HAMMOND | Criminal street gangs have spread far beyond inner-city urban areas in recent years, according to federal law enforcement officials.
That's hardly news to local residents, Hammond Police Sgt. Robert Cobb Jr. said Wednesday night in the first of a month-long series of community education seminars about gangs at the new North Township Circle of Services facility in Hessville.
About 2,500 documented members of 17 gangs live in Hammond, said Cobb, a veteran Gang Unit detective.
"This is a pretty big problem," Cobb said. "There is gang activity everywhere you can think of."
Alexander Vargas, 35, a ranking Chicago street gang leader, was arrested on federal racketeering charges at his Highland home in 2010, Cobb said, and just last year another Illinois gang leader set up shop in Hessville and began to recruit students at Scott Middle School.
Antonio Andrade, 41, left the city after his arrest and is awaiting trial in Lake Superior Court on criminal gang recruitment and gang activity charges.
Young people are "seduced into a gang," Cobb said, through glorified myths of money, sex and glamor fueled by an entertainment industry seeking profits.
And then reality intrudes, Cobb said. According to National Gang Information Center statistics, 90 percent of gang members are arrested by the age of 18, 95 percent don't finish high school, and 60 percent are dead or in prison by the age of 20.
Linda Anguiano, who returned to Hammond after decades living on the east coast, said she attended the Wednesday night seminar to learn more about what happened to the neighborhood where she grew up.
"It's upsetting to hear my old neighbors say they no longer feel safe here," she said.
"Being safe in our homes is not a luxury, but a right," said North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan, co-sponsor of the series. "An educated, informed citizenry is the best weapon to combat crime."
Residents of Munster and Highland, including Craig Hanusin, said they have noticed increasing graffiti in their communities, and came to the seminar to learn more about what they can do as homeowners.
"Technology and social networking have opened new doors for criminal gang enterprise," said Cobb, and his next seminar, on Oct. 10, will discuss how gangs use technology to communicate with each other and advance their criminal activities.
Future sessions of "An Understanding of Street Gangs in the Community: The Bigger Picture" continue on Wednesdays from 6:30 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. through Oct. 24 in the North Township Circle of Services facility at 2835 165th St.