The appeal of gangster life knows no socioeconomic boundaries.
Authorities say gang affiliation in Gwinnett isn't relegated to denizens of low-income apartment clusters or government-housing complexes. In these times, gangs have fingered into upper-crust subdivisions and school districts far removed from gritty, inner-city environs long thought to be gang breeding grounds.
Last March, a half-dozen teens at Mill Creek High School - located in the suburban outpost of Hoschton - were suspended following a massive fight that found its way to YouTube. The teens, claiming a sect called "2-1," were decried by the school's principal, Jim Markham, as "thugs."
Similar activity smacks as ordinary for police.
"I can't tell you how many half-million-dollar houses we've gone to where mom and dad are both working professional adults, and the kids have so much free time on their hands, they're out getting in trouble with their buddies from school," says Sgt. D. Cavender of the Gwinnett County Police Department.
That "trouble" has included drive-by shootings, Cavender says, perpetrated by kids from privileged backgrounds who've banded to form low-level, localized sects. Where permission from a parent gang was once a prerequisite for gang formation, teens are grouping together as "hybrid gangs" to unite and battle each other without guidance. It's usually a bitter pill for parents to swallow.
"Very few of the parents we come in contact with believe their children are in gangs," says Cavender. "We're showing them - here's a picture of your son throwing gang signs. Here's a backpack full of bandannas and stolen articles."
Lt. Buzz Benson, a member of the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department intelligence unit, has come across children as young as 12 involved in local sects. Kids join for a myriad of reasons, he says, including social pressure, financial gain, companionship and protection.
"Many factors influence an individual's decision to join a gang," says Benson.
Contributing factors vary among youngsters at different levels of the economic strata, says Dr. Holly Haynes, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College.
Kids from lower-income homes, where dependable father figures are more likely to be absent, join male-dominated gangs to fill that void; middle-class kids are looking for an emotional connection sometimes lacking with their career-obsessed parents, Haynes says.
"What's attractive about a gang is you get a group of people interested in taking care of you," she says. "In some ways, that replaces the family unit."
Haynes notes that another flaw common among teens - the delusion of invincibility - applies in the case of young gang members.
"Adolescents get to the point that what's deemed dangerous by society is attractive," she says. "In general, teens are going to be attracted to what's risky."
In the six years Lt. Bill Wellmaker has worked for Gwinnett County Public Schools, overseeing a west district that spans from Peachtree Ridge to Parkview, he says gang activity has maintained an even keel, prone to flare-ups and docile spells alike.
"Pretty much the schools reflect what's going on in the community," Wellmaker says. "No one particular school stands out as a hot spot more than another one."
Some "hybrids" attempt to disguise the fact that they're gangs by labeling themselves "cliques" or "social clubs," Wellmaker says. Traditional "flagging" - brandishing a color-specific bandanna to represent a gang - still exists in school hallways, but as authorities have caught on over the years, gangsters have become more surreptitious and crafty.
Gangsters have turned to tattoos, brand-specific sportswear, certain team jerseys and varying styles of dress - rolling up a pant leg, tilting a baseball cap to one side - as the new signals of allegiance. The paraphernalia is consistently evolving, and school police must lock step with area law enforcement to keep pace.
"We try to stay abreast of the changes," says Wellmaker. "A lot of times, you'll see more identifiable nomenclature associated with younger students (ages 12 or 13). As they get older, they tend to be more subtle.
"When you look at Nike and Converse, they can make something out of it."
Though gang signs and the occasional hallway scuffle still exist, Wellmaker says rival gang violence in Gwinnett schools is surprisingly uncommon. Each infraction is handled on a case-by-case basis, and those who break laws can face criminal charges as well as administrative punishment at school.
Road to re-entry
When it comes to thwarting - and, when that fails, processing - gang members in metro Atlanta, federal authorities rely on a three-prong approach:
Prevention. Enforcement. Re-entry.
The third prong involves reacclimating gangsters into communities - sometimes the very neighborhoods and intersections they once prowled - after their time spent in penitentiaries is over. In most cases, prison, or the threat of it, is enough to fizzle any exuberance for gang activity.
"Federally, the sentences seem to be long enough that they have outgrown their allegiance to gangs" upon release, says Kim Dammers, Assistant U.S. Attorney. "They're usually moved out of state, and that breaks their association with members."
Case in point: Carlos.
Carlos, as he wishes to be called, was among the founding members of the Gwinnett faction of "Surenos 13," a violent subsidiary of a California-based gang empire. After federal authorities dismantled his gang several years ago, Carlos' testimony helped convict 12 other high-ranking Surenos associates. In February, four of them received life sentences in federal prison.
For his cooperation - namely, his nerve-wracking two days of testimony - a federal judge went relatively easy on Carlos, sentencing him to five years probation, six months of home confinement and a boatload of community service.
Carlos agreed to this interview on the eve of his last day confined at home. His daily routine has been strictly home-to-work, work-to-home for years. No exceptions. But tomorrow he plans to catch a movie, maybe take a long drive outside the city with the windows down.
Carlos, 29, who was rendered paraplegic by a rival's bullets 11 years ago, wised up after the shooting. He earned a GED and graduated from Gwinnett Technical College, certified in network administration. After nailing a job interview set up by his probation officer, he was hired by an office in Atlanta, a white-collar job that solidified his credit enough to buy a brand-new, two-bedroom condo in Tucker. In these respects, he's left the shadows of gang life behind him.
Other shadows can't so easily be shed.
Carlos' felony conviction disqualifies him from ever becoming a United States citizen. Being that he's lived here two-thirds of his life, immigration officials allowed him to keep his residency, pending a multitude of special conditions, he says.
And Carlos bears physical aftereffects of gangs that go beyond his disability.
The tattoos on his fingers - the letters "SUR" in cursive on the right hand, the numeral "X" and number "3" the left - are the fading green remnants of a felonious life, a seedy past he's anxious to tuck behind him. The tattoos draw quizzical looks from his office colleagues.
"I just tell them I was in a gang," he says. "It's not a big deal. They understand."
As part of his 200 hours of community service, Carlos speaks to Atlanta-area youth about the pitfalls of gang life: About the fateful attack in 1997 that bound him to this wheelchair. About the morning in a hotel room where a cocaine frenzy led one friend to accidentally shoot another in the head. About his younger brother who was arrested for gang involvement and deported. About the blur of burglaries and robberies and senseless killings that had jeopardized his life.
In the grand scheme, it all happened for a reason, he says, a really good reason.
"(Gang life) is not what it's made out to be. Out here in the real world, you ain't going to get anywhere doing that," he says. "I thought that was life before. But life is so much more."