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From The Sip Trunking Experts

[May 19, 2006]

Cyberspace offers new turf for gangs: Police are mining Internet sites for information on local groups taking their message online

(Chicago Tribune (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) May 19--With a few clicks on his laptop, Naperville Detective Rich Wistocki is staring at a St. Charles man who appears to be smoking marijuana.

He clicks again, and there's another picture of the 22-year-old, nearly hidden under a large pile of what looks to be bags of marijuana leaves.

"Look at this. How stupid is this?" Wistocki says as he prints out the photo and saves a "screen grab" to his computer. "These guys put this out there, thinking that nobody's watching. That it's only their friends, but they are wrong."


Wistocki, who works in his department's Internet crimes unit, has seen hundreds of photographs like these: Guys pointing guns, spraying graffiti, flashing gang signs or handfuls of money. Law enforcement officials say it's all part of the growing trend of gangs pushing thug life on the Internet.

A search for gang sites will turn up links to anti-gang sites started by law enforcement or anti-crime organizations. Other sites claim to be academic, presenting the real story behind Chicago's gangs.

The more you click, however, the more likely the site you enter belongs to someone purporting to be a gang member. And it's likely a police officer is looking at it too.

West Chicago Police Cmdr. Bruce Malkin teaches about gangs around the country and surfs the Internet searching for gang sites almost daily. He keeps a cache of Web sites, though he discourages the public from visiting them. He thinks some gangs use devices called "cookies" on their sites to track down site visitors' personal information. (Malkin and other officers use Internet addresses that bounce trackers to bogus names.)

Malkin, like several of the detectives interviewed, said most of what he finds he uses to educate himself about gangs in his area.

Although a lot of the chatter is cryptic, Malkin said that with close monitoring and gang know-how, police can learn a lot.

"You'd be surprised the amount of information they'll put out on the Web," Malkin said.

On a recent foray, Malkin entered a site dedicated to the 18th Street Gang, a California group that claims to have members in several Illinois towns, including West Chicago.

Midway down the page, the site declares that its pictures and links are copyrighted. It features a warning to law enforcement not to click onto linked pages, complete with the picture of a pig in a large red circle with a slash through it.

The warning makes Malkin chuckle.

"Oh, yeah, like that's going to stop me from looking," he says as he continues clicking.

Many of the gang sites, like this one, have pictures of alleged gang members, some covering their faces with bandanas or sunglasses and flashing gang signs or guns. Some sites detail a gang's history and boundaries and feature pictures of graffiti with which members have tagged their turf. The sites honor dead gang members with guest books and music and vow vengeance against the killers. Many also feature chat rooms and bulletin boards--some password protected, others not--where postings range from favorite albums to vulgarity-laden proclamations of gang dominance or rival gang bashing, known as "netbanging."

One site features a "shout out" to the Latin Kings and reminds members that they have to keep the gang's "manifesto" and "constitution" in their minds.

So why are the sites out there? Some police officers say they think the sites are created just to glorify their creators. Others say the sites could be used to advertise drug dealing or to send messages to other gang members. Some think it's a modern-day form of recruitment, akin to spraying graffiti around a neighborhood.

"It's advertising, basically," said Aurora Police Cmdr. Mike Langston, who has been investigating gangs with the department for the last 20 years. He first noticed the gang sites a few years ago. "The more they can make that life exciting and enticing to somebody, the more likely they are to get people to want to be a part of it."

Mike Scott, who asked to be identified by the pen name he used to write a book on gang life called "Lords of Lawndale," co-founded a Web site dedicated to the now-defunct Chicago gang, the Gaylords.

A member during the 1980s and '90s now living in Elmhurst, Scott started the Web site to publish his perspective on a way of life that he says youths turn to, not by choice, but to protect their neighborhoods and themselves. The site also gives former gang members a place to talk about their lives and their pasts.

"I guess it's a survivors' Web site. The guys who didn't wind up in prison or who are not dead, they're coming forward and talking now," he said. "It's not just therapy for me. It's therapy for a lot of people."

Although his site claims not to promote gangs, Scott said he gets e-mail from teens asking for advice on how they can start their own gangs. He doesn't encourage them.

"I don't want to bring any young kids into it," he said. "Every Gaylord who's around my age, we all have children now. We wouldn't bring them in, so why would you want to bring someone else in?"

Police admit that, by itself, material gleaned from the sites is of limited value. Although many departments said they monitor the sites for information, they can't rely on them for evidence, Malkin said.

"If I get a name from our gang officers, I'll go online and see what I can find out," said Wistocki, who works closely with Naperville's gangs unit. "But you're not going to get a case just off the Internet. This just helps us to maybe link some people to other people, get information about who they hang with, where they go."

Langston said Internet gang chatter has helped his officers figure out potential hotspots. If an investigator sees a post about a rift between gangs, police will keep an eye out for problems on the street, he said.

Some officers say they have started creating fake profiles on the sites, going undercover online in an attempt to get more details about the gangs' activities.

All of the detectives interviewed, however, declined to give detailed information about their tactics, saying they know that gang members are watching their moves too.

Still, some investigators think many of the sites and many posters could just be posers.

Chicago police say the gang members they're after aren't posting photographs of themselves on the Web.

"The leaders, the movers and shakers, they're certainly not sitting at home behind a computer," said Cmdr. David Sobczyk of the Chicago Police Department Deployment Center. "These are people who are in it for the money. They're beyond some sort of virtual spray-painting."

arozas@tribune.com

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