Country Gangstaz

Rapidly expanding gangs leave a community awash in guns, drugs, and murder. Forget Baltimore and Detroit. Welcome to Grant County, Washington.

| Tue Aug. 9, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Read Claudia Rowe's reporting on gangs in small-town Washington.

Grant County, Washington, is a farming community a few hours' drive inland from Seattle. With 2,700 square miles of open fields, a few small towns, and a tiny band of sheriff's deputies, it's not exactly a place commonly associated with gangs and violent crime. But in 2009, a 10-year-old boy was shot in the head when his parent's trailer was sprayed with bullets. A 13-year-old girl was injured in a drive-by shooting while at home on a quiet street. All told, local law enforcement tallied nearly 100 gang-related robberies, shootings, and deaths that year, culminating in a raid by US Marshals that netted 50 suspected gang members—many with ties to the Mexican mafia.

With nearly one-fifth of the county's population below the poverty line, some young people here say they see gangs as the most reliable way to make a living. This large recruitment pool, along with ample empty space for clandestine drug and weapon deals and admittedly overwhelmed law enforcement, have led more than a dozen established gangs to set up outposts here.

Local officials have tried to clean up the county's image, and while they have succeeded in convincing Microsoft and Yahoo to build warehouses, these have only become targets for repeated burglary. The influx of gangs has been a shock to the community, said Sheriff's Deputy Joe Harris: "It was always, 'Oh, that’s LA or San Francisco'—somewhere else, always poor kids from somewhere else." In other words, not here.

But for Grinch, 29, a leader of the gang known as the "Marijuanos," the explosion of gangs in Grant County is a grassroots movement. "[The younger kids] see us rap, drink. They all want in. All I have to do is ask, and they'll kill. It’s that easy. Because this is not a choice for us. This is how shit is. This is life."

Spooky, a member of a Sureño gang called the Marijuanos, aims a .22 rifle at a house shared by several gang members in Moses Lake, Washington. The gun is usually kept locked up with the marijuana that they sell out of the the house.
 
Creeper, another member of the Marijuanos, reveals his tattoo. The 509 is an area code in Moses Lake. Creeper, 18, has been kicked out of his parents' home due to his gang involvement and has been staying wherever he can, often with friends and other gang members.
 
Creeper and other gang members and prospective gang members hang out at a secret spot in Moses Lake where they gather to smoke marijuana. Grant County, which contains Moses Lake, has only five sheriff's deputies for its 2,700 square miles of open fields and farms.
 
Grinch, the 29-year-old leader of the Marijuanos, pretends to shoot a pistol while rapping during a party in Quincy, Washington. Like many members of the Marijuanos, Grinch is a devoted rapper with dreams of success in the music industry.
 
Creeper holds his girlfriend's daughter. The Marijuanos "do things just like any family," including backyard barbecues and jet-skiing.
 
Surrounded by trash, an old couch sits abandoned in the backyard of a house used by several gang-affiliated young adults. With poverty in Grant County hovering near 20 percent, there is a ready supply of disaffected youth eager for a shot at real money, and gang membership is seen as a means to get it.
 
Creeper shows his tattoo in the backyard of a childhood friend's house. Local law enforcement officers say tattoos are sometimes the only identifying marks on dumped bodies.
 
Fatal, a 15-year-old Sureño gang member who recently moved to Grant County from San Diego with his family, smokes marijuana with other prospective members of the Marijuanos.
 
Driving the streets in the late afternoon light, prospective gang members cruise around Moses Lake. Deputy Sheriff Joe Harris says gang members regularly conduct late-night cruises past officers' homes, blaring music and tossing beer bottles onto lawns. "That was one of those lines you just did not cross, but they’re doing it now," he says.
 
Gang members affiliated with the Marijaunos walk the through the empty lots behind houses where they spray-paint graffiti gang signs and tag walls. In the summer of 2009, there were 40 known gang members locked up in the Grant County jail, taking up half of the available beds.
 
Malo, a veteran member of the Quincy arm of the Marijuanos, tattoos a fellow gang member during a party. Malo was recently incarcerated on felony weapons charges.
 
Chow, a veteran member of the Quincy branch of the Marijuanos, shows his tattoos at a party. Chow was shot and killed by rival gang members on October 17, 2010.
 
Fatal walks across a field to the fence on which he and other gang members spray-painted gang tags the night before. Fatal's parents moved from California to Washington in large part to get away from the gang influence, but within three months of their arrival Fatal was again involved with gangs.
 
Gang members walk the through the empty lots behind houses where they spay-paint graffiti gang signs and tag walls. "People think this is a big, safe community, but it’s all under the surface," Creeper says.