The Violence Spreads: Tracing Atlanta's growing gang activity

Metro Atlanta is one of the fastest growing populations in the country, but the southern city has a dark underside, according to the FBI.

ATLANTA -- Metro Atlanta is one of the fastest growing populations in the country -- a combination of fast moving city life and booming suburbs. But the southern city has a dark underside, according to the FBI. It's home to a growing gang presence.

Recent statistics from the FBI say more than 20,000 gang members live in Atlanta and the number is rising.

PHOTOS:Gang activity on the rise in Atlanta

It's Special Agent James Hurley's job to track them all.

"Metro Atlanta has literally hundreds of different gangs," Hurley said. "For every known gang member, there are three you don't know about."

Hurley is head of the FBI's Safe Streets Gang Task Force. There are seven set up across the state of Georgia, but the largest task force is right here in metro Atlanta. He says the numbers are growing at a staggering rate, and it's not just an inner city problem. Hurley said he sees gang presence spreading into the suburbs.

"It's now more affordable to move, so people are moving," he said. "Even the drug trade is moving to the suburbs."

And even though it may not be obvious, the FBI said the effects of the spread appear everyday.

In September 2015, a shootout at a DeKalb gas station injured a cop. A year earlier in April, an assistant DA's father was kidnapped, brought to Atlanta and tortured for days. In January 2013, a pregnant woman was carjacked at a Babies 'R Us in Marietta. Hurley said most of the violent crimes seen daily can be attributed to Atlanta gangs.

"They're more brazen, less respectful of authority and society," Hurley said. "(They're) essentially playing Grand Theft Auto in real life."

But it's not just the the crimes that are bold. Atlanta Police Sgt. Archie Ezell said the recruiting tactics are also increasingly aggressive.

Ezell took 11Alive's Blayne Alexander to a street corner of a southwest Atlanta neighborhood where he said gang members would try to recruit young kids, just a few hundred feet from an elementary school.

"They catch kids getting off the bus. They catch kids walking to school," he said.

Also near the corner, the exterior wall of a business where gang tags heavily cover the brick. Kids pass the wall every day to and from school.

"I'd say there's a recruitment war here at this wall," Ezell said. "They've crossed things out. They're competing against other gangs."

Ezell said in that area alone, at least three different gangs actively vie for members. And in neighborhoods riddled with poverty and abandoned homes, it's easy to attract kids not even in the fourth grade yet by acting as a lifeline.


"Kids go to school sometimes, they may not feel like they have the proper clothes, may not have money in their pocket for lunch or snacks, but there's a gang member standing on the corner, 'Here's $5. Here's $10,'" he said. "They do that to a kid in elementary, by the time they hit middle school and get ready to head to high school, there's a full-fledged recruitment going on."

Ezell said what results is a sense of loyalty. And once the kids are in, in most cases, only death can get them out. But for Art Powell, his story did not end that way.

In October 1993, after nearly 20 years of gang involvement starting at age 15, it all came to a head for Powell when he was involved in a shootout with Fulton County and Roswell Police. The incident landed him in prison for 11 years. Now, he spends his days trying to keep kids from walking that same violent path.

"They're yearning for something to make them feel important," he said. "They want to be part of something, what to be loved. They want to be embraced, and right now, that's what the gangs are doing. That's what they're selling. They're selling love."

And for those kids, recruited at 13 and 14, their lives have been set for them, Powell said. It's a life of criminal activity. They key, he said, is to stop the violence early before it gets started.




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