Wilmington, NC – If you're in the gang called The Bloods, red is your color. And around Wilmington's north side, the color red is easy to spot. It's on bandanas, t-shirts and the 6th street bridge, which up until recently was covered with Bloods graffiti.
The north side is my neighborhood. As a resident neighbor kids talk freely about gangs in the area, but a group of teens hanging around 6th and Nixon have nothing to say when I pull out a microphone.
"Where are the gangs?"
"New York, Raleigh"
When the New Hanover County Sheriff's Department opened its Gang Unit last year detectives found 48 gangs in schools across the county with members barely out of their tween years.
My partner and I both charges probably 6 or 8 13-year-olds with armed robbery, where they're actually doing armed robberies with guns. Detective Brian Bellamy combs the schools searching for gang members and tracking their crimes. He sees kids committing crimes like property damage, strong arm robbery and assault.
We have what we think are kids shooting other kids you know and you can't really treat them like kids, you can't really treat them like kids, you know, you walk up and you have to treat them like a hardened criminal as far as your focus so you don't get hurt.
Bellamy says he has between 200 and 300 kids on a watch list. He says most of them lack a strong family structure and turn to gangs for a sense of belonging.
Jarred Lewis runs a consulting company that trains law enforcement across the country on gang activity.
What we found in some southern areas, as well as the Midwest, is a lot of the younger kids, when you get down to the 13, 12, 14-years-old, is that they're picking bits and pieces of the gangster culture to identify with.
The gangster culture is elaborate. Take the bandana: red, white or black it's worn under a ball cap or hanging from a belt loop or out of the back right pocket. Where it hangs and how its folded says everything about rank.
There's a rulebook.
And each gang has a collection of signs and symbols: three circles grouped like dog paws and the number 5 denote the Bloods.
Detective Bellamy pulls up a photo of the 6th street bridge that got hit with Bloods graffiti.
But you just see they're representing themselves with the 5's, with bloods spelled out, dog paws drawn on there, five-point stars. They like to tag a lot of stuff, they spray paint the 6th street bridge, the main reason is because 6 represents Crips and Folk Nation, our bloods don't like that so they tag it in disrespect.
District Court Judge Becky Blackmore sees these symbols tattooed on defendants in her courtroom.
There are tattoos that are very visible such as the teardrop under the eye. So I see that in adult court a lot. The younger persons are generally having things like the three dots in the web of their hand for the Hispanic gang the Sorenias or the four dots for Nortengias or the 13 or the 14.
Blackmore and her bailiffs look for gang tattoos. If they find tattoos and defendants admit to being part of a gang then that information informs her sentencing and a probation that's designed to keep defendants away from their gang friends.
And when she's in juvenile court, Blackmore will ask kids what they like to do and then find a program that matches the child's interest.
One of the things you have to figure out is, is this one who can be helped, is this one who can benefit from the programs we have to offer, or is this one who is so bad, or what he has done is so bad, or she, that there's nothing you can do in the community to benefit them and then you just needs to send them to the youth development centers.
Blackmore has been studying gangs for more than a decade, and passes what she knows on to her colleagues.
They know they have gangs in Los Angeles, they know they have gangs in Chicago, but the tourist area of New Hanover County with our beaches and our historic downtown, we don't want to believe that we have gangs. And if you don't know what you're looking for then you don't you have gangs, so first you have to be educated.
Again, national consultant Jarred Lewis.
Several years ago, 10, 20 years ago, it was just a big city problem, it was just NY Philly, Chicago, LA and now we're seeing it in small-town America.
And we're seeing a mix in New Hanover County . The Hispanic gangs Sorenio 13's and Norte 14's along with a few MS-13's are in rural parts of the county, while the Bloods have five or six different sets in Wilmington's north side.
Best guesses put gangs here about 11 years ago. But Ernesto McClain says on the street, he didn't see or hear anything about gangs until a few years ago - and says what Wilmington has now are just a bunch of beginners trying to act tough.
They claim to be something but they don't know nothing. You gotta watch that, because if you claim to be something a part of something and you go another state and you go throwing up signs they're going to test you, they gonna ask you some questions and you better have the answers. Cuz if not, they're going to air you out, really take it to you. But they don't do that down here because it's just beginning.
McClain sits in the New Hanover County jail waiting to be sent back to New Jersey. Six feet tall with a gang tattoo of a jester's hat covering the right side of his neck, the 43-year-old spent most of his adult life in the Latin Kings, one of the largest and most formidable gangs in the country.
McClain left his gang a few years ago and moved down here to start a new life.
He joined the Latin Kings at 14-years-old and gets it when he hears about kids joining gangs as a way to belong.
Even if you come up with a mother and a father with a middle class family there's something about (cat: the hormones and the girls) right, and you and it's you and your brother or it's just you by yourself you don't got brothers, sisters and you got mom and pop and you got everything and they take you on vacation around the world that don't mean a bad bottle of beans you want to be with your peers and peer pressure plays a lot in it. Look man you want to be one of us dude, it's cool, come on be one of us. You want to feel wanted.
What do you think when you see little ones joining in at 13, 14?
It's crazy, because I said, they have no purpose they don't stand for anything but they'll fall for everything.
And he says after falling for everything, he left the 20 years in his gang with nothing to show for it.
I'm anti-gang, I'm against it, I'm against it, you grow out you grow all out, if God spares your life like he spared mine all these years and I'm still here living, man, it's all good, it's good, gots to be, you gots to turn against it now, you gots to.
The Governor's Crime Commission has just given Wilmington Police, North Topsail Beach Police and the Maxton Police Department in Robeson County thousands of dollars for anti-gang programs. And Detective Bellamy says the county will add a social worker to his gang unit who will work with kids and keep them away from gangs.