Drive down a country lane here, with horses grazing and tomato plants blossoming just off the blacktop, and a rural mailbox appears on the side of the road.
It is spray-painted, in blue, with the number “13.”
A bit farther down that trail, under trees where birds sing and a tractor just passed, is another mailbox “tagged” in the same fashion.
The number and color are the insignia of a local youth gang here, Southside 13, whose members either are affiliated with the violent national gang Sur 13, or at least want to be.
“Yeah, we’re part of that,” brags Carlos, 15, a student at West Gadsden High School in Greensboro, a town of about 600 people and many more pine trees.
Carlos, which is not his real name, holds out his fists. On his knuckles are tattooed the words “THUG LIFE.” A “13” is tattooed on one wrist and, near his thumb, a triangle of three dots. They stand for “la vida loca”the crazy lifethe national motto of Latin gangs.
“People who think that gangs are just a city thing, they don’t get it,” says Gadsden County sheriff’s deputy Janice McPhaul, her department’s gang expert, who speaks with a North Florida drawl. “They are here and there are more of them all the time. There is increasing potential for violence.”
No one living in this rural county of about 47,000 people claims that gang life here is anywhere as perilous as in Palm Beach County, where young men sometimes empty automatic weapons at each other and gang members have shot to death at least 10 people in the past 15 months.
The gang “tags” include those of large, violent, national gangs such as the Bloods, Crips, Insane Gangster Disciples, Sur 13 and Mara Salvatruchaor MS 13.
Gadsden has long had local street gangs: the Chat Boys from Chattahoochee, 773 gang from Quincy, the Killer Hard Boys from the Hardaway neighborhood, who have little history of violence.
What worries Gadsden authorities is that these local “wannabes” have come in contact with representatives of larger, national gangs and that gang activity could quickly become much more serious and bloody.
“I know for a fact there are MS 13 here,” says one veteran Quincy social worker who asks that her name not be used. “Some real hoods have shown up here. They say it’s because the police in El Salvador have just started shooting gang members down there, so they come here because we have a Salvadoran community here.”
MS 13 is the most violent Latin gang in the United States, responsible for murders across the country and the subject of congressional investigations.
Although all gang activity worries Florida gang investigators, it is the growing presence of the Latin gangs that may prove the greatest threat in rural areas. “Gangs are able to move into Florida relatively easily because we have so many people moving here to begin with,” says Keeble. “In the rural areas, Latin gangs use the Latin migrant laborers for cover.”
“There is denial about the gang issue at every level of government,” Keeble says. “I had an official in Orlando tell me once, ‘There will never be gangs in Orlando. This is the land of Mickey Mouse.’ Well, at last count, there were about 2,500 gang members in Orange County.”
Gangs inevitably turn to violence, Keeble says. Just as a serious juvenile delinquent goes from stealing a bike to stealing a car to more serious crimes, so do gangs, he says.
“If there is another gang in their area, they just push each other to be bigger and badder,” he says.
Keeble insists it doesn’t matter whether gang kids live in Miami, Palm Beach County or under the pecan trees and Spanish moss of North Florida.
“Someday, someone is going to get shot,” he says. “You can’t wait until the bullets are flying to admit you have a problem.”