Posted on March 7, 2006

Machetes Cutting A Wider Swath of Fear in U.S. Communities

Lisa Hoffman, Scripps Howard, March 2, 2006

They have the heft of an ax, a blade nearly as long as a sword, and the intimidation power to make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Cheap and easily bought, machetes in America have commonly been reserved for underbrush and sugar-cane cutting. But now, in a spreading trend that so far has drawn little national attention, criminals are using machetes as weapons, striking fear in cities and towns across the country.

Witness these recent incidents:

In the heartland Indiana city of Evansville in February, a robber pulled a machete on a convenience-store cashier, who put up no fight when the bad guy demanded the cash box.

In Corpus Christi, Texas, a 22-year-old gang member pleaded guilty in January to the machete slaying of an 82-year-old man in a drug-addled attack.

And in Greenville, N.J., during a Jan. 20 argument over a borrowed drill, a suspect known as “Shy” slashed an apartment resident so severely with a machete that the victim’s shinbone broke.

Although machete-related crimes are occurring from Florida to Washington state and Maine to California, they have only recently begun to reach the radar screens of law-enforcement and government officials nationwide. No official count of the incidence of such crimes exists.

While they are more common in places with sizable Latin American and Caribbean immigrant populations, machete offenses also are cropping up elsewhere.

In February alone, crimes involving machetes were reported in San Jose, Calif.; Atlantic City, N.J.; Republic, Wash.; Tampa, Fla.; and Mount Pleasant, Mich. While some of the suspects and victims in those cases had Hispanic or “Island” surnames, others did not.

Abetting the spread is the wide availability and low cost of the tool. A machete with a 21-inch-long blade can be bought at most home-improvement stores for $10, sometimes less.

One jurisdiction that is wrestling with machete problem is Fairfax County, Va., a sprawling suburb of Washington. Police there have tallied more than 110 machete cases in recent years. Most were linked to gangs, particularly the notorious and fast-expanding Latino gang Mara Salvatrucha, whose members have been identified in more than two-dozen states.