WALLA WALLA - The presence of criminal gangs may not be as significant a problem here as in surrounding communities.
But it's large and growing, officials say.
Walla Walla police estimate up to 500 gang members or affiliates live in the Valley, including the Milton-Freewater area. Nearly all are teenage boys or young men and although they descend from a multitude of races and ethnicities, about 90 percent are of Latino heritage.
They fight, assault each other with guns and knives, injure innocent bystanders, mar the landscape with graffiti to mark their turfs, and sell narcotics to finance their lifestyles - which pretty much are centered on booze, drugs, adrenalin rushes and instant gratification.
"A lot of kids don't know any better," said Kevin Braman, the police department's school resource officer based at Lincoln Alternative High School. "It's all about seeking excitement. They don't know how to think about consequences in the future."
What primarily had been an inner-city metropolitan issue decades ago has come home to small towns and cities in much of the nation.
Drive-by shootings were prevalent here in the early 1990s. But the violence has evolved to riots and in-your-face attacks, such as the bloody melee outside a house on Center Street in March when five men were stabbed, shot or both.
Multiple injuries from gang-related assaults are common in the Tri-Cities. Gunfire is a regular occurrence in Yakima County, where 25 people were killed last year. Even Outlook, Wash., population 470, is plagued. One out of every five residents of that town belongs to a gang, officials say.
Hispanic gangs first were recognized in the country in the 1940s and '50s, but Walla Walla wasn't affected until an influx of Latinos around 1990. Among the mostly law-abiding, hard-working and upstanding immigrants were a few young men deeply influenced by the gangster mentality of Southern California.
Officials are quick to point out the problem isn't ethnic, per se. Latinos now make up more than 20 percent of the county's population while suspected gang membership makes up less than 1 percent. And police Sgt. Randy Allessio said most Latinos are outraged at gang infiltration and the negative image of their heritage it portrays.
"I hear more vehement distaste and anger from Hispanic folks," Allessio said.
The vast majority of Latino teens and young adults in our community are not gang members and reject the criminal activity. But, as police Detective Kevin Bayne pointed out, Latino boys are actively recruited for membership.
"We're not saying that the Latinos/Hispanics bring the gang problem here. We are saying the Latino/Hispanic community is most affected by the gang problem," Bayne said.
In addition, socioeconomic and cultural pressures have combined to solidify gang ethnicity in the region.
Bryan Ponti of Walla Walla, currently a student at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, studied the phenomenon in depth for his senior thesis before graduating in 2008 from Whitman College.
His and others' research paints the following picture of the lives of many youths destined for involvement in gangs:
Their families arrive in the area looking toward bettering themselves. Finding employment is difficult - particularly for residents who speak only Spanish. Jobs are limited mostly to low-paying agriculture positions, or those in the service sector such as custodians or housekeepers.
Children often are left unsupervised because one or both parents may be working two or three jobs to make ends meet.
Poverty is rampant, particularly in single-parent households, according to statistics and studies cited in a 2005 report from the State of the State for Washington Latinos sponsored by Whitman College. The author, Rosalinda Mendoza, wrote: "Even though the percentage of young Latinas/os in single-parent families is not substantially higher than that of non-Hispanic white children, the percent of Latino female-headed families with children in poverty is 22.3 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites."
Also, the "level of poverty faced by Latino youth (under 18 years old) is three times greater than for non-Hispanic white youth in the State of Washington."
Nearly one-fourth of Latinos drop out of high school compared to 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Some seek employment to help pay family expenses. In addition, Mexican immigrants struggle with a lack of understanding of American views of education, according to Ponti.
His research revealed the main purpose of the educational system in Mexico is to teach respect, not academic concepts, and teachers there generally don't want parental involvement. Mexican culture places family needs over individual educational needs, Ponti wrote.
Family units tend to be hierarchical and, at times, reflect a belief that women are not equal. The strict concepts of discipline and respect, coupled with unawareness of DWI and domestic violence laws in the United States also lead to confusion and misunderstandings.
Other cultural barriers exist as well, according to Ponti. Partly because of the proximity to their homeland, Mexicans often tend to hold firmly to their norms, customs and habits, and integrate more slowly into American society than other immigrants. Also, fewer than 23 percent of new Mexican immigrants are able to speak English very well, which creates a barrier toward integration and can exacerbate racial stereotypes and discrimination.
Nearly 17 percent of Latino youths in Washington state don't work and don't go to school, according to Mendoza's report. Therefore idleness, lack of supervision by and communication with parents, a perception by the kids that they don't "fit in," and the likelihood they'll live in neighborhoods with gang members decrease their "social capital" and make them disproportionately at risk for gang involvement.
Officials say the breakdown in the family unit and absent parenting create a vacuum that can suck youths into the gang lifestyle. As Allessio put it: "Who's left to raise those children? Their friends."
Also, minorities can be led to criminal behavior when legitimate means to attain goals are blocked by inequality, poverty and limited integration, Ponti found.
He researched crime statistics in the city of Walla Walla for the years 1999-2006 and discovered, in every year, a disproportionate number of arrests and charges against people with Latino surnames. His study concluded, for instance, that in 2006, more than 30 percent of adults arrested or charged with crimes were Latino, but the ethnicity represented about 22 percent of the city's population.
"On average for the eight years studied, Latino adults were arrested 10 percent more and charged 10.5 percent more than their population for those years would suggest," Ponti wrote.
The disparity was even greater among Latino youths in 2006. Although statistics estimate about 25 percent of the teenage population was Latino, the arrest rate was 44 percent.
A 2006 Whitman College "State of the State" report by Viviana Gordon concluded that Latino youths are overrepresented in the juvenile justice system for a number of reasons.
"High rates of poverty, family disorganization, under-served mental-health needs, school dropout and gang involvement put Latino youth at heightened risk for delinquent behavior," according to her report.
But Gordon also wrote that administration of justice is disproportionate because of biased law enforcement practices, racial stereotyping, cultural illiteracy and language barriers.
"Juvenile justice systems are often ill-equipped to deal with Latino youth and their families, lacking culturally competent services and certified court translators," she found.
But according to Mendoza's report, the percentage of Latino youth detained at the Walla Walla County Juvenile Justice Center in 2003 was less than the county's overall Latino juvenile population.
Mike Bates, the Justice Center's director, said in an interview his staff works at developing relations with and offers direction to detained youths and their families, who often seek out assistance. Officials try to mentor and be role models.
"With these kids, it's finding that right connection," Bates said.
The center strives for more accountability by enforcing a no-tolerance policy toward any hint of gang-like behavior, according to Detention Manager Norrie Gregoire. But currently no programs are available to deter gang affiliation or educate youths about the dangers.
"A good parent program could go a long way toward helping these kids," Bates said.
Mendoza's report recommends multilateral government intervention.
"In order to tackle this lack of resources leading young Latinos to join gangs, there needs to be a larger emphasis on the government provision of support systems targeted to individual need s," she wrote.
In addition, she recommends more funds be allocated for educational and employment training programs for low-income Washingtonians, including Latinos.
Ponti suggests expanding programs such as Commitment to Community, which empowers residents of troubled neighborhoods to eliminate crimes in those areas. Enhanced dialogue and outreach through community programs and schools also could help bridge cultural rifts. Striving for full integration should be the fundamental goal, he concluded.
Doing nothing isn't viable any longer, Bates warned.
"It behooves this community not to be complacent. We need to be proactive," he said. "We need to step up. Enough is enough and we're going to change it."
Terry McConn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8319..