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Gang activity is diverse in Austin. Street gangs like the Bloods or Crips are loosely affiliated and don’t have a set hierarchy.
The Bandidos motorcycle gang and the Mexican Mafia prison gang, however, have set chains of command and power structures, according to police. In addition, there’s the up-and-coming Texas prison gang Tango Blast, which police officials say is becoming more of a cohesive force.
But they’re all doing the same thing: selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine brought to the U.S. by Mexican cartels, police and federal officials say.
“A lot of the street sales (of drugs) around the country are supplied by Mexican cartels,” said Greg Thrash, who heads the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration‘s Austin office. That includes about 90 percent of America’s cocaine and most of its methamphetamine.
Thrash said that his agency’s investigations into Mexican cartels often uncover where their drugs wind up. He said that drugs can change hands several times, between several middlemen and wholesalers, between the cartels and street gangs. In other cases, the cartels deal directly with gangs, he said.
Harrell’s interview with the Austin teen was part of a summer initiative aimed at coming up with a more accurate number of how many gang members are in Austin and gaining “street intelligence,” said police Sgt. Lester Vanzura.
Vanzura said, the officers acquire new information each day and are developing sources who can provide information about higher-up gang members, violent crimes or large drug deals.
Baker said, officers look at trends along the border as guidance for what may come to Austin. His concern, among the escalating crimes, is juvenile gang members.
Police found an increase of about 14 percent in documented youth gang members, from 658 in July 2010 to 748 this July. Juvenile members are mostly involved with graffiti, which officers said is on the rise, and with displaying their gang’s colors.
Baker said that juvenile gang membership nationwide may be on the rise again after a dip in the 1980s, perhaps fueled by cartel money that kids see as an easy way to make cash. But older gang members like to use kids in their operations because the juvenile justice system is more lenient, he said.
“They’re getting into situations they don’t understand,” Baker said. “They don’t know who they’re dealing with in the cartels. And then it’s hard for these kids to get out.”
Gangs in Austin
The extreme violence on the Mexican side of the border — which has included mass killings and public executions of police officers and elected officials — has been over the fight to control the points of entry gangs use to export drugs into the United States. That’s why cities in Texas haven’t seen the killings and other crimes that have plagued Mexico, Baker said.
“You don’t have to fight over entry points up here,” said police Lt. Norris McKenzie, who works in the department’s gang suppression and major crimes units. “You fight over ‘I didn’t get paid,’ or ‘somebody stole my dope.’\u2009”
Baker said he doesn’t think the increases seen in the Hispanic population in Texas and the United States have anything to do with increased drug cartel activity. But he said he’s concerned about what might happen when the cartels get territorial and decide to lock down a market like Austin — or when the local gangs start fighting over their drug supplies.