The murder of Colorado’s head of corrections last month is being blamed on a member of the white supremacist prison gang known as the 211 Crew. Police killed the suspect but a manhunt continues for another 211 member who remains at large and might be involved. The gang was formed in the Denver County Jail in the 1990’s and since then some of it’s members have found their way to the Roaring Fork Valley. Aspen Public Radio's Roger Adams reports.
While gangs like the 211 Crew are common in large cities and large prisons or jails, smaller rural communities like Glenwood Springs are not immune from gang activities.
“We have seen white supremacists come through our valley, live in our valley,” says Sargent Sills who is with the Gang Unit for the Garfield County Sheriff’s office; also known as the Threat Assessment Group. “We’ve seen 211 crew members live in our valley. So they’re definitely here kind of like we have some of the Latino gangs and a few Bloods and Crips and that type of thing We have seen them in our valley.”
For reasons of safety, Sills asked that we not use her first name. She says that sometimes a city gang member’s parents will send them to rural areas like Glenwood Springs in the hopes of getting them out of gang activity and they will start back up.
“Or there’s less competition in areas like this with other gangs. Some of it is they’re avoiding prosecution in the state that they’re in.”
Sills says a few years ago the department began seeing organized crime in Glenwood Springs that had the hallmarks of gangs.
“And once we started looking in to it, its kind of like you peel your siding away looking for termites and then all of a sudden you realize you have much bigger problem than you even realized.”
The termites they discovered were people in all manner of suspected criminal gangs. Once here they began operating as gangs do in much larger urban areas; suspected of selling illegal drugs, trafficking in guns, car thefts, burglaries and inter- gang disputes. The 211 Crew also goes by Aryan Alliance and takes its name from the police code for robbery; 211.
The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks hate groups operating in the US. The center is aware of the 211 Crew but doesn’t list it as a hate group. Heidi Byrick is Director of the Center’s Intelligence Project. She says while neo-nazi prison gangs display white supremacist trappings like swastika tattoos and white power language they are basically just criminal gangs whose purpose is to illegally get money.
“In other words,” says Byrick, “although they push a white supremacist ideology their main issue is drug dealing or gun running or whatever the case might be.”
The proof, she says, is that outside of prison members of the 211 Crew and the Aryan Brotherhood work with ethnic gangs to distribute drugs and in other illegal activities. On the outside, race is not a major issue whereas on the inside of prisons, racial tension is the main reason inmates join gangs.
“Prison is the most segregated part of society,” says Byrick. “And most people, whatever your race, are going to feel they need some kind of protection so they end up joining whether it’s the 211 Crew or it’s the Mexican mafia or some other organization. Partly its just straight up for personal safety.”
In exchange for this protection gang members owe loyalty to the gang even after they are released from incarceration. This loyalty is one of the motivators for criminal activity outside, they are raising money to send back to gang members still locked up.
Earlier this week the founder of the 211 Crew, who is serving a sentence for robbery and assault, was given an additional 108 years by a Denver judge who said he should never again be able to walk the streets. Until now the violence associate with gangs like the 211 Crew has been confined to prison or to disputes among criminals on the outside. The gang’s apparent involvement in the murder of Colorado’s head of Corrections and the possible involvement of the Aryan Brotherhood in murders of district attorneys in Texas come as a surprise to observers like Heidi Byrick.
“I do have to say that the shooting is quite an escalation for white supremacist prison gangs. To target someone of that much prominence is surprising.”
As dangerous as the gang is considered Garfield County Sheriff’s Sargent Sills says their main threat is to other gangs and to law enforcement.
“We do know that they’re out there selling drugs, burglaries, home invasions, car thefts anything to make money. I don’t think its any more of a threat to the public than any other criminal.”
At the upper end of the valley the presence of 211 Crew members is minimal. The administrator of the Pitkin County Jail says there have been a handful of occasions when a white supremacist gang member was housed there after arrests for things like bar fights. They’re incarceration was largely uneventful.