PORTLAND, Maine — Maine’s natural beauty and easy-going lifestyle have drawn tourists and retirees to the state for decades. Now a new demographic is moving in.
According to the FBI, in the last three years up to 4,000 gang members have moved in to Maine, where there is a lucrative drug market. This surge has forced lawmakers and police to act.
A public hearing on a bill aimed at addressing concerns about the growing problem is scheduled for 10 a.m. Friday at the State House.
According to the FBI’s National Gang Threat Assessment, southern Maine is now home to as many as 4,000 gang members, up from no detectable gang presence just three years ago.
Coincidentally, Maine’s reputation for peaceful streets and residents who mind their own business, which has made the state a popular destination for retirees and vacationers, may also be attracting dangerous gang members.
“They come up here to get away, if you will,” said Capt. Don Goulet of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office.
“Mainers are just good people,” said Eric Berry, president of the Maine Gang Task Force. “It’s a beautiful state. [Gang members] can come here and stay anonymous. They don’t have a lot tied to them and they can find someone locally and use their home and vehicle. It allows them to operate under the radar.”
Some, such as the 24 rounded up in the Portland area as part of a 2010 sweep by immigration officers, have reported ties to big name national gangs with track records for brutality. Those arrested in the high-profile raids included members of the Asian Boyz and two factions of the Bloods — the True Sudanese Bloods and the True Somali Bloods.
Berry said, “virtually every gang you can think of is in the state right now.”
“The FBI did a study and they found that there are 11 nationally recognized gangs,” he said. “And nine are in Maine. There are so many different groups, you can’t say they’re coming from Boston or New York. When we talk about gangs, we talk street gangs, motorcycle gangs, racist groups. It goes across the board in Maine.”
Drugs, guns and sex
Federal agents say gang members are selling drugs, guns and sex in Maine — primarily in the southern portions of the state. Richard Deslauriers, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Boston Division — which oversees Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island — said that despite the limited presence of notorious national gangs, the primary gang threat in Maine comes in the form of what he called “neighborhood-based violent street gangs.”
Deslauriers said the neighborhood-level gangs may have ties of varying strength to larger gang networks, adopt similar styles to those better-known groups or be entirely independent.
When the gang threat assessment report was released in October, the FBI also announced plans to join with state and local law enforcement to develop a Southern Maine Safe Streets Gang Task Force — creating a common clearinghouse for gang-related intelligence and sources in the area. Deslauriers said that announcement is a sign federal agents want to “nip it in the bud before it becomes entrenched in Maine.”
“One indicator [of gang presence] is that you see certain graffiti and ‘tagging’ in the neighborhoods where these [criminal] activities are taking place,” he told the Bangor Daily News this week.
The fact that gangs are still working to become established in the state, said Deslauriers, adds another degree of difficulty for public safety officials. The ways in which gangs and their members establish territories and leadership chains, he said, are usually violent.
Last July, Portland police arrested two people during a downtown brawl over turf involving about a dozen members from three motorcycle gangs: the Iron Horsemen, the Saracens and the Exiles.
“It is concerning when you have gangs that are in conflict with each other,” said Lt. Gary Rogers of the Portland Police Department Wednesday. “That took place at around 6 p.m. in the Old Port. We’re concerned about innocent people getting injured or caught in the middle of something like that.”
But despite the words of concern coming from law enforcement officials, one of the nation’s top gang researchers said he’s skeptical that Maine is in danger of significant gang activity.
Alex Alonso — a southern California man who has been studying gang culture for more than 20 years, has testified as a subject matter expert in more than 200 court cases and follows gang activity nationwide through his website www.StreetGangs.com — said he’s seeing a trend of federal agents overstating gang presences across the country.
“They’ve been doing this a lot lately,” Alonso told the BDN Wednesday. “They’ve been allocating resources in smaller communities across the country to take on small-time street groups. I’ve been seeing this pattern. I don’t see anything significant in Maine. I think law enforcement has to rationalize their budgets.”
Maine is an ‘open market’
The promise of money, status and nice cars makes gang membership attractive to young people in southern Maine, many of whom have seen their families struggle in the ongoing economic downturn, Berry said.
“I’ve been doing this work for three years and kids are easy targets,” Berry, of the Maine Gang Task Force, said. “They’re highly impressionable and they’re looking for something to belong to. When you throw in money, [gangs] look so attractive. They’re in movies and on TV and they look cool. … Ask them if they’ve seen ‘Scarface’ and they say, ‘Yeah, that looks cool — the flashy cars and everything.’ When you have that much profit involved, you can’t convince a kid to work at McDonald’s for $8.50 an hour when they could make thousands a week selling crack.”
Additionally, he said, Maine’s previously low-gang landscape has created the impression among out-of-state gang members that the state is an open market for contraband.
“There’s tons of money to make,” Berry said. “It was a huge untapped market. They found a niche with people up this way. The biggest reason is profit. Drugs sell for four to 10 times as much here as they do in Boston. People travel a ways to come up here to sell drugs.”
Gang law proposal in Maine
After reading the FBI’s threat assessment, state Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, submitted legislation that aims to address gang activity in Maine. Volk originally intended to write a bill that would criminalize some gang activity by making it illegal to solicit children to join gangs, but that draft bill will be thrown out at a public meeting Friday.
Instead, her bill, LD 1707, will ask law enforcement agencies around the state to create systems to figure out which criminals are gang members and to then share that information with other police agencies. That identification and sharing process must be complete by 2013, if the bill passes.
Part of the reason the bill got watered down was at Berry’s request. He spoke with the state’s Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which pointed out that existing laws already address the issue.
“There is already a statute on solicitation to do a crime,” Berry said.
Judges in the law commission informed Berry that if a police agency identified a criminal as a gang member, that information can already be brought up in court as an aggravating criminal factor, which could increase a prison sentence.
“Nowadays you have someone arrested on a possession charge or something, and they don’t do much time or they might plea bargain it out,” Berry said. “But they’re doing it on behalf of an organization. That money for selling crack doesn’t go to that one guy, it goes to a national organization. It’s different.”
So what is really needed is for police agencies to all work on finding ways to identify gang members and share that information so that it can be used in court, Berry said.
A solid identification process also will protect people who are not in gangs, Berry said. People with a lot of tattoos who like to ride motorcycles with their pals are not necessarily in gangs, he said. So law enforcement officials will work to address what criteria will help protect those people while identifying those who are involved in criminal activities.
Volk said the changes to her bill should be completed and presented at the public hearing on Friday morning.
“Maine doesn’t have any gang legislation at all. We have to get our foot in the door,” Berry said on Thursday. “This first bill is a huge step, versus having nothing, but we take the steps we can get under the circumstances. We want to bring awareness to the problem in the state and it’s great to have public meetings because people are going to start talking about this.”
The size of the problem
Lt. Rogers of the Portland Police Department said that despite the formation of the southern Maine task force and introduction of Volk’s bill, it’s important to remember “we’re not being overrun [by gangs] by any stretch of the imagination.”
“Street gangs are always associated with big, major cities, and Portland certainly doesn’t have a problem like they do in bigger cities,” Rogers said. “Portland is a smaller city.”
Capt. Don Goulet of the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office said his organization has arrested people who turned out to be members of out-of-state gangs, but those arrests or summonses have typically been for nongang-related crimes such as traffic violations.
“We know that they exist, and we know that they’re out there,” Goulet said, “but when we’re dealing with the members, it’s not as a result of actual [gang] activity going on.”
Alonso said if violent gangs are increasing their presence in Maine, the state’s violent crime numbers should be increasing as well. He noted that Maine’s violent crime statistics for 2010 are about even with the figures from the mid-1990s. The 1,621 violent crimes reported in the state in 2010 are up slightly from numbers in recent years, but are down from 1995’s figure of 1,631, recorded at a time when there was no such gang concern.
“I don’t think there are groups of gang members in New York or D.C. or Florida saying, ‘Let’s move up to Maine,’ but that’s the narrative law enforcement is using to describe gang activity to smaller communities,” Alonso said. “They’re trying to say these small communities are being infiltrated by big city gangs. But if you have a town where crime is actually staying even or going down, you’ve really got to scratch your head. Why do we need all these extra resources?”
The FBI nonetheless is arguing aggressive action is necessary before those gang members being picked up for traffic violations build networks in the state, or join with others just getting established here.
“We’re trying to get out ahead of the problem,” said Deslauriers.
Berry said the perception that there’s little or no gang activity in Maine is part of the problem. He cited a shootout in 2010 between federal agents and 27 gang members in Old Orchard Beach as evidence that there is a problem with gangs in Maine.
“There have been a number of things happening in the last few years here,” he said. “Last year alone there was a lot of activity, but it doesn’t seem like people are paying attention. It’s not like you’d see 20 guys in red standing on a corner. It’s not obvious to the average citizen … [but] it’s all over the place.
“If we continue to keep our heads buried in the sand it will become a much bigger problem,” Berry said. “We can do something about it or wait until it gets really bad. I want to do something now.”