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Are gangs a problem in U.S. military communities and schools in Germany?

A few recent incidents:

¶ On July 3, 2005, Sgt. Juwan Johnson of Kaiserslautern’s 66th Transportation Company, was beaten during an alleged initiation ceremony into the Gangster Disciples, one of the most violent, largest and fastest-growing U.S. street gangs. Johnson was found dead in his barracks room the next day. Eight troops have been pegged as suspects in Johnson’s death. So far, two have been charged with murder.

¶ A witness in the Johnson murder investigation told investigators he wanted to be relocated because he feared for his life with so many Gangster Disciples in Kaiserslautern, according to testimony in a December hearing.

¶ Military police at Vilseck have questioned and photographed alleged gang members in the 2nd Cavalry (Stryker) Regiment as part of a probe into a string of violent incidents since the unit arrived in summer 2006. A soldier from the regiment told Stars and Stripes that he blamed the violence around Vilseck on soldiers affiliated with the Crips and Bloods street gangs.

¶ A fiscal year 2006 Criminal Investigation Command (CID) inquiry in Schweinfurt identified a soldier who admitted being an active member of the Crips street gang. The investigation examined an off-post fight in which a soldier suffered a broken leg. A source told CID that the fight stemmed from a rivalry between two groups of soldiers who emulated street gangs.

¶ In September 2006, Department of Defense Education Activity officials issued a warning to educators that one of the States’ most dangerous gangs, MS-13, could try to gain a foothold among pupils in the Defense Department’s school system in Europe.

A 2006 CID Gang Activity Threat Assessment listed the threat assessment as low for all Army posts in Europe. Only six incidents and reports of investigation occurred during fiscal year 2006 in Germany.

But the extent to which gangs have infiltrated military communities is difficult to assess, according to a 2006 presentation by Kenneth Ferguson Kelly, a retired military police investigator who worked in Germany.

“The majority of gang activities take place outside the confines of the military bases and during hours of darkness,” according to the presentation, which is used as an educational tool for commanders at all levels from company on up to division. “Activities that do take place on the installations, such as thefts, assaults or drug trafficking, are often viewed as singular incidents and not recognized as gang related. Gang members are not easily identifiable.”

The presentation states there is ample evidence that members of the armed forces have had and continue to have contact with criminal street gangs and extremist groups.

Col. Jack R. McClanahan, the U.S. Army Europe provost marshal, agreed there are probably gang members in the ranks.

“Do they have gang members in some USAREUR units? Almost certainly,” he said. “Are they active? None that I’m aware of.”

A former Air Force substance abuse counselor classifies the Kaiserslautern area as between being an emerging gang community and having peripheral or sporadic gang activity.

The former counselor said that in 2002, he tried to get Air Force officials on Ramstein Air Base to evaluate the need for a community action plan for gang awareness and possibly develop one. But he said nothing came from his recommendation.

The issue of gangs was brought up again in September 2005 at a Kaiserslautern-area family symposium, the former counselor said.

“They bring in the subject matter expert who is some high-speed [military police] captain who convinces everyone that there is no gang problem in the Kaiserslautern area,” said the former counselor, who requested anonymity. “… It just amazes me that we’ve gone five years now with our head in the sand, and now there’s a death in the community.

“People are still not aware or taking action.”

In a September newsletter sent to DODEA staff members, officials warned that “while attending civilian schools in the U.S., future DODEA students could be exposed to widespread gang activities, influence and violence. Some may be recruited as members or associates into an MS-13 clique.”

MS-13, which stands for Mara Salvatrucha, or “street tough,” has an estimated 6,000 members in the Washington, D.C., area and the northern Virginian suburbs. In some areas, gang members mutilate individuals to create an atmosphere of fear, according to the newsletter. The average age of members is 15 to 17, but in some areas members are as young as 11.

The goal of the newsletter was to make educators aware of the problem so they are not surprised if it crops up in their community, said David Ruderman, a Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe spokesman.

There have been incidents in DODDS-Europe schools of student fighting, graffiti and “initiation” ceremonies, which sparked DODDS to take a closer look at gang activity, said Dennis Bohannon, a DODDS spokesman.

But the fighting has never been found to involve students taking sides in something similar to gang activity, he said. Graffiti has generally been found to be the result of someone pretending to be something they’re not. And that’s also the case with the initiations, he said.

As a result of a December conference, the U.S. European Command senior leadership launched a task force focused on awareness, education and prevention of gangs in DODDS schools, according to Army Col. Paul L. Aswell, the command’s director for personnel, manpower and administration.

“It’s something that is very urgent and something so easily addressed at the beginning,” Aswell said.

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