how they become so rebellious against society. They have to balance their culture and customs with the American lifestyle."

Most members grow out of the gangs by their early 20s. "A lot of them get married young because that's one way they can separate themselves from the gang activity," Krsnich said. "But they never separate completely. They're still there in the role of a mentor for the younger kids."