BOISE -- Gangs are a nationwide problem, and Idaho is not immune. Gang violence has spiked across the Treasure Valley recently. Last month, there was a shooting in downtown Boise near City Hall that police believe is gang related. Last week, there was a shooting at a Caldwell gas station that detectives also believe is gang related.
Idaho ranks in the top five states for most gang members per capita, according to the most recent FBI National Gang Threat Assessment study. The study estimates Idaho has at least six gang members per 1,000 people. California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Illinois are the other states ranking that high.
Gang activity and violence happens all over Idaho
Gang members from dozens of different gangs are operating all around the state, including in cities like Boise, and in more rural areas.
"If you're going sit at home and sit in your chair and think that there isn't a gang problem in Boise, then you need to realize and look at the bigger picture," a former prison gang member we are calling "Tyler" said. Tyler's identity is being concealed for his safety.
Thousands of gang members live in Idaho. Some have moved to Idaho from big cities, already involved in a gang, while others are Idahoans, who have joined a gang here.
"Everybody wants to act like it doesn't happen, but, you know, it does," a former Blood gang member we are calling "Marcus" said. His identity is also concealed for his identity.
Ex-gang members say ignorance creates easy targets
"The problem is, is people... people are blind to it, especially, especially in Boise," Tyler said.
The gang activity may not be obvious, like people may think of in L.A. or Chicago. Gang members, current and past, say ignorance is preyed upon in Idaho.
"People are green. They just don't know, you know? So it's just they become easy victims, easy targets," Marcus said.
Marcus joined a gang out of state and kept up his criminal lifestyle in the Treasure Valley.
"Drug dealing, drug trafficking, um, you know, car theft, burglary, home invasions," Marcus said. "I mean there's been plenty of times where, you know, if I see a car that I liked, I'd just follow them. And they'd drive right home, you follow them, you'd know where the car is at, and come back at a later time and end up taking their car."
Regional gang expert: Northwest is attractive for gangs
Idaho has dozens of different gangs with active members. Crips, Bloods, Nortenos, Sorenos, white supremacists, motorcycle outlaw and prison gang members are all around the state. Police say gang members are committing dangerous crimes. Some are connected to Mexican drug cartels or other organized crime groups in the U.S. and abroad.
"There's always a continual rise," Detective Brad Richmond, Northwest Gang Investigators Association President, said.
As the president of a specialized organization of gang investigators, Richmond keeps up with gangs in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho. He says cities in the northwest can be attractive areas to gang members because there's less competition than in places like L.A. for things like selling drugs. The gangs tend to be less territorial.
"It's all profit driven a lot and they don't have to worry about looking over their shoulder all the time. The violence is at lower levels often times when they come because we're not so much turf oriented as they are in their hometowns," Richmond said.
Kids and teens get involved with gangs early
Marcus says things are easier for members when gang presence goes unnoticed by the public. People don't notice what's going on, and they can become easy targets.
"Being in a gang is, you know, you usually commit crimes to, you know, for money, and just Boise's real slow, they're behind," Marcus said.
For most gang members, violence starts young, and early. Just to get into a gang, new members often get beat up as an initiation. Then they will commit various crimes, doing whatever they're told to do by a higher up.
"When you start out, you put in work, you know, whatever. You stab people, you f*** people up, whatever," Tyler said.
Tyler gravitated toward the gangster lifestyle as a teen. His father rode in a motorcycle outlaw gang, so he was exposed to the gang lifestyle early. For Tyler, once involved with a gang, consequences were no deterrent.
"You really don't have time for that. Because you've already done involved yourself in a gang, you know what I'm saying? So it's ride or die time. It's blood in, blood out," Tyler said.
"Blood in, blood out" is a phrase that means gang members often commit a violent crime to get in and often can't get out without being a victim.
Ex-gang members: Getting out of a gang can mean getting killed
"You always gotta worry about your life after that," Tyler said. "You're going to get hurt. There's no doubt about it."
But for gang members who do get out, like Tyler and Marcus, it's a risk they're willing to take to change courses.
"At least you're taking a chance to do the right thing," Marcus said.
With the change for a new life, some gang members feel regret for the years they've spent involved in violent criminal activity.
"I can't even count how many lives I've screwed up. Whether it's somebody that I've recruited, whether it's somebody that I've hurt, or whether it's somebody that I've recruited, and they've hurt somebody," Tyler said.
Gang membership continues to rise
Unfortunately for everyone like Tyler and Marcus who leave gangs, they say there are more kids who want in.
"It's a revolving door, you know what I mean? One person gets out, three more people get in. There's more people getting recruited than there is, than there are people leaving the gang. So you're looking at the number growing faster than it is decreasing," Tyler said.
Former gang members have a message for parents
Tyler and Marcus both shared with KTVB why they joined a gang and what they think would have stopped them from joining a gang in the first place.
Watch the exclusive KTVB.COM video below to hear their message to parents and the community. In the video, you will also get a preview of one of the people you will meet in the next story about the crackdown on gangs.
In just the last two years, the National Gang Threat Assessment report says active gang members have increased by 40 percent. In the next part of this series, KTVB will talk about what police and prosecutors are doing about the gang problem.