Special Report: "Homegrown Gangs" - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Special Report: "Homegrown Gangs"

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There are more than 26 gangs in Eastern Iowa.

They vary in size and structure from city to city.

Some are commonly known gangs, connected with their affiliates in Chicago and Minneapolis. 

But others are hybrid "homegrown" gangs, that have started on these very streets.

KWWL's Olivia Mancino gave us a glimpse into gang violence in Eastern Iowa, speaking to a former gang member about how violence has changed.

In Waterloo, homegrown gangs are working to claim their street corners.

"You're always looking over your shoulder. Always." said John, a former Blood. 

He requested not to be identified, and his name is changed.

The Bloods are one of the most dangerous gangs in the world.

John was in the game for 20 years.

"[There was] a lot of stealing, lot of scheming, lot of drugs, different women," said John.

Dozens of gangs have made their way on and off the police radar for years.

"You know they don't have a care, they don't have a worry. When they got that gun in their hand they feel like they're a god but they are not," said John.

"We've had houses get shot up six or seven times within a year," said Sergeant Matthew McGeough.

McGeough has led the Violent Crime Apprehension Team since it started in 2010.

His team works at all hours of the night, trying to stop gang activity before it gets out of hand, but they're facing new challenges every day.

Police say their current major concern is how young they're finding gang members.

They're younger than every before.

Kids are being influenced by their older siblings who are already involved in  the life, and police have to get creative in how to intervene before its too late.

"You know it's sad," said John. "That anybody at any age can go and buy a gun for 50 or 60 bucks."

The Waterloo VCAT Unit has seized hundreds of guns since their task force formed.

Police estimate about 90% of their guns seized are from local gang members.

"You know I can think of about three or four different families, where every male sibling, with two or three year gaps, are involved in this lifestyle, and they're very violent.

Violent as they may be, there is one thing police, John, and Leon Mosley can agree on.

"These kids that think they all that, all this and a bag of chips, if they went  to Chicago they would be...they would be dead in 10 minutes," said Mosley.

Mosley calls himself a concerned citizen.

He reports violence he sees directly to police.

One thing is for sure about Mosley, he doesn't respect gang members in Waterloo.

"A real gang member has honor, integrity, and everything else, they're just on that side of the fence. These kids don't even know what time of day it is, they probably can't even afford a watch," said Mosley.

"They'd be nothing but pawns," said John. "Because this is not the foundation. They would be foot soldiers.

John has been out of the Bloods for a while. 

He says gang life now has done a 180.

"It's no more fighting, fist to fist. It's stabbing, but mostly guns, they shooting and they ain't looking who they shooting at," he said.

In the dozens of shots fired calls in 2015, hardly any of them resulted in any actual person being shot...or at least it wasn't reported to police.

The shootings, the violence, police say it's complete chaos.

Although the crime rate in Waterloo has gone down over the past decade, police say the violence among gang members has gone up.

"It would be really nice if it was like the old mafia days where there would be a Don, the captains, lieutenants and soldiers, but we don't see that," said Sgt. McGeough.

Nowadays police say it only takes one Facebook post to incite new feuds, causing groups to break off into new factions, keeping police in a constant state of catch up.

John lives a new life now.

"I feel blessed...in many ways," he said.

He was one of the lucky ones, following his prison sentence, he's been out of the gang.

"At the end of the day you gonna get caught," said John.

"The key to stopping them [gang members] is so in your face, people can't even see it. You know. Parents....parents. I hold the parents responsible," said Leon Mosley.

But sometimes, those parents are there, that's why police are trying every outreach program possible to get to kids before they run into trouble where there is no coming back.

The takeaway from the investigation -- yes there is gang activity in Waterloo, and kids are getting involved in gangs.

But the gangs make up a very small portion of the city's population.

Police can't fight them alone.

They're using outreach programs such as the Boys and Girls Club and they're visiting schools.

But they need help from each and every citizen to make sure Waterloo is a place where everyone feels proud to live.

If you see something, say something. 

Call the Cedar Valley Crimestoppers: (855)-300-8477

PERSPECTIVE:Being from the Chicago area, I've always been somewhat of a "gang geek."

"Street" politics and hierarchy fascinate me, and I was excited to get an opportunity to use my passion to investigate gang issues here in Eastern Iowa.

Finding a gang member or former gang member to speak to me on camera was not an easy process. I had three people commit then cancel on me all within days of each other.

With the help of some local authorities, I was able to lock down an interview.

What many may be surprised to find out, my former gang member -- "John" -- an ex-Blood, is a very nice man.

He was very helpful, very insightful, and I could tell he has a respect for others you wouldn't expect from someone with his former affiliation.

That can't be said for the group of gang members I approached at a local hangout, however.

My photographer and I had rocks thrown at us, and we were threatened. We left before the situation escalated.

I learned a lot in the process.

I learned Waterloo isn't as bad of a town as many think; the crime rate in Waterloo is comparable to many other Eastern Iowa cities.

I hope when the viewers see this story, they'll look beyond the headline, and see local authorities are doing everything they possibly can to thwart gang violence.

"Homegrown Gangs" will air Thursday night on the KWWL news at 10:00. 

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