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.