Members Use Web to Brag And Warn Foes; Police Use The Sites to Track Them
By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, April 14, 2006; B01
The threat from the Washington area gang Street Thug Criminals was very clear: "We swore we were going to get the *bleep* that did this and we are. RIP Antonio."
It was delivered the way almost everything seems to be these days: on a Web page.
The Street Thug Criminals have an Internet page, and they used it to warn a rival Langley Park gang that Antonio's death would be avenged.
Police call it "cyberbanging" -- gang members openly bragging about affiliations, skipping school, getting high and battling rival gangs.
Many postings deal with Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a Latino gang that has been spreading quickly across the Washington region in recent years.
There is no way to know for certain whether these cyberbangers are gang members, but it's not likely that they are phonies, said Sgt. George Norris, a Prince George's County police officer who heads a 16-member regional gang task force.
"If you portray yourself as being MS-13 and you're not, when they find out about it, they kill you just as if you're a rival gang member," Norris said.
Prince George's police and other investigators use the sites to track the growing gang problem and to catalog members.
Most cyberbangers on Web pages examined by The Washington Post are teenagers and design their pages to flash in-your-face images of gang flags, hand signs, marijuana, women, stacks of cash and "original gangster" scrolls certifying them as legitimate. Some show pictures of themselves with guns and bandannas covering their faces below the eyes, casting menacing glances.
The sites use the members' nicknames and rarely refer to legal names. The pages are legal; it is not against the law to be in a gang.
"Barney," a 15-year-old from Langley Park, says he likes fashion, video games and basketball. According to his page, he is into photography, does not have a girlfriend -- and is a member of two violent street gangs, the Lewisdale Crew and Brown Union.
The gangs, better known the LDC and BU, are bitter rivals of MS-13's.
"WAT UP PEOLPE THIZ BE YOUR BOY BARNEY REPPIEN THAT LDC AND BU," Barney writes at the top of his page. "ONE THING I DON'T LIKE IS MS AND HATERZ SO IF U A HATER GET DU [EXPLETIVE] OUT OK."
For those who need a translation, Barney writes that he is "representing" that he is a member of the LDC and BU and orders any MS members to leave his page.
On many of the sites, gang members give their age and mention that they attend High Point, Bladensburg or other local high schools.
Some guesswork is involved in deciphering the slang, misspellings and gang speak.
"Boy" is generally spelled "boi," "girls" is spelled "gurlz," Maryland is usually "Murderland." The codes extend to ages as well. A 15-year-old, for example, may write that he is 1 gun 5 bullets or 1 joint 5 hits.
Often when people are reading a page, their cursor will turn into a handgun, forcing them to "shoot" something to click on it. At other times, cursors turn into smoking cigarettes or sports cars.
Police said that because they cannot stop the sites, they use them to gather intelligence. A page for Vatos Locos, a gang known for violence, has an RIP for someone named Noel.
It reads: "Somebody will pay what they did to you cuz what goes around comes around."
The sites also offer a public glimpse into the lives and personalities of some of the area's gang members: On "Yoshi's" site, his gang affiliation is posted next to pictures of his baby nephew, Christopher. "Krazy Yayo," who represents Sur 13, writes of growing up on the streets and killing without mercy. He ends with "click, click bang, bang."
Last year, at least eight homicides in Prince George's were gang-related, police said.
According to police, members affiliated with these local gangs are responsible for low-level crimes such as graffiti as well as robberies, stabbings and shootings.
Gang members create Web pages as another way to seek respect and validation, said Luis Cardona, a former gang member who is now the youth violence prevention coordinator for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.
"You're looking to get some kind of recognition or affirmation," he said. "And there's a certain level of solidarity for gang members who might be in a different location."
Norris said the department doesn't know how many gang members are in the county or the region. He said he has documented 1,300 members and their associates in Prince George's. The Web pages have led to several arrests.
In one case, a series of robberies had occurred in Langley Park and Adelphi, and police received a tip about who was pulling them. But the tip was just a nickname. So they went to the gang Web pages to find the nickname. Once they found it, they knew whom he was hanging out with and where they could find him. The youth was arrested.
A majority of the documented gang members live in Police District 1, which includes Langley Park, the hub for gang activity in the region, Norris said. Gang activity is also notable in other parts of Prince George's, Montgomery County, Washington and Northern Virginia.
According to a study from 2002-03 conducted by the Washington-based National Youth Gang Center, there are 731,500 youth gang members across the country.
Beefing that starts on the Internet will sometimes turn into face-to-face confrontations and spill blood, Norris said.
"When they see each other on the street, they're in person," Norris said. "It's a natural progression."
According to the 2005 National Gang Threat Assessment by the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations, gang members are increasingly computer savvy.
"Web sites often include photos of members, tattoos and gang hand signs," reads the report. "Sites may also have bulletin boards, message boards or chat rooms where members can post messages or 'shout outs' to identify cliques or chapters of the gangs in various cities."
The Web pages can be found on free sites such as myspace.com, blackplanet.com, which is targeted at black users, and migente.com, aimed at English-speaking Hispanics.
The sites are online communities for dating, news, job searches and chatting. Although the sites are open to the public, users must first register with them to view members' pages.
Of the three, the gang pages are most prevalent on migente.com, which began in 2000 and is Spanish for "my people."
Jeffrey Carr, vice president of marketing for Community Connect, which runs blackplanet.com and migente.com, said he is aware that some gangs and gang members use the sites. He said a routine screening process searches for inappropriate language and pictures and shuts down pages that have them.
"We address issues as quickly as they come up," Carr said. "We address them immediately. We are conscious of the situation going on."
Police investigators, mostly in California, started seeing gang members on the Web in the late 1990s. The activity has slowly spread to the point that gang members have Web pages, said Jared Lewis, director and founder of the Wisconsin-based Know Gangs, a gang-consulting group for police agencies.
Lewis, a former gang unit police officer in California, said "it's more common than parents realize" for youths to openly express their gang lifestyle. He said he will frequently see pictures of middle school students in front of their schools throwing gang signs.
"Ten years ago, the average gangster wasn't involved with the Internet," Lewis said. "Computers are everywhere now -- in schools, libraries. It's not unusual for the hard-core gang member to be out all day and come home and play on the Internet at night."