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Territory Is Attractive Location for Street Gangs, Expert Says

Sept. 19, 2006 Hip-hop stars pay gangs for the right to use their emblems to gain notoriety; gang members form families based on beatings and drive-by shootings; and small communities like the Virgin Islands aren't immune.
This was the message gang experts told V.I. police and educators Tuesday during a Gang Summit held at Marriott Frenchman's Reef Beach Resort on St. Thomas.
The summit was a warning to Virgin Islanders about the possibility of organized gangs forming here, and what to watch for.
Rod Mateo, a criminal street gang educator from St. Petersburg College in Florida, said gang members see no future, show no remorse for their violent crimes and recruit members through a perverted form of parental discipline.
Members find friends, love, attention, money and shelter in reward for robberies and killings. And if they break gang rules, they're subject to quick, severe beatings by their cohorts, Mateo said.
Although the V.I. population is small and laidback in comparison to gang hotspots like Miami, Dallas and Los Angeles, Mateo said illegal drugs shipped through the territory make it an attractive location for gangs.
He said tiny towns in Idaho and Utah have been overrun with street gangs because of their location on methamphetamine trading routes.
VIPD Commissioner Elton Lewis said that, contrary to public opinion, V.I. gangs are small and disorganized.
"People think there are gangs in the Virgin Islands. I beg to differ. We have a lot of young people in the territory who emulate. But to say we have an organized structure, I don't see it," Lewis said.
The drug trade from South America to the U.S. mainland, however, makes the Virgin Islands an attractive place to recruit gang members, he said.
He urged parents to pay attention to any unusual items their children might bring home computers, cell phones, stereo equipment.
"How did you come into possession of these things?" he said, noting questions parents should ask. "Where are they getting it from?"
Female gangs are the fastest-growing threat, with girls comprising 33 percent of the juvenile justice population, Mateo said.
"We're beginning to see more girl gangs, and that is a real concern," said Education Commissioner Noreen Michael. "Clearly this is a timely topic."
Michael accompanied representatives of both superintendents' offices, teachers and about 20 students from schools on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
"It's okay for us to be here, but it's important for them [the students] to be here," she said, adding that parents should watch for behavioral changes in their children: dropping grades, secretiveness, antagonism or withdrawing from family activities.
"We have to be careful that we are not ostriches, just because we're in these beautiful islands [we are not immune]," she said.
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