ROANOKE — In May, a small town graduation ceremony was put on lockdown after law enforcement became aware of possible gang activity. That communication to officials may have saved lives and helped police gain intelligence to what's been lurking in the shadows.
For years, small-town Alabama has experienced gang activity. A group of friends give themselves a name and participate in crimes together. They aren't always taken seriously but are often caught and put behind bars. But after some time, another gang forms, and the cycle continues.
In unassuming small towns, gang activity can escalate to retaliation crimes and cost the lives of those involved and innocent bystanders. Experts say that's why small-town gangs can be just as dangerous as big-city crime rings.
"What we know from a law enforcement side is that crimes committed by organized groups escalate," Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall told 1819 News. "I think on the local side, there is maybe some complacency that, 'this is really a big city problem. We hear about homicides in Birmingham, for example, and we might think that's where gang activity takes place, and it's not happening in our rural communities.' But I think that is a little bit naïve because we're not talking necessarily about some named gang that you think about nationally, but gang members are just small groups coming together, and we know that's taking place all over the state."
While many people have heard about the Bloods and the Cripps, officials say not all gangs are well-known criminal enterprises. In Roanoke, Alabama, a town of 5,279, Police Chief Jonathan Caldwell says gangs are active in city limits and beyond.
"There are gangs here," Caldwell said. "It's not always necessarily what people think of when they hear the word 'gang,' but that is what it is. Here one of them is the YCC gang, and a lot of them come from other places, like Wedowee. We had a shooting where a fight started at a gas station then it ended up being a shooting in town. That was a YCC gang member and another with what we believe is the One Love gang."
When threats of gang activity got to Caldwell's office ahead of the Handley High School graduation in May, he knew changes must be made to keep the public safe. The ceremony was moved into the school gym, and only graduates' parents and siblings were allowed inside. Police provided security due to the seriousness of the situation.
Sources said the gang threat was connected to a Sweet 16 birthday party in Dadeville the month before. Four people were killed in that shooting, and 32 were injured when a group of teens opened fire.
As recently as August, one of El Salvador's Top 100 Most Wanted was arrested in Chelsea. Juan Carlos Portillo, a member of the MS-13 gang, entered the country illegally and was arrested for homicide, kidnapping and other violent crimes. Officials said Portillo was living in Columbiana, a town with a population of just over 6,500.
With increased illegal immigration, officials are concerned with the rise in unlawful activity in small towns and big cities. Marshall said some coming across the border are instruments of the cartel, and they could be living anywhere.
"I've seen it historically with those that the cartel used to transport controlled substances and also those that transport the proceeds of drug sales back to Mexico," he said. "So, one thing you would always worry about is those coming over the border could have some link because the cartel is pretty good at logistics. They're able to get these drugs into our country."
Many law enforcement agencies are hesitant to acknowledge gang activity in their areas because of the negative connotation that comes with having gang activity. But Caldwell said he isn't scared to say it because "it is what it is."
1819 News spoke to a former gang investigator out of Chicago who requested his identity be protected. He said some officials who do not acknowledge gang activity are involved in corruption and run their own gangs. Others don't want to admit gang activity has been happening on their watch.
While agencies may not hold press conferences and make social media posts about gang activity, Marshall said he has heard from law enforcement officials about their concerns.
"From the criminal side, this is one that has grown significantly related to one that should be a legislative priority but also what I have begun to hear from both rural and metropolitan law enforcement about what they have needed," Marshall said. "As a former local DA, I have always been aware of gang issues."
Because of a new law that went into effect in September, law enforcement officials have more tools to help curb gang-related crimes. Marshall said the bill passed in the last legislative session because virtually all lawmakers have seen the need for themselves.
"I think it's because of the recognition that our legislators had about what was going on in their communities, both rural communities and bigger cities," Marshall said.
Marshall said the penalties for gang crimes needed to become more severe, and crimes in which illegally obtained firearms were used needed a more severe punishment. That is why he supported the new law, and his office has put together a team to help educate local law enforcement agencies on how it works. The AG's office is also putting more resources behind the prosecution phase of gang crimes.
"Here's the thing that I know from my conversations with chiefs and detectives around the state, is that they know the bad players," said Marshall. "It's just the ability that they have now with this new law to be able to use a law to target those that are a part of those groups."
Law enforcement officials encourage anyone who suspects gang activity to report information to local authorities.
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