Charges aim to deal a blow to Native Mob

Federal charges against 24 suspected members of the violent gang are seen as a victory for the Indian community and beyond.

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Little Earth President and CEO Bill Ziegler talked about after-school programs for American Indian youths as program leader Victoria Johnson listened.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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An extensive indictment made public this week offers a detailed look at the inner workings of one of the nation's most violent American Indian gangs.

The slew of federal charges against 24 suspected members of the Native Mob is being viewed as a welcome disruption of a criminal gang that for at least a decade has terrorized the Twin Cities and other Midwest communities.

According to the 47-count indictment, the gang, which originated in Minneapolis, has about 200 members who regularly engage in drug trafficking, robberies, drive-by shootings and murders. Gang members can sometimes be distinguished by red and black clothing and tattoos that read "Native Mob" or incorporate Indian symbols such as a medicine wheel or a bear paw.

Christopher Grant, an Indian gang specialist in Rapid City, S.D., who calls the Native Mob "one of the most significant and problematic" Indian gangs in the country, said he hopes the indictment will reduce Native Mob gang activity.

Although the Native Mob originated in Minneapolis, its influence and criminal activity stretch to tribal communities elsewhere in Minnesota, in Wisconsin and to a lesser degree in North Dakota and South Dakota, he said.

"One of the reasons for the continued growth of the gang problem in tribal communities has to do with transplanted urban-based gang influences," Grant said. "Native Mob is a good example of that dynamic."

Organized hierarchy

According to the indictment, the gang recruits people, including juveniles, from communities with a large number of Indian males and prisons. It also has a hierarchical structure complete with a "chief" and a "co-chief," gang bylaws and "council" meetings.

"What sets them apart is the fact that most Native American gangs are smaller in number, informal, fragmented and leaderless. ... The fact that Native Mob is larger and more organized creates a higher potential for violent criminal behavior," Grant said.

What also is unusual about the gang is the level of contact between Native Mob members on the street and those who are incarcerated, Grant said.

In the indictment, it says Native Mob members regularly communicate with incarcerated members, discussing topics like recruitment efforts and gang leadership changes.

Gang members also are expected to put money in prisoners' accounts, money then used for such items as cigarettes, TVs and contraband.

To make sure word of this week's arrests didn't get out within state prisons, there was a 25-hour lockdown of Minnesota's inmates from Tuesday morning through Wednesday.

Six suspects were arrested Tuesday. Twelve others were already incarcerated in state or county facilities on other charges. Two others turned themselves in later in the week, and four remain at large.

"This week's action really comes as a relief," said City Council Member Gary Schiff, who represents a part of south Minneapolis that is no stranger to gang activity. He said the indictment is the first significant action against Indian gangs in Minnesota in years.

The Native Mob "represent[s] a real threat to the future of [Indian] youth growing up in Minneapolis," Schiff said. "Joining a gang is their way of thinking that they belong and that they have community. But it's not real community. It leads to a violent, quick death, and it destroys families."

Some progress, but far to go

For Bill Ziegler, who grew up on a reservation in South Dakota, news of the arrests brought relief and frustration.

A week before he began his new job as president and CEO of the Little Earth of United Tribes in 2004, a role that would have him running operations at the Little Earth housing complex just off Cedar Avenue in south Minneapolis, two men were gunned down in a gang hit in a Little Earth courtyard.

It was a bloody reminder that the gang that had once controlled the housing complex was still deadly, recruiting young men into a life of selling drugs and shooting rivals.

"That was my welcome to Little Earth, welcome to the big city," Ziegler said.

It's safer at Little Earth today, he said, pointing to statistics that show a drop in violent crime. Still, "we as a community and we as a society failed an entire generation of young people," he said. "What have we done wrong as a community when walking a gang life is a viable option?"

Ziegler said he's in contact with gang members, hoping to steer them away from the lifestyle that would put them in prison or an early grave.

"The streets will obviously be safer, but we have to have the wisdom ... that we fill the void or the vacuum ... to make sure the next generation of kids don't walk this path," he said.

mckinney@startribune.com 612-217-1747 nicole.norfleet@startribune.com 612-673-4415

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