On the streets, Jeron Reddick became J-ROC and was known for never turning down a fight as a member of the Bloods. Francisco Paulino became Cisco, and developed a reputation as an enforcer for the Crips. They fought over territory; they fought if someone looked at them the wrong way; they fought because they didn’t think they would live past 21.
Both became gang members in Lynn when they were 13. After they faced off in their first gang fight, they immediately became rivals. Soon, they
were leading their gangs out into the streets, armed with bats, pipes, and rocks. They wouldn’t stop beating on one another until the police came.
What Reddick and Paulino didn’t know at the time was how much they had in common.
Both liked to play basketball, listen to the same rap music, and joined gangs because they couldn’t walk home safely without being bullied or attacked.
When the FBI and State Police stepped up pressure on local gangs four years ago, they were arrested. Reddick, now 23, spent a
year in federal prison for selling heroin; Paulino, 25, did close to four years on gun charges. About a year ago, the old rivals met again at Straight Ahead Ministries, a Lynn program that helps former gang members find work. The two eyed one another, sighed, and then reached out and shook hands.
“The only thing that separated us was the color of a bandana,” said Reddick, who now works with former gang bangers as a Straight Ahead case manager in Lynn.
Despite efforts by law enforcement, the Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, and other neighborhood gangs continue to operate in Greater Boston communities.
While membership numbers may be down in recent years because of federal surveillance and large-scale busts in Lynn and Brockton, gang members still take their beefs public when need be. About 25 percent of all firearm incidents last year in Lynn – 42 out of 161 — were gang-related, said police.
In 2012, seven men were arrested at the Brockton High School graduation for gang-related fights. In Framingham, gang members have been seen around some motels buying several rooms at a time as they run a burgeoning prostitution business, according to Framingham Police Sergeant Richard Pomales.
“Gang violence won’t go away; it won’t stop. It will continue,’’ said Richard Teahan, an FBI agent who helps lead the North Shore Gang Task Force. “It’s incumbent upon the FBI and the state and local agencies in Massachusetts to continue to combat it. It’s imperative to be on top of it at all times with enforcement and prevention.”
To curb gang violence, FBI-led drug task forces – which include local police, State Police, and county sheriffs’ offices — have focused on different regions of the state. While most of the larger gangs are in Boston, Springfield, Holyoke, and Fall River, Teahan said established gangs are still active in cities such as Lynn, Lowell, Chelsea, Revere, Lawrence, Brockton, and New Bedford.
For as long as people can remember, gangs have filled a void for teens who seek a substitute family, said police and the FBI.
“They want to be part of something,” said Lynn Police Sergeant Eddie Nardone, who leads the Lynn Gang Unit. “They don’t have role models in their lives. If they have someone in a gang that makes them feel important and gives them attention, they’ll believe it until they’re in a jail.”
While gangs have been around for decades, they’ve been spending less time hanging on street corners in recent years as the FBI has stepped up arrests.
To attract less attention, gangs have focused less on fighting and more on making money. Most of it comes from selling drugs and guns, said Nardone.
Gangs in Brockton are loosely affiliated with national groups such as the Bloods and Crips. Their organizational structure is simple, said Brockton Police Lieutenant Paul Bonanca. Gangs are led by shotcallers who have risen through the ranks and earned a reputation as enforcers and drug dealers.
While violence and gun trafficking occurs — a suspected gang member exchanged gunfire with State Police troopers in Brockton last year, and two Brockton men who led rival gangs were arrested on gun charges last June — gangs in the city are avoiding street corners.
“We’d love them to be wearing the same red clothes or headbands, and then we’d know,” said Bonanca. “But these guys are smarter than that and they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. Their main goal is to make money and avoid police investigations. They’re mainly in the business of making money through narcotics.”
Bonanca said some gang members in Brockton sell bags of heroin for as little as $10, meeting customers — often from the neighboring towns of Whitman, Holbrook, and Hanson — in strip mall parking lots or on side streets.
Gangs are not new to Framingham, where a 15-year-old was stabbed by an alleged gang member on the steps of Framingham High School in 2008. The FBI arrested 20 members and associates of the Kendall Street Thugs in 2007 on charges of selling crack cocaine.
While Framingham gangs still focus on drug dealing and gun running, prostitution is now an added way for them to make money, said Pomales of the Framingham police.
His department is now working with local motels and hotels to try to have managers better screen people who buy up blocks of rooms. He said gangs use websites such as Craigslist and Backpage to link customers with prostitutes.
“Gangs have been around for ages,” Pomales said. “It’s about making money.”
In Lynn, there were dozens of gangs and over 1,000 members just a decade ago. Crips and Bloods rumbled daily in the streets, and by 2006, gang members stopped using fists, knives, and bats and began shooting at one another.
After 15 gang-related shootings in early 2007, the FBI, State Police, and Lynn Police arrested 17 members of the Deuce Boys and Soldiers gangs that had terrorized neighborhoods with home invasions and drive-by shootings.
In 2010, 61 gang members were arrested on drug and gun charges — ending a 10-year war between the Bloods and Crips. In 2013, another 15 members of the Bloods and Latin Kings were arrested in Lynn and Revere, effectively ending the Bloods’ reign in Lynn.
“We’ve done enough cases up there that the word has gone out to a variety of members that we’re here to stay,” said Teahan of the FBI‘s North Shore Gang Task Force.
Reddick and Paulino still tell old war stories about street fights and how they somehow lived to become friends.
It helps them understand why they became violent teenagers and how their pasts led them to want to help others escape gang life. They pray together, have family dinners together, play each other in handball, and also oversee a Friday night basketball league for gang members.
The two believe that conversation between rival gangs is one of the first steps to bringing peace to the streets.
“If you create an opportunity for rival gangs to come together, they will come together,” said Paulino, who works with Reddick at Straight Ahead Ministries.
“They have way too much in common to not have peace. You ask any gang member if they want to be in a gang and they’ll tell you ‘no.’ They all have dreams. They’re humans. They’re not just violent beasts that crave hate and anger.”