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January 12, 2014

Tweets and threats: Gangs find a new home on the Net

CHICAGO — The video is riddled with menace and swagger: Reputed gang members in Chicago point their guns directly at the camera. A bare-chested young man brandishes an assault weapon. They flash hand signals, dance and, led by a rapper, taunt their rivals as he chants:

“Toe tag DOA. That’s for being in my way ... Killing til my heart swell ... Guaranteed there’s going to be all hell.”

Thousands watch on YouTube. Among them: the Chicago police, who quickly identify two of those in the video as felons who are prohibited from being around guns. Both are later taken into custody.

As social media has increasingly become part of daily life, both gangs and law enforcement are trying to capitalize on the reach of this new digital world—and both, in their own ways, are succeeding.

Social media has exploded among street gangs who exploit it—often brazenly—to brag, conspire and incite violence. They’re turning to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to flaunt guns and wads of cash, threaten rivals, intimidate informants and in a small number of cases, sell weapons, drugs—even plot murder.

“What’s taking place online is what’s taking place in the streets,” says David Pyrooz, an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University who has studied gangs and social media in five big cities. “The Internet does more for a gang’s brand or a gang member’s identity than word-of-mouth could ever do. It really gives the gang a wide platform to promote their reputations. They can brag about women, drugs, fighting ... and instead of boasting to five gang members on a street corner, they can go online and it essentially goes viral. It’s like this electronic graffiti wall that never gets deleted.”

On the crime-fighting side, “cyberbanging” or “Internet banging,” as this activity is sometimes called, is transforming how police and prosecutors pursue gangs. Along with traditional investigative techniques, police monitor gangs online—sometimes communicating with them using aliases—and track their activities and rivalries, looking for ways to short-circuit potential flare-ups.

It’s a formidable task: There are millions of images and words, idle boasts mixed in with real threats and an ever-changing social media landscape. Myspace has given way to Facebook and Twitter, but gangs also are using Instagram, Snapchat, Kik and Chirp—different ways of sharing photos, video, audio and words, sometimes through smartphones or pagers.

“It’s kind of like clothing—this is the style today but in two months, it won’t be,” says Alex Del Toro, program director at one of the branches of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program.

It’s not just changing styles, but the language itself that can pose obstacles. Police often have to decipher street talk, which varies according to gang and city. In Chicago, for instance, a gun may be a thumper or a cannon. In Houston, a burner, chopper, pump or gat. In New York, a flamingo, drum set, clickety, biscuit, shotty, rachet or ratty.

That slang played a significant role last year for New York police and prosecutors. They pursued a digital trail of messages on Facebook and Twitter, along with jailhouse phone calls, to crack down on three notorious East Harlem gangs tied to gun trafficking, more than 30 shootings and at least three murders.

After 63 reputed gang members were indicted, authorities revealed they’d collected hundreds of social media postings to help build their case. Some messages, according to the indictment, were vengeful: “God forgives, I don’t ... somebodie gotta die,” one posted on his Facebook page. “I don’t wanna talk. I want action n real guns,” another said on Twitter. Others were boastful: “My team not top 2 most wanted youth gangs in Manhatten for nothin we got guns for dayss,” a third posted on Facebook.

“These Facebook and Instagram postings are sometimes our most reliable evidence and they become our most reliable informants in identifying who’s in the gang,” says Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. “Gang members are Instagramming pictures of themselves with guns and cash. They are communicating about where to meet before they do something related to gang activities. They brag about what they’ve done after the fact. We see that again and again and again in these cases.”

And yet, Vance also says social media should be viewed skeptically—some kids brag about things that aren’t true or just want to look tough—and a Facebook post would not be reason alone to file charges.

Online messages, though, were critical in the East Harlem investigation. By the start of 2014, 53 of the 63 charged had pleaded guilty. And in November, then New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly offered an endorsement: Hailing a 50 percent drop in homicides among those 13 to 21 since 2012, Kelly said a new strategy “including attention to the new battleground of social media has resulted in lives being saved in New York City, mostly minority young men.”

New York isn’t unique. In Houston, police say gang members have used social media to sell meth, marijuana and heroin and provoke shootings as initiation rites. In Daytona Beach, Fla., five kids who claimed to be in a gang brutally assaulted a teen and within hours, cell phone video of the attack was on Facebook. And in Chicago, gang warfare has migrated from the streets to cyberspace and back again—with deadly results.

Probably the most high-profile case unfolded in 2012 on the city’s South Side. It began with an online feud involving insults, gangs and two rappers, Keith Cozart, better known as Chief Keef, and Joseph ‘Lil JoJo’ Coleman. Hours after Coleman tweeted his location, he was fatally shot while riding on a bicycle. Soon after, Chief Keef’s Twitter account carried mocking comments about the death. He claimed his account had been hacked.

“We see a lot of taunting,” says Nick Roti, chief of the Chicago police organized crime bureau. “There are guys standing on a street corner, they take a picture of themselves holding a gun (the message being), ‘I always stand up for my ‘hood.’ They’re basically daring someone to shoot them.”

They do the reverse as well, posting videos of themselves on enemy territory, scrawling profanity on walls, then egging their rivals to come out and defend their turf.

In many cases, gangs do little to hide their identities, even though they know they’re leaving an electronic fingerprint for police.

“I guess the need for recognition and street cred must outweigh the potential for being arrested and charged,” Roti says. “They don’t seem to be that worried. They may feel they can hide in numbers. There are millions of pictures and posts. (Their attitude is) ‘I’ll take my chances.’”

It doesn’t always work. Last summer, when a North Side gang in Chicago rapped about the death of a reported rival on YouTube, spewing profanities and pointing guns, police responded. Two felons in the video were taken into custody for violating parole and probation, police say, and 38 grams of crack cocaine were seized along with one of the weapons featured.

Del Toro, the YMCA program director who works in Logan Square and Humboldt Park—neighborhoods struggling with gang problems—says the swaggering is a dramatic departure from the past.

“You can now gangbang from your living room,” says Del Toro, now an ordained minister. “Who would have thought that 20 years ago? ... Back in the ‘80s or ‘90s, gang members didn’t want to take their pictures. Now they’re all over YouTube.”

And that can attract kids, says Eddie Bocanegra, co-executive director of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program. “In the past you would have gangs approach you and say, ‘Listen we’re from the ‘hood. Maybe you should get involved.’ Now the kids are going to the gangs saying, ‘I saw this. How can I be a part of it?’”

Sometimes, the motive is purely social—a kid with 10 Facebook friends can expand his network by hundreds. “It’s a sense of belonging.” he says.

Bocanegra’s understanding of kids and violence stems from his own history. He spent 14 years in prison for a gang-related murder, turned his life around and is now a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Through the Y, he mentors kids in communities where gangs are a constant presence.

He warns them of the consequences of their online activities. “I’ll say, ‘Don’t you know you’re creating a profile of yourself so police can see it?’ ... How do you think this will impact you tomorrow, a month from now, five years from now?’... A lot of times, it’s ‘Who cares?’”

Some do.

Anderson Chaves, 17, changed his ways, removing a photo on his Facebook page of a man he once admired—Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord killed in a gun battle with authorities. Chaves says he now avoids the back-and-forth online posturing.

“It’s part of a macho display, ‘Look at me. Look at who I am,’” he says. “They’re not thinking that one day they might be standing in front of a judge and someone will pull all this stuff out. They don’t think it will happen.”

But it does.

Dawn Keating, a Cincinnati police officer who trains other law enforcement about social media, says by the time gang members appear in court, authorities have a dossier of their words and videos online that challenge how they want to portray themselves. “If a guy goes in and says, ‘I’m a good person. I’ve never held a gun,’ we can say, ‘Look at what he puts out about himself on social media. Here he is with a gun.’ It helps debunk a lot of things.”

Despite those successes, police say monitoring social media is time-consuming and frustrating.

Eric Vento, a Houston police officer and gang specialist, says he sometimes creates aliases to befriend gang members online.

“You have to build your persona,” he says. “That comes through countless, tedious hours of posting comments. You have to get to be friends with these people. You have to let them into your fake world. You have to build their trust. Only then, will they let you in. Until that time, you’re there twiddling your thumbs.”

Older gang members tend to restrict public access to their Facebook pages, but they can sometimes be found online through their wives and friends, he says. “They bite all the time,” Vento says. “It’s a question of keeping the bite. ... Depending on how high they are in the (gang) hierarchy, they’re pretty suspicious. They know law enforcement is on Facebook. Maybe they’re not thinking about it 24/7. They see there are enough news stories. They know there are fake profiles.”

Younger gang members seem less cautious and more accustomed to sharing their lives online. And that can be a boon to police.

In Daytona Beach, Fla., in October, after a group of teens claiming to be in a gang pummeled and kicked a 14 year old, the victim’s mother found the beating video posted on Facebook that night, says detective Scott Barnes.

After she contacted police, they quickly tracked down the suspects in their schools, Barnes says. The five, 13 to 18, were charged with aggravated criminal battery, he adds, and all pleaded guilty.

“Everybody wants to be cool and get the street cred they feel they deserve,” he says. “It’s not very smart, that’s for sure. ... It’s sad it’s come to this. Some of these kids will be OK, but there’s a group out there who are going to ruin their lives and end up in prison a long time or be dead. It’s hard to get ahead of this, but we’re trying.”

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