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Misplaced Loyalty Asian gangs lure teens to life of crime

BY: By James Emery - August 20, 2000 Sunday

EDITOR'S NOTE: The names of gang members have been omitted or  changed, unless they were charged in or convicted of a crime, to  protect them from retaliation.

What you bang, boy?'

On a warm July afternoon, a slender 13-year-old froze in his  tracks as a gun pressed to his head. He had just made the mistake  of walking by the Laundromat at 72nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard  while four Asian Crips sat in a car nearby.

'What you bang, boy?' the voice repeated, asking him  what gang he belonged to. 'I don't bang nothing,' he stammered.  But his hair was cut short for summer, and the ACs, a Hmong street  gang, thought he was one of the ORBs, Oriental Ruthless Boys, a  rival gang whose members often shave their heads.

After a few tense moments, the AC assailant decided the boy  wasn't an ORB after all and let him walk away, shaken but  unharmed.

Violence among Asian gangs is on the rise. Of the more than  2,000 known gang members and their associates in the metro Denver  area, 300 of them are Asian. Turf wars are being fought between  two Vietnamese gangs - Asian Pride (AP) and Viet Pride (VP) - and  between the APs and three Hmong gangs: the ORBs, the ACs, and the  Masters of Destruction (MODs). Each of the Hmong gangs is also  fighting each other.

You need a flow chart to keep the affiliations straight:  The Viet Thugs (VTs), who claim they are not a gang but just a  small group of friends, are aligned with the VPs. Their  countergroup, Viet Soldiers (VS), is aligned with the APs. Both  groups provide backup during fights for the larger gangs that they  are affiliated with.

Some of the turf wars are between gangs vying for  control of the lucrative drug trade. There are no clear-cut  geographic boundaries. Instead, the city is divided into specific  streets, cafes, nightclubs, and strip malls claimed by specific  groups.

Problems between the Hmong gangs are linked to  rivalries in California and Minnesota. Schoolhood chums become  bitter enemies once they join opposing gangs.

'Hootie was a friend of mine,' said one ORB, 'But once he joined  the MODs, he started acting tough and talking trash. I went to his  house a couple of times, knocked on his door, dragged him outside,  and kicked his ass in front of his parents.

'The MODs were afraid to retaliate against us because we  all had guns and were crazy and would do anything,' the ORB  continued. 'So they'd call their friends from out of state to come  in and deal with us. One night about 2 a.m., two carloads of them  came by, throwing gang signs. My friends and I pulled out our guns  and started shooting at them until they left.'

Shootings are often retaliation for previous assaults.  On July 30, three Viet Soldiers were injured by gunshots at the  Cafe Thien Thanh on West Alameda Avenue in Denver. The trio had  allegedly beaten a rival gang member outside a church less than  two hours earlier.

When gang members can't find the people who shot at them,  they'll shoot into the suspect's homes, which are not difficult to  find since most gang members know each other.

'I just pretty much aimed for the living room,' said one gang  member with a long history of gunplay. 'I was really mad. I didn't  care who I hit.'

Violence between Hmong gangs escalated with the arrival of Asian  Crips from California between 1996 and 1997. 'They were going  around punking everybody,' said an ORB. By the summer of 1999, the  number of shootings and assaults had increased dramatically.

Asian gang members range in age from 11 to their mid-30s, but  most are 14- to 24-year-old males who are high school dropouts. An  OG - Original Gangster or Old Gangster - often directs the  activities of new members, referred to as BGs, or Baby Gangsters.

'A few members are in college or have great jobs,' said a  former gang member. 'They're stupid. They still 'bang' at night.  Some of them hang around because they have boring lives and don't  want their friends to think they're weak.'

Primary sources of income for Asian gangs are auto  theft, burglaries and drug dealing. Some members are involved in  gambling, prostitution, credit-card fraud, insurance scams and the  interstate transport of drugs and guns.

Denver-based Vietnamese gangs have gone through a  significant evolution in the past two decades. About five years  ago, they started getting out of the protection rackets and home  invasion in favor of more lucrative ventures.

Protection rackets are familiar to immigrant  communities. They prey on local businesses, extorting regular  payments in exchange for 'security,' threatening property damage,  inventory loss and beatings. Out of shame, guilt or perceived  weakness, Asian victims were reluctant to ask for help. In their  culture, they were taught to seek harmony over conflict. Most had  been accustomed to paying 'nuisance' bribes to government  officials in Vietnam anyway.

But American-born offspring who assume family  businesses now refuse to pay protection money and are not afraid  to call police. 'Gangsters now view the protection rackets as high  risk for a low-level reward,' said one merchant.

Home invasions - in which armed gangsters rob the  residences of business owners while the occupants are present -  also are declining, perhaps due to the fact that the newer  generation of Vietnamese no longer keeps money and valuables at  home.

In the past, 'most Asian businesses did not trust or  use the banks,' said one college-educated offspring of prosperous  Vietnamese merchants, 'because they had not been able to trust the  government in Vietnam.'

The criminal activity among Vietnamese gangs is well organized  and diverse, and in recent years has moved toward auto theft and  drug-dealing.

'They steal cars on demand, taking orders for specific parts,'  brags a former car thief. 'After the designated parts are  delivered, they'll call gang members and associates to sell  additional parts.' The car is then dumped or left for the  'vultures,' younger kids on their way up the gang ladder.

'If we're just after the stereo or a small part, we  take it where the car is parked,' added another gang member.  'Anything larger and the car is stolen so we can take our time  stripping it down.'

Sometimes the whole car is chopped, with requested items  sold and the rest stored. Parts might be sold by prearrangement to  body shops and junkyards, although proving it can be difficult for  police officers. 'We found a whole basement full of Honda parts in  one gang member's house,' said Officer Nick Worth, a member of the  Denver Police Department's Gang Unit. '

A popular scam is to strip a car of enough parts to  total it out, buy the shell at auction, reassemble it with the  original parts and sell it legally for substantial profits.

Hmong and Vietnamese burglary rings within gangs are  significantly different from each other. The Vietnamese usually  target their own community and often work on leads provided by  someone who knows the victim.

The gang will telephone  and drive by a home before one of the group knocks on the door. 'A  girl is less suspicious,' said one female burglar with experience  climbing through windows. 'If the people answer, I just make up  some story about having the wrong address and walk away.'

In some cases, an Old Gangster will hear about a  potentially lucrative house and send in Baby Gangsters to  burglarize it, taking a percentage of the proceeds. The person  providing the tip gets little or nothing unless they come along.

Hmong burglary crews are less active but cover a wider  area. 'We go everywhere,' said one Hmong burglar, 'from Aurora and  Denver to Boulder, hitting houses during the day because everybody  is home at night. We look for a house that doesn't have cars  outside and ring the doorbell for about 10 minutes. If nobody  answers, we go around back and break in.'

sell drugs, especially ecstasy, acid and marijuana. Most of the  trafficking takes place at raves, coffee shops, nightclubs and  house parties. 'I've seen 11- and 12-year-old kids doing ecstasy  and smoking bud (marijuana),' sighs a former Hmong gang member.  'In our day, all we did was drink.'

The gangs work the raves in crews, selling drugs to anyone  under 25 years old. 'If they're over 25, they might be a cop,' a  Vietnamese drug runner said. Independent dealers attempting to  work the raves are threatened or beat up. Many ecstasy runners  will put the drug in a bag attached to a string and tie it to a  belt loop or fly button. The bag is then wrapped around their  scrotum, making it harder for police to detect. Earlier this  month, Aurora police arrested an Asian youth carrying 117 pills.

Ecstasy is $ 25 a pill, but some gang members have  found cheaper sources in California and Texas and sell it for $ 15  per pill. Local suppliers will front low-level dealers up to 100  pills during the week, collecting payment after the weekend. Some  kids use several dealers so they can get larger quantities.

Acid is also popular. Dealers walk around at the  raves with bottles of Visine or breath freshener filled with the  drug. They sell it for $ 5 a hit, putting it directly on a  customer's tongue, hand or on a candy.

A Cambodian gang, the Tiny Rascal Gangsters (TRGs),  recruits Hispanics and black members because of the small number  of Cambodians in the area. 'The TRGs are involved in a lot of  crack cocaine,' notes the Denver Gang Unit's Worth.

between Asian gangs abound. Some APs broke off to form the  Junior APs (JAP), a rival group allegedly run by a former Los  Angeles gang member. A Filipino gang, the Original Panoy Gangsters  (OPG), is also at odds with the APs, and sporadic fights break out  between Asian and Mexican gangs. On Aug. 6, a crew of ORBs pulled  a gun on a carload of Mexican bangers who drove by flashing gang  signs. Retaliation is inevitable.

Enormous profits and personal pride are at stake in  these turf wars. Older gang members want to curtail the violence  because it disrupts their financial ventures: drugs, gambling and  auto theft. Young thugs are eager to make a name for themselves  and are unable or unwilling to see the consequences of their  behavior.

Full of testosterone and with easy access to  guns, teenage gang members are extremely dangerous and highly  volatile. Unafraid of jail or death, they think nothing of killing  a rival or anyone else who gets in the way. 'They'll pull the  trigger without thinking about the consequences,' an OG said.  'They just don't care.'

On July 30, the same day as the gang shooting at the  Cafe Thien Thanh, Junior APs shot a rival Hmong gang member in  Westminster. Since then, several other gang-related shootings have  occurred, including gunfire between speeding cars and retaliation  shots fired blindly into the homes of rivals. Most of these  incidents go unreported. If police are actually called,  investigation quickly grinds to a halt due to the absence of  victims and reluctance of witnesses.

It's difficult for members to break away from the gangs, even  after they've gotten married and had children. Loyalties run deep.  Johnny, on OG with the ORBs, continued to associate with members  of his gang two years after he was married. In February, he and 10  ORBs were bowling at Arvada Lanes when they were confronted by 20  APs.

The APs provoked a fight that eventually poured out into the  parking lot. Johnny reluctantly joined in. 'I had to back up my  friends,' sighs Johnny. 'I had no choice.'

As the battle broke up, two carloads of APs followed a car  driven by Johnny's cousin. On a side street, one of the APs began  firing at them until an ORB popped up through the sunroof and  emptied a 16-round clip into their cars.

'I know we hit the car, but I don't know if anybody was hit or  not,' Johnny said.

Charlie Sou Her, a 19-year-old ORB, moved to Seattle to get  away from gangs. He confided to Johnny that he would probably get  into trouble if he came to Denver, because he'd hang with ORBs  again.

Charlie was right. About 2:30 a.m. on April 21, Charlie and  his friends George Lo and Pao Ge Xiong drove up next to a carload  of Vietnamese in the 7300 block of Eliot Street. George and Pao  started yelling at the Vietnamese, asking if they were AP. As the  driver replied, 'No, no, we're not gangbangers,' George and Pao  opened fire, killing Vien Cong Than, 19, and wounding Phi Nguyen,  20. Neither had any gang affiliations.

'They didn't even know those guys. George just wanted to  show off,' Johnny said.

All three were convicted of first-degree murder.

'Poor Charlie. He never was hard-core; he just liked to flirt  with girls. Now he's in jail for 30 years.'

Even if a gang member does manage to get out, rival gang members  still consider him a target. A former ORB nearly escaped injury on  Dec. 11, 1999, near a Circle K on West 68th Avenue when a crew of  MODs sped by and fired four rounds into his car. One bullet missed  his head by inches, breaking the driver's side window and smashing  into the dashboard.

Most kids join gangs for an obvious reason: They provide a sense  of belonging, especially for immigrant teens who feel caught  between two cultures. Few turn to their parents for help once they  begin to get swept into gang activities. And their parents 'feel  trapped,' said Ge Thao, a project director at the Asian-Pacific  Development Center. They 'are reluctant to ask for help because it  would bring shame and embarrassment to their family.'

To help combat gangs, Ge Thao and other Hmong community  activists organized a Friday night drop-in center, in cooperation  with the Adams County Sheriff's Department. The center, which  offers participation in sports and group discussions, attracts  Hmong youths from Boulder to Littleton.

'This type of program provides kids with an alternative to  the streets,' said Frank Spottke, Adams County district attorney,  'and I think it's doing a good job.'

'We have to work on the value systems of the individuals,'  said Capt. Gary Leuthauser, head of the Denver Police Department's  Gang Unit. 'When you look at most gang members, they pretty much  fall into the same situation - academically, socially,  athletically. They really haven't achieved much, so they're  looking for recognition, some way to fit in, and (gangs are)  something they gravitate to.'

Many law enforcement officers say there is an urgent need  for a fully integrated, multi-agency task force to pool resources  and centralize information on gang activity. 'The gang members  from California think that Denver's easy,' one Vietnamese gang  member, said. 'They think they're too clever to get caught here.  That's why so many are coming.'

The 14-year-old who had a gun pressed against his head last year  blinks hard as he recalls the incident. 'It was scary,' he sighs.  'I try not to think about it.' He is not compelled to get involved  in gangs: His nights are spent studying, looking after his younger  relatives, and dreaming of a future. 'I really like school,' he  confides.

Whether or not he makes it to graduation is another  matter. As the conflicts between rival gangs heat up, innocent  bystanders may get caught in the crossfire when young gangsters  shoot each other in an expression of misdirected pride.

James Emery is an anthropologist and journalist who has covered  Asian gangs and criminal organizations in the United States and  overseas for more than 15 years.

GRAPHIC: PHOTOS: (Not available)

Special to The PostJames Emery This 14-year-old Westminster boy, here cradling his niece, last year had a gun pressed to his head near West 72nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard by an Asian Crip who mistook him for a gang member. He has since let his hair grow out to avoid being mistaken for an Oriental Ruthless Boy, a gang whose members keep their hair closely cropped. Above left: Marijuana cigarettes confiscated by police. Gangs sell marijuana, LSD and ecstacy at raves, clubs and house parties.  Above right: An aunt mourns over the body of 20-year-old Kather Yang at a Thornton funeral home last September. Yang, a known Hmong gang member from Westminster, was one of six suspects in the Aug. 29, 1999, rape of a Boulder coed. He shot himself as police closed in on his Wisconsin motel room.  Above: Cafe Thien Thanh on West Alameda Avenue, site of a Vietnamese gang shooting on July 30. At right: Aising Seechan, 18, cradles his 9-month-old daughter, Flowerbell, at their trailer home in Fort Morgan last year. Seechan and his family left California to get away from gang activity.  At left: Four bullets were fired into the apartment of Charlie Her, a 19-year-old ORB, in November, allegedly by a rival gang, the Asian Crips. Above: A former ORB gang member narrowly escaped death when he was shot at while driving by a Circle K in Westminster.