Bangin' in L-Dub

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In terms of tracking gang members the way big game hunters trail wildlife, Hermanson is ahead of his time. Lt. Pete Ebel, commander of the department's SWAT team, a muscle-bound man-mountain clearly not averse to the use of force, was initially suspicious of Hermanson's kinder, gentler approach. Decrypting gang signs held about as much appeal as analyzing Tupac Shakur lyrics.

"I wasn't interested at all," he says with a growl. "But he made me a believer. He taught me everything I know." This elicits a modest chuckle from Hermanson, who, with his camouflage shorts, sneakers, and T-shirt, is dwarfed by the towering Ebel in his perfectly pressed blue uniform.

Hermanson may not like to brag about it, but he's something of a celebrity. "Guess who called me yesterday?" he says. "Geraldo." Hermanson's program of recording, photographing, and interpreting graffiti as a way to track criminal activity is now considered a model for other departments, and his use of the Internet to follow gang members online is revolutionary.

Sometimes, it doesn't require a trained eye, just an observant one. After two rival Southern California gangs — MLK and Sur13 — made their presence known in Lake Worth about five years ago via a series of shootings and stabbings, police monitor their activity by the tagging they do to antagonize each other.

They can also translate the markers that define a gang's history.

Not quite two years ago, a 14-year-old MLK member was gunned down as he stood smoking a cigarette in his driveway. Ricardo Andres, known as Silent, was shot five times. He was a tough kid, covered in tattoos, including his street name in huge letters across his stomach, but he couldn't survive the bullets that hit him in the face, leg, and back.

Hermanson, who worked that case, slows down, looking for the right house. He puts the SUV in park and strolls halfway up the driveway. Marking the stain on the cement where he lay bleeding out, a spray-painted message reads "R.I.P. SILENT."

Within days of the killing, police spotted a taunting graffiti message scrawled in black just a few blocks away. "We killed that boy at 6th Ave and F Street," it read. It was signed "Crips and Sur 13."

In the hospital, as Andres' disbelieving friends and relatives filed in, Sister Rachel Sena, director of the Maya Ministry for the Diocese of Palm Beach, tried to comfort them. She's used to dealing with the issues faced by the immigrant population in Lake Worth, but this tragedy was galvanizing.

"The younger kids, 11- and 12-year-olds, were saying, 'Help me get out of this. I didn't know people could actually die.' And the parents were saying, 'Help me understand. What is this? What's going on?'"

Sister Rachel saw the assassination as a watershed event, and she helped to organize rallies and marches to protest the violence. Then she encountered a different kind of trouble. "Parents and children were threatened, told that they would get beaten up if they showed up in the procession through the streets," she says. "And parents from Guatemala or El Salvador understand what death threats mean. That's why they're here. They lived through it."

Gradually, Sister Rachel began to understand the unique set of circumstances that allows gangs such a foothold in a seemingly bucolic world like little Lake Worth.

"These are kids who have become the confidantes of the parents — translating business transactions, helping with getting a car, buying a home. In those households, their word is gold. So when they say they're not doing anything, the parent takes it at their word. They're trying to help their parents any way they can, and unfortunately, this is how they've learned how."

Working with indigenous people from Mexico and Central America, Sister Rachel sees that dynamic play out every day. The Maya Ministry runs a family literacy program for "pre-literate" adults who have immigrated but have no education and have never learned to read or write.

"When you have parents who are pre-lit," she points out, "but their kids are not only literate but bilingual and computer-savvy, there's a lot of information they can withhold."

Moms and dads who've never been inside a classroom are often overjoyed when their kids spend time with schoolmates, get involved in extracurricular activities, and learn to use computers. It's easy to picture them smiling benignly as their children surf the Internet for the first time. In many families, kids have to get online at school or a friend's house.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton