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Gang violence escalating and not getting enough attention, activist says

Last week, when we noted that the number of Denver homicides during the first quarter of 2012 was up from 2010 and 2011. But the nine Denver victims through the end of last month hardly encompass all the violence that's gone on in these parts of late -- including the death of Manuel Munoz, which escaped the attention of the news media, but not The Youth Connection, whose Heidi Grove sees gang confrontations escalating in the metro area.

"It's been pretty rough," notes Grove, the co-founder and director of operations for TYC, a nonprofit that utilizes urban arts and culture to help young people find jobs and build careers. "We had three services in a week."

A photo of the candlelight vigil for Manuel Munoz.
A photo of the candlelight vigil for Manuel Munoz.

These events included a funeral and candlelight vigil at Civic Center Park for Munoz, who Grove says was murdered on March 28, as well as a memorial for De'Quan Walker-Smith, shot to death near 29th and Franklin. According to the Reverend Leon Kelly, who spoke at a vigil for Walker-Smith, the death of De'Quan was the 943rd since he began fighting against the scourge of gang violence two decades ago.

Grove fears this number will continue rising.

"Our team has been inundated with what's going on in Denver right now," she says. "We stay in open communication with folks on the streets, and a lot of them were around during the Summer of Violence" -- a name attached to a particularly brutal season in 1993. "And they say they're seeing a rate of violence they haven't seen since then."

Why? One theory involves a massive February bust that targeted a cocaine ring. Raids were conducted at 97 homes, with eighty people arrested for various offenses.

"We knew when that hit the news that it could potentially have major repercussions," Grove points out. "A lot of people don't understand that gangs are a hierarchy. They function, in lay terms, like a corporation: Everybody has a boss, and information goes up and down. And when that bust happened, a lot of the major shot-callers went to jail. That means everything is very disorganized and convoluted, and people are fighting for power. I would say there's a turf war going on in various parts of the city."

Page down to continue reading our interview with The Youth Connection's Heidi Grove.

De'Quan Walker-Smith, at right.
De'Quan Walker-Smith, at right.

Confirmation of this tumult came quickly.

"We've maintained relationships with OGs throughout the Denver metro area," Grove says. "And when we sat down and talked to them the day after the bust, they were like, 'Heidi, you guys had better hold on and pray. Because that's all you can do.'"

She disagreed. "We thought, 'There's more we can do. Let's hit the streets, get them off the streets, get them into jobs. Because if we don't, it's going to be bad.'"

Assisting in this mission "are two inactive gang members who do outreach with us regularly," Grove goes on. "They're amazing, and so passionate about stopping the violence and showing that gang culture isn't what MTV says it is. They tell kids straight up, 'This is what's going to happen. Your two options are prison and death.' And that's the reality."

In the meantime, Grove is frustrated by the lack of press coverage generated by these incidents to date, as well as the approach taken to crimes that do earn ink and airtime.

"At first when the media covered De'Quan's killing, it was, 'An eighteen-year-old young man is dead.' But then they were like, 'It's gang-related. And in other news....' And to me, he's still an eighteen-year-old young man. He has a name. He has a family."

After Denver Broncos player Darrent Williams was killed on New Year's Day 2007, "I remember there were interviews with people saying, 'I didn't know Denver had gangs,'" Grove recalls. "And I thought, 'How could you not?'"

As part of its continuing efforts to overcome such ignorance, TYC will host an April 19 fundraiser at Uptown Tavern; Mayor Michael Hancock is expected to be in attendance, and a mini-documentary featuring interviews with individuals helped by the organization will debut.

In the meantime, Grove remains concerned that more violence is in the offing. As she puts it, "When you look at what's happening in Denver right now, it's heartbreaking."

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More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Nicholas Athanasiou, ex-prosecutor, among eighty busted in massive cocaine ring."


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