By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Three-point crowns, five-point crowns, six-pointed stars, diamonds, clowns they all mean something to Hermanson, who usually works undercover. In a dingy alley off Worth Avenue, he spots an unfamiliar design. "This has both Folk Nation and Sureno influences," he points out. "Interesting." He grew up in Lake Worth, owns a home there, and says he can't stand seeing "my city all marked-up. It makes your community look horrible."
But Hermanson has been instrumental in getting the Lake Worth police force to view understanding the gangs as a means to an end: "To focus on criminality, not symbolism." His learning curve, he explains started "when I realized, 'I know a lot of gang members but I don't know anything about gangs. '"
School provides an environment for law enforcement to learn about gang activity. "They're doing better compared to three or four years ago," when officials checking yearbooks missed obvious gang references. "They weren't seeing a thing." Now, teachers pass him graffiti confiscated in class or information gleaned from conversations in the hall.
Palm Beach County officials have placed police in schools, a method Hermanson says makes his job easier. "They actually have more control than we do with what kids are wearing and what they're doing in class." Estimating that a huge percentage of afterschool fights at local middle and high schools are gang-related, he's happy to have the help.
Sister Rachel feels that the police presence is sometimes too heavy-handed around kids. "What are they doing?" she asks. "Harassing students they think are gang members or suspending students for wearing certain things? That's not a preventative measure.
"Police are trained to fight criminals they are not guidance counselors. Police know how to use handcuffs and guns and use intimidating language to talk down to somebody. That is not the kind of profile you want in this kind of situation. Dogs in a school setting? There's already a mistrust of police with these kids, and this doesn't create a feeling of partnership."
Hermanson's approach, Sister Rachel believes, is more likely to succeed. "I think he's doing a great job," she says. "There's a certain personality not everybody can do what Brian does. But some are called to that."
At the same time that individuals like Hermanson and Sister Rachel noticed gang-oriented Internet sites operated by area youth, they discovered it wasn't always teenaged boys behind the computers or the beatdowns. Sometimes it was young females.
An L.A. woman named Veronica Alonzo extended the reach of the Maniac Gangster set when she moved to Lake Worth last year, MLK members told the Palm Beach Post. Not only did she help set up a new branch office; she was the main suspect in the stabbing of a 16-year-old MLK member.
Hermanson contends that some of the leaders of the Lake Worth 18th Street sect are female. According to Hermanson, "A couple of girls who've been at it for a long time are recruiting young guys by, uh, having sex with 'em to get 'em to join."
But Carlos scoffs at the notion of female gang leaders. Even if the girls were part of 18th Street, he says, they'd have had to sleep with a guy just to get in so to him, it's a moot point.
"I saw kids even girls who were altar servers," Sister Rachel says with audible dismay. "I saw the best of our youth ministry of Sacred Heart Church on those gang websites. So sad. But I'm not surprised, because culturally these kids are coming from a society where boys and girls have different gender responsibilities."
The L-Dub gang epidemic shows signs of spreading to other cities.
James Howard pulls his lawn-care service truck into a McDonald's parking lot in downtown Riviera Beach. Via a local church, he's working as a mentor to gang members in this notoriously poor African-American city, with 26 murders many of them yet-unsolved drive-by shootings over the past two years.
"The female gang members are even more ruthless than the men!" he insists. "I knew this shorty from Lantana. She wanted to be part of a gang, and they wouldn't let her in. So she killed some dude at a Walgreens here in Riviera Beach. She got the $8 in his wallet and the gang still turned her down."
Twenty years ago, Howard hung out on the same corners, and most of the kids today know he has a couple of drug arrests on his record. Hence, his street cred.
"I haven't always been such a standup, role-model citizen," he says, eyes peering over his glasses. "And they know that."
Despite Riviera Beach's violent streak, Howard hasn't seen the Latin gangs from Lake Worth making inroads there yet. But when he took his daughter to a skating rink in Lantana last year, where a performance by local rapper Suave Smooth was taking place, he watched as a fight broke out between Lake Worth and Boynton Beach gangs.
"It got out of hand," he says. "The front plate-glass window was broken, kids were trampled, it was pandemonium." The event left him feeling uneasy about the Lake Worth area and the looming threat of gangs like MS13, MLK, and 18th Street.