Utah gang members used to be easy to spot. Showing pride in your gang meant covering yourself in tattoos and dressing all in red or blue.

Not anymore. Such displays are bad for business. And that is what many gangs have become: businesses.

Today's gang members make money by dealing drugs, forging checks, selling weapons or stealing people's identities.

"Gang members got smarter," said Lt. Andy Burton, head of the Salt Lake Metro Gang Unit.

Gangsters have gone high-tech, using computers and printers to forge high-quality checks. They are going to college, getting legitimate jobs as fronts for drug deals and entering the military to get instruction on combat and the use of firearms, according to a report by detectives Luis Argueta and Eric Jensen during the 2003 Metro Gang Conference in Salt Lake City.

Gangs 101: Trends in crime

Gangs in Utah may not be as visible as they were from the late '80s to the mid-'90s. But that doesn't mean they are any less active.

After reaching a four-year low in 2001, the Salt Lake Area Gang Project reported a big jump in gang-related crimes in 2002, a trend that seems to be continuing in 2003.

There were 4,044 documented gang members in Utah in 2002, down from 1998 when the number of gang members peaked at 4,446, but up from 2001. Actual numbers may be higher — documenting gang members has become more difficult in recent years.

"They used to be proud to boast being in a gang. If you were afraid to admit you were a gang member, it was a sign of weakness," Burton said. "Now they're proud to keep it a secret."

Utah gangs are more mobile than their counterparts elsewhere. Territorial issues are nonexistent. Today's gang members also place few limits on ethnicity, especially when drug profits are good. Hispanic gangs will work with Polynesian gangs, Crips will work with Bloods and white supremacists will work with black gangs as long as there is money to be made.

According to the latest statistics from the Metro Gang Unit, the average gang member in Utah is 18 to 24 years old, although many gangs are starting to recruit 14- and 15-year-olds, Burton said. About 45 percent of the documented gang members in the state are Hispanic, 30 percent are Caucasian, 9 percent are Pacific Islander, 6 percent are Asian and 6 percent are black.

Among the Hispanic gangs, Surenos 13 is one of the most violent and most active. The Baby Regulators and the Tongan Crip Gang are among the largest and most violent of the Polynesian gangs.

In the Asian gangs, the Tiny Oriental Posse and the Original Laotian Gangster have been the most active, mostly in a long-running violent feud with each other.

Utah had about 60 documented gangs in 2003. Burton estimated 35 to 40 of those were still actively committing violent crimes.

There were 1,252 gang-related crimes reported to the gang unit in 2002, compared with just 832 in 2001. That's the highest number since 1998, when 1,292 gang-related crimes were reported, according to the gang unit.

Every category of gang-related crimes was up from 2001 to 2002. Drive-by shootings were up 300 percent. Aggravated assaults were up 210 percent.

Through Friday there had been nearly a half-dozen homicides in Utah this year that could be attributed to gang violence, as well as many other violent attacks. All of those homicides were the results of shootings. Last year, the gang unit recovered 117 firearms from gang members.

The future of gangs

Some of those who claim gang affiliation are hard-core members and will probably be gang members for life, says the Metro Gang Unit. Some Utah homes have five generations of gang members under one roof, says Tony Brown, an agent with Adult Probation and Parole in Salt Lake City.

But gang detectives note the percentage of hard-core members is small. Most gangsters are simply young men and women looking to be part of a group. The average Utah gang member would be "eaten up" in Los Angeles, says Brown, a former Southern California gang member.

Utah's population is growing. And like Brown, a lot of young men and women are relocating to Utah from such areas as Southern California and Chicago. Unlike Brown, however, some of those moving here are still full-time gang members. Some move because their parents want to remove their children from the L.A. gang scene, not realizing their own kids are the problem.

Those are the ones bringing their ideas about gangs to Utah and becoming a strong influence on kids here, Brown said. Overnight, those transplants go from being the youngest members of an L.A. gang to a gang leader in Utah.

"At the rate the state is growing, we've got a hard road ahead," he said. "I don't ever see an end to gang activity."

And as long as there are violence and payback, gangs will continue to thrive, Brown said.

"Gangs feed on retaliation," he said. "Gangs will continue to thrive because of retaliation."

Being a gang member in Utah doesn't have near the fatality rate as being a gang member in Southern California. But left unchecked, Brown said, that could change.

That's why Brown said the community needs to get involved. It needs to give juveniles reasons not to be in gangs.

"We need to make sure kids have something else to do, to be proud of something other than a blue hat or red shoestrings," he said. "Don't hate them just because they're gang members. Not all are bad. A lot are decent young men and women in bad situations."


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com