I-Team: Gangland in Las Vegas, Rule by Fear - 8 News NOW

George Knapp, Chief Investigative Reporter

I-Team: Gangland in Las Vegas, Rule by Fear

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More than 300 criminal gangs with nearly 8,000 members are on the streets of Southern Nevada, but these aren't the same one-dimensional gangsters we've heard about on the news for so many years.

Metro detectives say the gangs have evolved into hybrids that are more sophisticated -- and more dangerous -- criminal organizations. The Channel 8 I-Team has been talking with the experts about this new breed of street gangster.

The intelligence detectives assigned to Metro's Gang Crimes unit are almost wistful when they talk about the old days of the Bloods and the Crips, when street gangs protected their 'hoods and were proud to wear their colors. Those days are largely gone.

Gangs are less turf conscious these days because they figure the whole valley is their turf. They're tougher to spot, almost impossible to infiltrate, and won't hesitate to kill you if you get in their way.

Detective Carlos Acosta, with Metro Gang Intell, said, "Right now, where we're at, it's not a very good spot. But somebody's gotta roll through it. They've got the high ground on us up here."

From the back seat, it sounds like these gang detectives are describing a military combat zone where the enemy has the high ground. A combat zone is what it is, one of many in the Las Vegas Valley where heavily armed, notoriously violent street gangs live, party, and conduct business. Gangs are a fact of modern life, but the officers who work this dangerous beat every night say there's a new breed of gangster in town, like street gangs on steroids, and they aren't limited to just the toughest neighborhoods anymore.

Det. Acosta continued, "They wind up in homes in Summerlin, they wind up with homes out in Henderson, they wind up in homes in the very communities that folks are trying to escape from that kind of violence."

The proof spills into our living rooms almost nightly. These armed robbery suspects being pursued by police represent a recent phenomenon -- hybrid gangs -- whose members might be multi-racial and belong to more than one gang. They no longer identify with a particular piece of turf. They're in it for the money, whether it's smash and grab robberies of pawn shops, shootouts in casinos, or quickie mart stickups that end in bloodshed.

A former gangster described it, "Fast living. Fast money. Fast cars. Fast girls. Some people get influenced by that."

"We're talking about people that are self-centered, unintelligent. They have chosen to take from others because that's the easy way out. They want nothing to do with work," said Det. Carlos Acosta.

Metro has 60 detectives on its anti-gang team. Every night, they cruise the graffiti stained alleys and gang hotspots trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. The four young men who were taken into custody near the corner of Fremont and Boulder Highway are most likely working for gang higher-ups watching from nearby. Within ten feet of the spot, three people have been murdered in the past year.

The apartment complexes near Sunrise Mountain are the playground of Ponoma Sur Locates, a Latino gang described by police as hyperviolent. As we cruise the dark streets, detectives see a suspect bolt. They give chase and then warily descend on an abandoned apartment. The suspect is gone, but the place has already been tagged.

Hispanic gangsters now represent more than half of the nearly 8,000 gang members in the valley. Most of them now fall under a loose umbrella organization called Surenos -- a gang born in prison, which has evolved into an international crime ring with up to 200,000 members -- the new Mexican mafia.

They're into narcotics, armed robbery, prostitution, and extortion. Intelligence detectives say some in the Surenos hierarchy have moved to Las Vegas, bought expensive homes, and they are putting money into legitimate businesses, just as old time mobsters did years ago. Under the Surenos umbrella, smaller gangs are less likely to kill each other in the interest of profit.

Detective Larry Miller, with Metro Gang Intell, said, "They go out, they can sell their drugs together, they can share neighborhoods, and they can make that much more profit."

The most violent gang of the bunch is MS-13, more of a paramilitary group than a mere gang. It's made up primarily of ex-soldiers from Central America, especially El Salvador. MS-13 is believed responsible for thousands of murders. They're suspected of working with Al Quaeda to smuggle terrorists into the U.S. And because of their military training, they are often hired as assassins or muscle by the Colombian cartels or Mexican mafia. And yes, they are in Las Vegas, too.

Carlos Acosta: "They've gone to war. They've killed people. They've fought."

George Knapp: "So, it's more dangerous for you guys?"

Carlos Acosta: "Absolutely."

Larry Miller: "So, instead of kids you're dealing with trained soldiers."

Close to 150 MS-13 members are known to be in Las Vegas. They've committed murders here, including the recent kidnap and slaying of a former gang member. They are a force in our jails, and like the other gangs, are bold enough to use the Internet as a recruitment tool and medium to brag.

The FBI has its own MS-13 task force, and when immigration agents stage their roundups of illegal aliens wanted for crimes, MS-13 members are always on the list. Four were nabbed in Las Vegas in an October raid. But kicking them out of the country is often little more than a free trip back to see the family, because they return again and again. And when they get back to their bullet riddled neighborhoods, someone will be waiting for them.

Det. Acosta said, "Folks are fed up, and they're talking. And guess what, gangsters are talking and they're coming to us."

Despite the influx of hybrid gangs, gang violence in Las Vegas decreased more than 30-percent in 2006. Part of the reason for that is the level of cooperation that's been imposed on the gangs from above. But it's also due to smart police work by the intelligence detectives, the patrol units that are their eyes and ears, and most importantly, because of citizen cooperation.

If you think these gangs are feared on the street, wait until you hear what they do behind bars. Friday at 11, the I-Team will tell you about an extraordinary effort to learn more about how these new gangs really work.

E-mail your comments to Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp.

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