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'No better than terrorists.' How Columbus' 2,000 gang members drove record violence

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer - 11/13/2023

Nov. 9—Columbus gangs — and how law enforcement police them — have become an important topic of public debate.

A 2021 gang war led to the county's highest homicide total in recent memory, and one of the key components of a private study used to oust Freddie Blackmon criticized the now former Columbus police chief for his gang enforcement strategy.

Muscogee County Sheriff Greg Countryman told the L-E that his office has identified 2,074 gang members belonging to 40 different gangs, including the Zohannons, Marlos, US World, Gangster Disciples, 83 Insane Gangsters, Crips, the Rolling 60s and varios Aryan groups.

US World, the Marlos and the Zohannons remain embroiled in the gang war, and police have targeted the most violent gang members, according to Columbus investigator Michael O'Keefe. In August, CPD and the sheriff's office combined to arrest 75 known gang members.

"A lot of the ones that were either directly or indirectly involved in those murders, we've arrested," O'Keefe said. "The murder rate has slowed down.

Gang recruitment strategies

Gangs begin recruiting early, using juveniles to transport illegal goods because they receive lighter punishments if caught. O'Keefe said juveniles can be influenced by their parents' involvement in gangs or pressured and harassed into joining. If they don't join, they face possible retaliation.

O'Keefe said some children and teens are exposed to gangs inside juvenile detention facilities, and they bring that information home once they're released. Once recruited, these young members will commit crimes that progress from small misdemeanors to serious felonies.

"These younger ones are trying to earn their stripes," he said. "They know if they want to advance and make a name for themselves within that organization, if they go out and shoot somebody... their rank increases."

The kids don't have to kill someone, necessarily. They'll often fire into homes, even if their target isn't there, sometimes causing collateral damage and spreading terror.

"You've got young kids riding by shooting houses up," O'Keefe said. "Even if the people that they're targeting aren't present, they'll shoot somebody's grandmother's house up, they'll shoot somebody's parent's house up, or if that's their girlfriend or baby's mama, they'll go shoot them up just to send a message."

Making money

Sheriff Countryman said that his office has seized more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana this year. The gangs operating in Muscogee County make most of their money by selling illegal drugs.

Gangs will even advertise the drugs they have for sale on social media, O'Keefe said. Gangs also make money on prostitution, scams, robberies and even fraudulent pandemic recovery loans, using the loaned money to buy drugs or guns. Gang members will also use the loans to start tax processing centers, stealing their customers' personal information.

O'Keefe said that gang members will also commit credit card fraud, counterfeit checks, counterfeit money and make scam calls. He said that sometimes gang members will make scam calls from jail using a contraband phone smuggled in by another gang member.

The hybrid gang problem

A new threat that is facing the area is the emergence of "hybrid gangs." These gangs are formed when people from different gangs who either have common ground or grew up together work together for a common purpose.

This can lead to the formation of a completely new gang or result in some members technically being part of multiple gangs.

"That's the thing about the hybrids, there's no loyalty to a particular group," O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe said that these hybrid groups are loosely structured and characterized them as "wild," without the strictly enforced rules of more traditional gangs.

"They're going to commit all types of crimes from shoplifting to murder," O'Keefe said.

'Why did it get like this?'

The men involved in these gangs are "no better than terrorists," according to the Muscogee County Sheriff.

"This whole gang culture is different," Countryman said. "I've been thinking about this for the past two months: Why did it get like this?"

The sheriff blames the expanding gang problem on inaction, a denial that gangs were a problem. Countryman's office has a tipline for folks to provide information about gang activity: 706-225-4285.

Deputies are also targeting people who support gangs externally.

"If you're doing things to support this gang activity, if you're his girlfriend renting a car, renting a hotel room for them, you're moving money for them, we're coming after them too," O'Keefe said.

This story was originally published November 9, 2023, 5:00 AM.


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