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Gang violence hits reservations hard

Meldon Fulwilder has seen two of his nephews killed after descending into gangs and crime.

And like many of his fellow Pima and Maricopa Indians, he's trying to persuade youths to choose tradition rather than thug life."I think some of the people are starting to think twice since having a lot of these young people die," Fulwilder says. "When it ends in death, there's no positive thing out of it."

The Salt River reservation, which is sandwiched between the Phoenix suburbs of Scottsdale and Mesa, has been at the forefront of a disturbing trend: The expansion of street gangs from cities to American Indian reservations.

Authorities at Salt River have identified 19 separate gangs. Officials at the Gila River reservation, which is south of Phoenix, say 20 gangs operate there.

Even the Navajo Nation, which sprawls across remote areas of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, reports having 75 gang "sets," or groups. Tribal officials say one Navajo housing development is nicknamed "Beirut" because of the gang-related violence there.

Nationally, studies indicate that the number of Indian gangs has more than doubled since 1994, and reservations across the country are reporting increased crime related to gangs.

"More kids are coming here and they're staying for longer periods," says Laura Yergan, who manages the juvenile jail run by the Gila River Pima-Maricopa tribe. "Gangs have had a very strong impact."

The Gila River tribe is building a 112-bed juvenile jail to replace a 32-bed facility that is sometimes crowded to more than three times its capacity, Yergan said.

"But we're not just building detention beds," Yergan adds. "We're also balancing that with prevention, early intervention and alternatives to detention like group homes, boot camps. We're looking at the whole child-care delivery system."

Salt River tribal officials saw the gang problem booming and formed an anti-gang task force in 1994, said Sgt. Karl Auerbach of the Salt River tribal police.

Tribal police also worked with federal authorities on a ground-breaking organized-crime case against members of the East Side Crips Rolling 30s gang that resulted in conviction of five gang members this year.

"This was not something which was ignored or put on the back burner," Auerbach said. "The problem was identified, and programs were implemented immediately."

Tribal police are often overwhelmed, however. For example, Navajo Nation President Albert Hale estimates the tribe has one officer for every 1,000 people patrolling a reservation the size of West Virginia.

A tribal study of Navajo gang members found they aren't afraid of being caught or serving jail time if they are caught, David Nez of the tribe's police department told a U.S. Senate hearing Wednesday.

"Now, only a few gang members get in trouble with the law because the Navajo Nation lacks the capacity to get them in trouble," Nez said.

Indian youths join gangs for many of the same reasons others do - to gain a sense of belonging, for excitement, for profit.

But the growth of reservation gangs also is driven by problems unique to Indian Country, such as unemployment rates of 50 percent and higher, a huge young population (boys under 18 make up 17 percent of the Navajo Nation pop-ulation) and the continued loss of tribal languages, traditions and cultures.

"We're having a cultural identity crisis because families aren't teaching them (children) the traditional ways," Fulwilder says. "I tell them, if they're strong enough and brave enough to stand up to the whites, they should be strong enough and brave enough to walk away from the gangs."