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WILMINGTON, NC (STARNEWSONLINE.COM) — Gangs have migrated across the United States and organized criminal operations in Southeastern North Carolina, engaging in a wide range of illegal activities, everything from graffiti to burglary and even murder, experts said Tuesday.

An emerging gang problem over the last five years has prompted local authorities to refocus efforts on gang prevention, helping at-risk youth avoid the pitfalls of criminal activity in an attempt to choke off sources of gang recruitment, said Assistant District Attorney Jon David.

Gang activity in New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties was the focus of a presentation and question-and-answer session involving a panel of senior law-enforcement officials Tuesday afternoon at Cape Fear Community College’s North Campus. The panel included David, New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous and FBI agent Keith Bethke.

Detective Jon-Paul Guarino, a member of the joint Wilmington-New Hanover County Gang Task Force, led Tuesday’s presentation and fielded questions from the audience. He said the gang unit has a licensed therapist and two case managers to help identify youth in need, enabling these at-risk individuals to be placed in tailored programs – such as horseback riding or rock climbing – geared towards promoting positive behaviors and building character traits among those most susceptible to gang mentalities.

“We’re giving kids structure and we’re giving them self-worth, which is really what they’re craving,” David said, noting that gangs often recruit from areas of low socioeconomic status or from broken families, where children sometimes grow up feeling a void in their lives.

“What we’re trying to do is turn that equation and give them (youth) something positive to do,” David said.

Guarino illustrated the degree to which gang-like behavior can permeate young children by displaying the yearbook photo of a local second-grade class. The students’ faces were blotted out, but the picture clearly showed one of the students flashing a gang sign at the camera.

“This is why we do what we do,” Guarino said about the picture. “That’s how early it can start.”

The detective later ticked off the various gangs – including such notorious groups as the Crips, Bloods and MS-13 – operating in the community. He said that from about 2007 to the present, authorities had counted 37 gang groups in New Hanover County, totaling a few hundred members.

David said a lot of New Hanover County’s homicides are gang-related, and they often involve more than one assailant.

While underscoring the dangers of gang indoctrination and covering gang-related criminal activity in the region, officials also sought to reassure the audience that Southeastern North Carolina is generally a safe community.

“Most of the violent activity is gang on gang,” Evangelous said.

Mike Jones, 48, a criminal justice student at CFCC who was present during Guarino’s overview, said he was not previously aware of the sizable gang presence in the region.

“I was surprised that it was so prevalent, that we have so many gangs in Wilmington,” he said.

Raising awareness was the point of Tuesday’s seminar.

“We are serious and committed to working together to make this a safer place for our community,” McMahon said. “Together, we can absolutely make a difference.”

The programs are designed to remove at-risk youth from gang recruiting grounds and show them a different, more beneficial environment, Guarino said.

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