PORTLAND, Maine — A Los Angeles Times report this week linking the gun used by Boston Marathon bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev to alleged gang members in Portland has reignited debate about the exact extent of criminal gang activity in Maine.
Law enforcement officials are guarded when asked about gangs in their community and often use the same specific language — “loosely affiliated criminal groups” — to differentiate those individuals from “gang activity.”
Many also insist that national gangs are not entrenched in their cities. In fact, a recent report from Calais police about gang activity is now described as having been “spoken out of turn.”
If there’s any consensus, it’s that crimes with purported gang connections are perpetrated by individuals who self-identify as gang members or travel to and from Maine as part of the drug trade.
Illegal drug sales — and associated violence and gun activity — represent the key common denominator.
Assistant Attorney General William Stokes, the state’s top prosecutor and mayor of Augusta, said Friday that “gangs — whether you call them gangs or not — it’s organized drug activity” are absolutely active in Maine, if not headquartered here.
“It’s not one person selling a pill. It’s much more organized than that,” he said. “And when people organize to conduct criminal activity, that’s much more dangerous.”
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney concurred, noting that Maine is seeing “a definite trend” of an “organized effort” to deliver drugs from out-of-state — particularly New York and southern New England — for sale in Maine.
Official assessments of gang activity, however, shed little light on what’s occurring in Maine.
In 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Gang Threat Assessment reported that as many as 4,000 gang members had moved to Maine, up from no detectable gang presence three years prior.
The 2013 National Gang Report does not offer similar statistics. Officials at the National Gang Intelligence Center did not return phone calls this week and officials in Maine said they lacked sufficient information to provide any updated numbers.
This week, the Los Angeles Times cited FBI officials who said “Portland is home to a trio of violent gangs called the True Somali Bloods, the Little Rascals Gang and a newly formed faction of the Crips Nation.”
Yet a leader of Portland’s Somali community asserted Thursday that national gangs do not operate in the city and alleging otherwise creates a false impression that places immigrants at greater risk.
“They reported something that does not exist in our community,” Mohamud Barre, a leader of the Somali community who has lived in the United States for more than 15 years, said Thursday. “It makes us unhappy and upset. It’s not right.”
Keyf Ahmed of Portland bristled at the report and said he had not witnessed any gang activity.
“It creates tension because you are also Somali,” Ahmed said. “And it also creates stereotypes.”
“I don’t think gangs like that exist here,” said Barre, executive director of the Maine Access Immigrant Network. “We have bad people — sometimes shoplifting or operating under the influence — and we have some young people who are dealing drugs, but if there are some gangs existing in this neighborhood, it would affect me, it would affect my kids.”
But because everyone in Portland’s Somali community — which numbers 4,000 to 5,000 people — knows someone who knows someone else, he said, “If something happened to me today, somebody would call and within one hour, everybody would know.”
They also would know if someone were involved in a street gang, he said.
Julia Sleeper of Tree Street Youth in Lewiston said she has seen no evidence of gangs in that community either.
“It’s not something we see as a threat to our youth,” said Sleeper, who works primarily with young immigrants and refugees in Lewiston. “We work with kids and families on the ground daily, and we don’t see this as a threat or something people need to be aware of, even.”
Earlier this week, Barre met with community leaders to discuss the Los Angeles Times article.
“One said, ‘Mohamud, this is not right. They have to have proof,’” he said. “It’s kind of insulting. We’re not happy if they’re saying this without proof. That makes us really upset. If something exists, you cannot hide.
“Sometimes I think they’re confused. I think, ‘Do they mean Portland, Oregon?’” Barre said. “I feel like that’s not this city.”
‘Just passing through’
Leading the effort to dispel notions of Portland as home to “violent gangs” is Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, who on Tuesday held a news conference to address the Los Angeles Times report. At the time, Sauschuck said, “I do not believe we have an ongoing issue here with violent criminal gangs.”
Sauschuck said Wednesday that he doesn’t see a lot of “structured gang activity,” instead mentioning “specific cases where it’s one guy [in a gang] or one guy who was a gang member.”
“We had a 6 percent reduction in violent crime in 2013,” he said. “If we had a gang problem in the city of Portland, that would not be the case.
Police elsewhere say most of the gang members they encounter are “just passing through.”
“When you’re talking gangs — the Bloods, the Crips, MS-13 — their sole mission is crime,” Detective Sgt. Steve Webster of the South Portland Police Department said Wednesday.
“They have a hierarchy and they have soldiers. We don’t see things like that in South Portland, or in Greater Portland, really. We do see a lot of really bad people commit crimes and they may have connections to traditional gangs. I’m sure we do have some area gang members.”
While the Augusta Police Department has identified members of the Little Rascals, the Bloods and the Black P. Stones, Deputy Chief Jared Mills said he’s seen no “entrenched” gangs.
“It seems they come, they go, and sometimes they come back,” he said. “We are very vigilant with the groups that are here, trying to help keep them from entrenching.”
But reports from Calais suggested police in Washington County have encountered more serious and violent activity by the New York City-based gang the Crips.
Earlier this month, Calais police Officer Matthew Vinson told the Town Council that the Crips had established a presence in Washington County.
“People are putting guns in people’s mouths,” Vinson said, adding that the gang is active in Greater Calais including Baileyville.
State and local police also made guarded comments about possible gang activity in Washington County in reference to their investigation into an assault on a Princeton man.
On Friday, Calais Police Chief David Randall said his officers “were speaking out of turn” when discussing gang activity.
“There is some organized crime component to our drug dealing in the city of Calais, but any information that it was gang-related shouldn’t have been released,” he said. “It was raw data, and those officers were speaking out of turn. … They made it sound like we have gang issues on every street corner here in Calais. We don’t.”
Randall said he could not confirm or deny activity by the Crips — or any specific gang — but said, “Do I think there are organized gangs here in the state of Maine? I think anybody would say, ‘Yes there are.’”
Correction: A previous version of this story said Mohamud Barre has lived in the United States for more than 50 years. Barre has lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years.