- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

DODGE CITY, Kan. (AP) — Dodge City has a rich history as an Old West frontier town, where cowboys and gunslingers could take a break from the trail and get their fill of saloons and brothels.

Today, the tidy town built on meatpacking and rodeos is again plagued by gunfighters. But this time, they’re in street gangs, some of which have second-generation members as young as 11. The drug of choice is methamphetamine, and the weapons range from automatic rifles to baseball bats.

“When it was old Dodge City, it was cowboys coming off the range and ending up in Dodge and raising hell and letting things go,” said city Police Chief John Ball. “This is entirely different. There is no comparison.

“The gangs, these are people who are choosing to commit dangerous and criminal acts, and they’re choosing it as a lifestyle that is criminal and wrong. There is no regard for anyone in the community, and I can’t begin to explain their rationale.”

Street gangs, often thought of as a big-city problem, have been turning up in rural areas across the country since the 1980s, frightening residents and straining smaller law-enforcement departments. Rural gangs often are more transitory than their urban counterparts, but they appear to have a foothold in several communities.

About 24,000 gangs operate across the country, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which estimates that there are 760,000 members in 2,900 communities.

In the 2004 National Youth Gang Survey conducted by the Justice Department, 82 percent of large cities surveyed, 42 percent of suburban counties and 14 percent of rural counties reported active youth gangs.

In Ottumwa, Iowa, Chief of Police Jim Clark says gangs are starting to show up in his town of about 25,000. Five years ago, Ottumwa had an occasional visit from a gang member from Los Angeles or Chicago. Now, Chief Clark estimates that there 100 gang members in town. Some have been sent to live with relatives to escape gangs in bigger cities, Chief Clark said.

For now, Ottumwa gangs are mostly involved in petty violence, graffiti and gang fights.

“But my concern is that we stay on top of it so it doesn’t get so out of hand that we start having drive-by shootings,” Chief Clark said.

Rural gangs often are more locally grown than urban gangs, said Arlen Egley Jr., senior research associate at the National Youth Gang Center in Tallahassee, Fla. But if they are attached to a national gang, such as the Crips or the Bloods, they’re more likely to “cut and paste” from those gang traditions.

Gang activity in Dodge City started in the 1980s. Chief Ball said he estimates that the town of 25,000 has more than 300 gang members, most of whom are Hispanic. Dodge City is one of the few western Kansas towns that has been growing, largely because of the influx of Hispanics drawn to the meatpacking industry in southwestern Kansas.

An uptick in gang violence over the summer caught the town’s attention. From Aug. 19 to Sept. 22, the city recorded seven drive-by shootings. No one was killed, but police made nine gang-related arrests after the shootings, and houses that weren’t intended as targets were sprayed with bullets.

Chief Ball said the violence not only threatens residents, but also ties up the police department, which has about 50 officers.

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