An "alarming rate" of fentanyl and methamphetamine use has fueled an escalating dispute between two gangs in St. Paul, police and community activists say, endangering bystanders and hospitalizing teens with gunshot wounds - and youth in the community relatively new to Minnesota are disproportionately affected.

Many young men in those gangs are Karen (pronounced Kuh-Ren), a community of people who escaped persecution in Asia. Ramsey County hosts the nation's largest known concentration of Karen people, and advocates say gangs target the community because it's vulnerable.

St. Paul police have tied several crimes to the escalating dispute between the 4X (Four Times) gang and the Asian Karen Crips (AKC's).

The St. Paul Police Department's Gun and Gang Unit learned of the conflict in early 2023, writing in a search warrant that many 4X and AKC gang members are "using and becoming addicted to illegal street drugs (particularly fentanyl and meth) at an alarming rate."

"As this drug use increased," the search warrant continued, "acts of violence and incidents involving firearms also increased."

In 2022 a juvenile Karen male was shot in the arm before being dropped off at a hospital. Last June a young man was shot in the ankle while walking near his home along Hoyt Avenue E. Police say he's a known associate of the AKC gang. Three months later more than a dozen bullets peppered a home in St. Paul's East Side where a suspected 4X gang member lives. That same home was struck again months later, but two stray bullets pierced a neighbor's house. No one was injured and police recovered around two dozen bullet casings from an abandoned car tied to the crime. Authorities arrested a suspect days later after a carjacking and police chase.

Sgt. Mike Ernster said there have been no incidents involving those gangs in 2024. Many members are incarcerated, but Ernster said some will get out soon. "Hopefully," he added, "they are rehabilitated."

As a community engagement specialist with the St. Paul Police Department, Kaziah Josiah works to prevent crime by connecting Karen families with resources and providing naloxone for narcotic overdoses. But the availability of fentanyl creates a grim forecast for youth.

"Fentanyl is definitely one of the biggest concerns for youth in the community … youth have been using all over the place, at home or at school, and I guess it's really easy for them to have access to fentanyl right now," said Josiah, who is also from the Karen community. "We've seen a couple overdose the past couple of years, and we're really trying to educate the community or parents more about this issue and finding more resources for youth. But it's still a crisis - been a crisis for a couple of years."

According to county data, 76% of all Karen youth admitted to the Ramsey County Juvenile Detention Center last year reported having a substance abuse issue. That data includes all substances, including alcohol, and does not reflect all youth in the county justice system.

Rafael Mattei, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Minneapolis-St. Paul District Office, said most drugs getting into Minnesota can be traced to the Sinaloa drug cartel - one of the world's most powerful trafficking syndicates. The DEA has improved efforts to stop Sinaloa's drug trafficking, but fentanyl pills slip into Minnesota through transporters, mail, and even stuffed animals. Worse yet, those pills are becoming more potent and deadly.

"Two years ago it was 4 out of 10 [fentanyl pills with a deadly dose], then last year our message was 6 out of 10. And now it's 7 out of 10. That's 70 percent of the pills that are out there [that] have 2 milligrams or more of fentanyl, which is a deadly dose," Mattei said in an interview, adding that sellers can earn twice what they spent to make those pills.

"It's the money that's behind it. … These pills are so addictive that if they kill five but they get 10 new people, then it doesn't matter to them."

Seeking solutions

As Ramsey County's Karen community grew, residents founded the Karen Organization of Minnesota (KOM). Described as the first social services agency in the country founded by Karen refugees from Myanmar, staff have spent years focusing work on youth drug addiction. Some staff partner with faith leaders to plan youth activities. Others build relationships with families and connect them to resources. And in 2019 staff launched the Youth Chemical Dependency Program to provide prevention education, referrals, and case management to Karen youth struggling with addiction.

Still, they often face more obstacles than solutions.

"This is a new community going through a lot of stress and a lot of problems, and being targeted because of the checkboxes: You don't speak English. Refugee community. Trauma. [And you] come from a traumatic, war-torn country," said Clara Tunwin, Health and Human Services program director for the Karen Organization of Minnesota.

Those problems have created division and depression in Karen families across St. Paul. More resources could make a difference, but many people know little about their community of 20,000.

Karen people flourished in Myanmar, formerly called Burma, for more than 2,000 years as one of the region's first inhabitants. After the British denied their independence, a civil war began between Karen people and the Burmese government. Despite a 2004 cease-fire, reports continued of Karen people subjected to forced labor, village burnings, rape and death.

According to Minnesota's Refugee Arrival Map, 160 people emigrated from Myanmar to Minnesota in 2005. That grew to more than 1,000 by 2011, and thousands more have moved here since. More than 20,000 Karen people are estimated to live in Minnesota - the largest known grouping in the United States. Most stay in Ramsey County.

"Compared to other immigrant groups, [the] Karen community is young. And when you're young as a community, you're still learning," Tunwin said. "I think that's why the community is vulnerable, because parents don't know the dangers of drugs. Parents don't know the signs of addictions, and also parents themselves struggle with being in a war-torn country and spending time in refugee camps for years and years."

Tunwin said many youths are naïve about how drugs can affect them. Gang recruiters take advantage of that, befriending targets before manipulating them to use drugs. Some recruiters force youths into addiction with violence.

"I have a client who told me that he started using because one of his friends pulled out a gun on him," said Say Klo Wah, KOM youth case manager. "I think that's the reason why a lot of kids are using - is it's either from your friends, or peer pressure."

Staff said many Karen youth suffer from depression because they cannot leave these gangs. Parents unaware of how to help their kids reported "extreme" anxiety and depression, and many are afraid to speak out due to possible gang retaliation.

KOM staff believe that while the youth addiction crisis has surged beyond them, all is not lost.

Awareness programs and outreach, like a November panel discussion about Hmong and Karen youth addiction, help erase stigmas around drug addiction. Josiah said collaboration with faith and local leaders could connect more Karen families with needed resources.

Tunwin and Josiah said wait times at addiction treatment centers are too long, prompting many Karen youth to leave without treatment. Despite high demand nearly a dozen addiction treatment centers and programs closed last year. Department of Human Services Assistant Commissioner Eric Grumdahl said $200 million approved by the state last year will help launch more treatment centers and culturally specific programs to reduce fatal overdoses.

A third solution is more understanding toward the Karen community, they said.

"If you don't know our history and what the community [has been] through, or is going through, you will judge - right?" Tunwin said. "We want to be accountable, and accountability is very important to us. That's why we are doing our best as a community organization to empower our youth so that they will make better choices."

Star Tribune staff writer Stephen Montemayor contributed to this report.