BY FRANK MAIN Crime Reporter
The Gangster Disciples, Latin Kings and Vice Lords were born decades ago in Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods. Now, their gang graffiti is showing up 6,400 miles away in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods — Iraq.
Armored vehicles, concrete barricades and bathroom walls all have served as canvasses for their spray-painted gang art. At Camp Cedar II, about 185 miles southeast of Baghdad, a guard shack was recently defaced with “GDN” for Gangster Disciple Nation, along with the gang’s six-pointed star and the word “Chitown,” a soldier who photographed it said.
The graffiti, captured on film by an Army Reservist and provided to the Chicago Sun-Times, highlights increasing gang activity in the Army in the United States and overseas, some experts say.
Military and civilian police investigators familiar with three major Army bases in the United States — Fort Lewis, Fort Hood and Fort Bragg — said they have been focusing recently on soldiers with gang affiliations. These bases ship out many of the soldiers fighting in Iraq.
“I have identified 320 soldiers as gang members from April 2002 to present,” said Scott Barfield, a Defense Department gang detective at Fort Lewis in Washington state. “I think that’s the tip of the iceberg.”
Of paramount concern is whether gang-affiliated soldiers’ training will make them deadly urban warriors when they return to civilian life and if some are using their access to military equipment to supply gangs at home, said Barfield and other experts.
Jeffrey Stoleson, an Army Reserve sergeant in Iraq for almost a year, said he has taken hundreds of photos of gang graffiti there.
In a storage yard in Taji, about 18 miles north of Baghdad, dozens of tanks were vandalized with painted gang symbols, Stoleson said in a phone interview from Iraq. He said he also took pictures of graffiti at Camp Scania, about 108 miles southeast of Baghdad, and Camp Anaconda, about 40 miles north of Baghdad. Much of the graffiti was by Chicago-based gangs, he said.
In civilian life, Stoleson is a correctional officer and co-founder of the gang interdiction team at a Wisconsin maximum-security prison. Now he is a truck commander for security escorts in Iraq. He said he watched two fellow soldiers in the Wisconsin Army National Guard 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry, die Sept. 26 when a roadside bomb exploded. Five of Stoleson’s friends have been wounded.
Because of the extreme danger of his mission in Iraq, Stoleson said he does not relish the idea of working alongside gang members, whom he does not trust. Stoleson said he once reported to a supervisor that he suspected a company of soldiers in Iraq was rife with gang members.
“My E-8 [supervising sergeant] told me not to ruffle their feathers because they were doing a good job,” he said.
Stoleson said he has spotted soldiers in Iraq with tattoos signifying their allegiance to the Vice Lords and the Simon City Royals, another street gang spawned in Chicago.
“They don’t try to hide it,” Stoleson said.
Christopher Grey, spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, did not deny the existence of gang members in the military, but he disputed that the problem is rampant — or even significant.
In the last year, the Criminal Investigation Command has looked into 10 cases in which there was credible evidence of gang-related criminal activity in the Army, Grey said. He would not discuss specific cases.
“We recently conducted an Army-wide study, and we don’t see a significant trend in this kind of activity, especially when you compare this with a million-man Army,” Grey said.
“Sometimes there is a definition issue here on what constitutes gang activity. If someone wears baggy pants and a scarf, that does not make them a gang member unless there is evidence to show that person is involved in violent or criminal activity,” Grey said.
Barfield said Army recruiters eager to meet their goals have been overlooking applicants’ gang tattoos and getting waivers for criminal backgrounds.
“We’re lowering our standards,” Barfield said.
“A friend of mine is a recruiter,” he said. “They are being told less than five tattoos is not an issue. More than five, you do a waiver saying it’s not gang-related. You’ll see soldiers with a six-pointed star with GD [Gangster Disciples] on the right forearm.”
Fort Lewis offers free tattoo removal, but few if any soldiers with gang tattoos have taken advantage of the service, Barfield said.
In interviews with the almost 320 soldiers who admitted they were gang members, only two said they wanted out of gangs, Barfield said.
None has been arrested for a gang-related felony on the base, Barfield said. But some are suspected of criminal activity off base, he said.
“They’re not here for the red, white and blue. They’re here for the black and gold,” he said, referring to the gang colors of the Latin Kings.
Barfield said most of the gang members he has identified are black and Latino. He has linked white soldiers to racist groups such as the Aryan Nations.
Barfield acknowledged that the soldiers he pegged as gang members represent a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of soldiers based at Fort Lewis in the period he reviewed. But he stressed that he only investigates a fraction of the soldiers on base.
Barfield said he normally identifies gang members during barracks inspections requested by unit commanders. He interviews them about possible gang affiliation when he sees gang graffiti in their rooms, photos of a soldier flashing gang hand signals or a soldier with gang tattoos.
“I know there is a lot more going on here,” he said. “I don’t inspect off-base housing or married soldiers’ housing.”
The Gangster Disciples are the most worrisome street gang at Fort Lewis because they are the most organized, Barfield said.
Barfield said gangs are encouraging their members to join the military to learn urban warfare techniques they can teach when they go back to their neighborhoods.
“Gang members are telling us in the interviews that their gang is putting them in,” he said.
Joe Sparks, a retired Chicago Police gang specialist and the Midwest adviser to the International Latino Gang Investigators Association, said he is concerned about the military know-how that gang-affiliated soldiers might bring back to the streets here.
“Even though they are ‘bangers, they are still fighting for America, so I have to give them that,” Sparks said. “The sound of enemy gunfire is nothing new to them. I’m sure in battle it’s a truce — GDs and P Stones are fighting a common enemy. But when they get home, forget about it.”
Barfield said he knows of an Army private who fought valiantly in Iraq but still maintained his gang affiliation when he returned home.
The private, a Florencia 13 gang member from Southern California, spoke to Barfield of battling a 38th Street Gang member when they were civilians.
Then the 38th Street Gang member became a sergeant in the Army and the Florencia 13 member became a private. They served in Iraq together, Barfield said.
“They had exchanged blows in Inglewood [a city near Los Angeles], but in the Army, they did get the mission done,” he said. “The private is a decorated war veteran with a Purple Heart.”
The private still has his gang tattoos and identifies himself as a Florencia 13, Barfield said.
Barfield said a big concern is what such gang members trained in urban warfare will do when they return home.
He pointed to Marine Lance Cpl. Andres Raya, a suspected Norteno gang member who shot two officers with a rifle outside a liquor store in Ceres, Calif., on Jan. 9, 2005, before police returned fire and killed him. One officer died, and the other was wounded by the 19-year-old Raya, who was high on cocaine. Raya had spent seven months in Iraq before returning to Camp Pendleton near San Diego.
Photos of Raya wearing the gang’s red colors and making gang hand signs were reportedly found in a safe in his room.
Hunter Glass, a Fayetteville, N.C., police detective, said he has seen an increase in gang activity involving soldiers from nearby Fort Bragg. A Fort Bragg soldier — a member of the Insane Gangster Crips — is charged with a gang-related robbery in Fayetteville that ended in the slaying of a Korean store owner in November, said Glass, a veteran of the elite 82nd Airborne based at Fort Bragg.
He estimated that hundreds of gang members are stationed at the base as soldiers.
“I have talked to guys who say ‘I’m a SUR 13 [gang member], but I am a soldier,’ ” Glass said. “Although I see the [gang] problem as a threat, I do believe the majority of the military are good people and that many of those [military officials] that I have made aware of the situation have expressed concern in dealing with it. It is safe to say that I am less worried about a gang war in the sand box [Iraq] but more about the one on our streets upon its end.”
Glass has given presentations to military leaders in Washington, D.C., about gang members in the military.
A law enforcement source in Chicago said police see some evidence of soldiers working with gangs here. Police recently stopped a vehicle and found 10 military flak jackets inside. A gang member in the vehicle told investigators his brother was a Marine and sent the jackets home, the source said.
Barfield said he knows of civilian gang members in the Seattle area who also have been caught with flak jackets that he suspects were stolen from Fort Lewis.
Barfield said he has documented gang-affiliated soldiers’ involvement in drug dealing, gunrunning and other criminal activity off base. More than a year ago, a soldier tied to a white supremacy group was caught trying to ship an assault rifle from Iraq to the United States in pieces, he said.
In Texas, the FBI is bracing for the transfer of gang-connected soldiers from Fort Hood in central Texas to Fort Bliss near El Paso as part of the nation’s base realignments. FBI Special Agent Andrea Simmons said gang-affiliated soldiers from Fort Hood could clash with civilian gang members in El Paso.
“We understand that [some] soldiers and dependents at Fort Hood tend to be under the Folk Nation umbrella, including the Gangster Disciples and Crips,” Simmons said. “In El Paso, the predominant gang, without much competition, is the Barrio Azteca. We could see some kind of turf war between the Barrio Aztecas and the Folk Nation.”
FBI agents have visited Fort Hood to learn about the gang activity on the base, Simmons said.
“We found most of the police departments say they do see gang activity due to the military — soldiers and dependents,” she said. “Our agents also have been in contact with Fort Bliss to discuss the issue.”
Simmons said investigators may conduct background checks on soldiers relocating from Fort Hood to Fort Bliss to assess the level of the potential gang problem.
Barfield said he welcomes the FBI’s scrutiny of gang members in the Army.
“Investigators as a whole across the military aren’t getting the support to remove gang members from the ranks,” he said.
But Grey, the spokesman for the Criminal Investigation Command, said the unit is open to any tips about gang activity in the Army.
“If anyone has any information, we strongly recommend they bring it to our attention,” he said.
Courtesy D. Reeves!